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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 18–20

Chapter 17

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Chapter 18

The narrative shifts to Mary's point of view. She feels that she is coming to terms with Jay's death and that she has grown up overnight. She stands up and is going to walk out the door when her knees suddenly buckle. She falls to the floor. Hannah catches her, and Father Jackson says a prayer. Mary finally collects herself enough to stand up. She leans heavily on Father Jackson as she leaves the room.

Chapter 19

Mary and the children go and see the body, which has been laid out in the living room of her parents' house next to the fireplace. Rufus looks at his father's features and describes them in detail. Mary, Rufus, and little Catherine all kneel before the casket and say a prayer. Then Father Jackson comes up behind them and says another prayer, placing his hands on their shoulders. Hannah leads Rufus and Catherine out so that Mary can have a moment alone with Father Jackson and Jay. The fact that Mary is alone praying with father Jackson upsets Andrew and Joel, who are waiting in the hallway.

The children go to see their father one more time, in a different room. Then Walter Starr arrives to take them back home. However, instead of going right to his house, Walter turns around and lets the children watch the funeral procession as it goes down the street. He thinks that later on they will be glad they saw it. They watch their whole family exit the house and get into various automobiles and a streetcar to go to the graveyard. Then Walter takes the children back to his home.

Chapter 20

Little Catherine spends some time sitting on the front porch watching people walk by. The she wonders, "Where's Daddy?" and suddenly she wants to find someone. When she ventures upstairs, her mother and aunt are busy praying, so she goes into the bedroom across the hall and hides under the bed. Her mother and aunt come out and call and call for her, and when they finally find her, she runs crying into her mother's arms.

Andrew and Rufus go for a walk. At first they are quiet, and Rufus thinks that Andrew looks almost angry. Then Andrew tells Rufus that if anything could make him believe in God, it would be what happened that afternoon at the burial. He tells Rufus that as they were lowering the coffin into the ground, a butterfly came and landed on the coffin and stayed there until it was all the way inside the earth. Then it flew out and up out of sight into the sky.

Rufus feels glad that Andrew has told him about the butterfly, as it makes him feel better about not being at the funeral. But then Andrew gets angry again and tells Rufus that at the funeral, Father Jackson refused to read the complete burial service over Jay's coffin because Jay was never baptized. Rufus does not understand how Andrew can hate religion so much and still love Mary and Aunt Hannah. Rufus wants to ask, but cannot bring himself to do so. The pair walks home in silence.

Analysis

The ending of A Death in the Family does not neatly tie up the conflicts and emotions that have been described throughout; instead, it ends by highlighting these difficulties, in particular the problems surrounding religion. Mary cannot hold herself together, it seems, without constant prayer. Though praying is to be expected at the funeral, even after coming home later Mary continues to entreat Hannah to pray more with her. We again see the family's opposition to Mary's fervent religious adherence at the funeral, when Andrew tells his father through clenched teeth that Mary is praying alone with Father Jackson. Andrew's disgust with the priest is heightened when Father Jackson refuses to complete a burial service merely because Jay was never baptized.

Andrew, at the end, experiences conflict between his feeling that he must believe in God and his feeling of disgust for organized religion. He twice calls Father Jackson a "son-of-a-bitch," which Rufus knows is a very bad thing to call anyone. Rufus, seeing how deeply Andrew despises the church, does not understand how Andrew can both hate religion and love Hannah and Mary, who pray often and hold deep religious convictions. Rufus thinks that Andrew must only pretend to love the women, yet secretly hate them. But then Rufus thinks that Andrew truly does love Hannah and Mary, and Rufus does not understand how Andrew could hate them and yet love them at the same time. Rufus does not see religion as one of many beliefs characterizing a person, but as a part of a person; he does not understand how Andrew could hate religion so much and yet love two women who are very religious.

The butterfly appears as a symbol of hope in the narrative. Andrew does not know whether or not God exists, but the butterfly gives him hope that there may be a higher power—a hope that is comforting because the butterfly was beautiful. Rufus is comforted because his uncle is comforted; he feels that somehow the story of the butterfly makes things alright. But then Rufus feels confused again when Andrew gets angry about Father Jackson; Rufus does not understand why a moment ago his uncle seemed to believe in something that he now speaks of with such disgust.

The narrator presents the walk between Rufus and Andrew through Rufus's eyes, so we do not get to see what Andrew is thinking when they walk back in silence. It is a strange way to end the novel; Andrew appears angry and pensive, while Rufus dwells on the question of whether or not Andrew hates Mary. It is impossible to say whether or not Agee would have chosen to end the novel in quite this way if he had had a chance to revise and edit the work. In another sense, however, it is likely a more thought provoking and realistic ending than a happier, more conclusive ending might have been.

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