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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Chapters 3–4

Summary

At 2:37 in the morning, the telephone rings. It is Ralph Follet, Jay's brother. Ralph, who sounds as though he is drunk and crying, seems to imply that their father, Grampa Follet, is on the verge of death. After discussing the matter with Mary, Jay decides he will drive up to see what is going on. He goes back up to the bedroom, sits on the edge of the bed, and begins putting on his socks. Mary gets up to make Jay breakfast, reminding him to carry his shoes and put them on downstairs, so as not to wake the children.

As Jay dresses he thinks about how thoughtful Mary is of the children, and then he thinks about his father. Jay remembers how burdensome his father used to be to his mother, and that this quality in his father made Jay furious when he was a little boy. But then Jay reflects that his father was generous and always meant well. He looks out the window for a moment, lost in thought. Then he makes the bed so that the heat will stay in for Mary when she goes back to bed after he leaves.

As Mary finishes making eggs, Jay shaves in the bathroom. When he comes out, she has bacon and eggs and coffee ready and has started to make pancakes. He is pleased, and makes her some hot milk so that she will be able to get back to sleep once he leaves. Even though Jay is not that hungry, he tries hard to eat all of the food to show Mary that he appreciates the fact that she made it for him. After a moment, she tells him not to eat more than he feels hungry for, but he finishes it anyway.

After another few moments Jay asks her Mary what she would like to do for her birthday. She is pleased that he remembers and says she will think about it. They debate whether or not they should wake the children so that he can say goodbye to them, but they decide against it. Mary puts a clean handkerchief in Jay's pocket and walks him outside. They kiss goodbye, and he gets into their Ford. The car takes a while to get running, and it makes a terrible noise. After Jay has departed, Mary goes back into the house, drinks her tepid milk, and gets into the bed, delighted to see that Jay has made it up for her.

Analysis

In this chapter, the narrator primarily relates events through Jay's point of view, except at the end when Jay has left, and we are given a glimpse of Mary's thoughts. In their conversation after Ralph's call, Mary suggests that perhaps Jay could wait till morning to go. Although the same thought has crossed Jay's mind, he becomes angry when she suggests it, and thinks: "That's easy for you to say. He's not your father, and besides, you've always looked down on him." He drives the thought away, and tells her he would like to wait but cannot take the chance. However, the flash of hostility indicates that Mary and Jay's father do not get along very well.

The conversation between Ralph and Jay shows that Ralph is drunk, and it becomes clear later in the novel that he is an alcoholic. It also becomes clear that Ralph feels inferior to Jay; he states repeatedly over the phone that Jay is "the favorite" and it would mean a lot to him if Jay could come down, especially because their father is so sick, and so on. Jay's mistrust of Ralph's description of their father's condition indicates that Ralph is not the most reliable of people, and his ingratiating tone on the phone also shows Ralph's weakness.

This chapter is the only one in the novel in which we get to see Jay and Mary interact without anyone else around. It is clear that they are very much in love with one another, and that they try to do little things to please each other. Although the first chapter suggests that alcohol may be a point of contention between Mary and Jay, we see no evidence of it in this chapter; the husband and wife appear to have a healthy and harmonious relationship.

There is some foreshadowing in this chapter that the car is going to be important to the plot. Agee shows us this by breaking out of the lengthy paragraph form that characterizes the rest of the novel; the two-page description of the car starting reads more like an onomatopoeic poem. The car is depicted as an unwieldy beast, a "malicious mule"; Agee compares the noise it makes to a "lunatic sobbing" and a "mouse being tortured." Mary watches in apprehension as the car leaves the driveway and speeds away. There is further foreshadowing of gloom in Agee's descriptions after jay leaves: the milk Jay warmed for Mary is now tepid, the empty cup is "singularly repugnant," the children are "drowned" in sleep. Furthermore, though Mary is pleased that Jay has made the bed for her, the warmth that he hoped to store in it for her has "long since departed." It is a curiously weighty ending for a chapter that concerns itself primarily with pleasant domestic rituals; these dark details forebode heavier elements in the plot that manifest later in the story.

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