A Death in the Family

by: James Agee

Chapters 18–20

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.