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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 17

Chapter 16

Chapters 18–20

Summary

The next day, Aunt Hannah washes Rufus and Catherine carefully and dresses them in their Sunday best. Father Jackson calls on the phone, and Hannah gives him directions to the house. Then Hannah brings the children into Mary's room. Mary hugs them and apologizes for not spending more time with them over the past few days. She explains that they are about to see their father one last time. She explains again that he can never come back, and this time Catherine seems to understand.

Rufus then asks their mother if he and Catherine are orphans. Mary explains that they are not orphans, as they still have one parent whereas orphans have no parents at all. Then she sends them downstairs. Rufus thinks about what his mother told him, and he decides that since he and Catherine are both half-orphans, that the two of them together make one whole orphan.

Then they hear the doorbell ring; Father Jackson has arrived. He comes in without telling the children who he is, and then Hannah comes into the room to welcome him. She asks Father Jackson to give her a moment, and she tells Rufus and Catherine to show him into the sitting room. They stand looking at the priest, who stares back at them in an unfriendly manner. Finally he tells them that children should not stare at their elders, because it is "ill-bred" behavior. Father Jackson lectures them about being ladies and gentlemen in a harsh way, using words the children do not understand. Then Hannah comes downstairs, at which time the priest leaves the room and follows her upstairs.

Rufus and Catherine hear Hannah and Father Jackson go into their mother's room. The children sneak upstairs and listen at the door, able only to hear the sound of the voices, not what is actually said. Father Jackson's voice always sounds louder and "rang with the knowledge that it was right"; both Hannah and Mary's voices are softer. The children do not know what is going on, but they feel that "it was something evil, to which she was submitting almost without a struggle, and by which she was deceived." Catherine and Rufus each have fantasies of Father Jackson being killed. Then the tone of the priest's voice changes into a more rhythmic, pleasant tone, and Rufus realizes that he is praying. The sound of the prayers lulls the children into a reverie until the doorbell rings.

The children run downstairs so no one will catch them eavesdropping, and they scurry into the sitting room. Aunt Hannah answers the door; it is Walter Starr. He comes in and pats the children and goes to wait with them in the sitting room until Mary is ready. Walter avoids sitting in Jay's chair. He tells Rufus and Catherine that he has a gramophone, a box that can play music, and he tells the children they should pay him a visit and listen to it. Then he tells them that their father worked hard for everything he had, and that he was a brave, kind, and generous man. Walter tells the children that he did not know their father as well as he would have liked, but that he thinks he is one of the "finest men that ever lived." The children are touched by his words, and they move closer to him. Then they hear a door open upstairs.

Analysis

In this chapter, Agee presents religion not only as something foreign and difficult, but also as something threatening and mean. Father Jackson displays absolutely no sympathy to the children, and he says nothing to them beyond chiding them for standing and looking at him. He seems to think that their motives are evil. The children look at him, bewildered and hurt by his words even though they cannot understand all of what he says. Since Father Jackson, as a priest, clearly represents religion, and since Aunt Hannah and Mary accept religion without question, the children understandably worry about what Father Jackson says when he goes into Mary's room with Aunt Hannah.

The children are only aware of the sounds of the voices inside the room; to them, Father Jackson sounds self-satisfied and loud. It sounds as though Aunt Hannah is acting as a sort of mediator, occasionally modifying something the priest says before the children hear their mother's voice in assent. This episode emphasizes the differing degree of faith that the two women feel: Hannah, much older than Mary, has a less passionate and idealistic faith. Hannah is more practical, and is able to change or correct the priest's words to make them more palatable to Mary. The only time all three adults sound peaceful is when they pray; the children are calmed by the rhythm of the words.

Walter Starr is a quiet yet consistent presence throughout the entire story, and in this chapter we learns that he is a kind and generous man. He is far more sensitive than the priest, which we see right away in the fact that Walter consciously avoids sitting in Jay's chair. He tells the children that they are welcome anytime at his house if they want to come listen to the gramophone. Whereas the priest lectures the children about manners, Walter tells them what a wonderful man their father was. His kindness is highlighted by contrast to the priest's callousness.

It is hard to say whether or not Agee himself was deeply religious man, but the novel, by and large, does not seem to endorse religion. Only two of the characters, Mary and Hannah, are religious at all, while the rest of the family is largely opposed to organized religion. The children's innocent questioning of religious explanations shows the inadequacy of religion in explaining death. Then, in this chapter, the figure of Father Jackson tarnishes religion further, making it appear that even nasty people can become priests and representatives of God.

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