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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 3–4

Chapter 2

Chapters 5–6

Summary

Chapter 3

As Jay drives out of Knoxville, the city thins out into more rural areas with poorer, ragged-looking houses and lots. Looking at these poorer houses depresses Jay somewhat. As he approaches the river it is almost daybreak. He raps on the window of the ferryman's shanty to wake him up. Jay drives the car aboard the ferry, and then he and the man chat as they cross the river. The ferryman asks Jay why he is crossing at such an early hour, and Jay says his father is "took at the heart." The ferryman wishes Jay luck. As they approach the opposite shore, they see a covered wagon, and the ferryman comments that the people in the wagon must have been waiting for a long time.

As Jay starts the car, he thinks that the people in the covered wagon must have been bound for the Knoxville Market, and that now they will be hopelessly late. He drives off into the country, "the real, old, deep country. Home country." He feels at ease and drives a little faster.

Chapter 4

Back at home, Mary is having trouble sleeping. She keeps waking up and thinking about Jay and her father-in-law, Grampa Follet. Because she has never really liked Jay's father, she has trouble making herself feel as bad as she thinks she ought to feel about the fact that he is dying. Mary is sure she does not look down on Jay's father, as so many of Jay's relatives would claim. She realizes she dislikes the old man primarily because everyone forgives him so much, and that she likes him so well in spite of his shortcomings, even though he never seems to realize that he has any shortcomings. It also bothers Mary that Jay's mother never gets upset or impatient with her husband.

Mary then gets angry at herself for thinking poorly of a man who may be on his deathbed. She reminds herself of his good qualities: he is generous, kindhearted, and tolerant. But Mary realizes that despite her best efforts, she cannot make herself like Grampa Follet more; there is a sort of basic weakness about the man that she cannot like, or respect, or forgive: "It was a kind of weakness which took advantage, and heaped disadvantage and burden on others, and it was not even ashamed of itself, not even aware."

Then Mary thinks that once Jay's father is gone, he will no longer be a point of contention between her and Jay. She immediately feels terrible for having this thought, and she enters into a long prayer asking the Lord for forgiveness and to help her and Jay become "one" in their religious perspectives as they are in wedlock. Mary fears that bringing the children up Catholic will widen the gulf she feels between she and Jay in terms of religious beliefs. She resolves to trust in God.

Analysis

The negative thoughts Jay briefly entertains about his father in Chapter 2 are more fully fleshed out in Mary's thoughts in Chapter 4. Chapter 3 is told through Jay's perspective, and now Chapter 4 is told through Mary's. The narrator is more discursive about Mary's thoughts than about Jay's. We are given a description of Jay's brief conversation with a ferryman and description of the landscape; by contrast, we sees a long, detailed interior monologue of Mary's thoughts and feelings in Chapter 4. In these descriptions of landscape in conjunction with the father, Agee links Jay to nature again as he did in the first chapter, when Jay and Rufus sit on a rock and enjoy the stars. This imagery continues to foster the link between Jay and nature that is established at the outset of the story.

The differences between country and city come through very clearly in Jay's encounter with the people on a covered wagon after crossing the river with his automobile. In 1916, automobiles were just coming into use, and demonstrated a drastic shift not only in transportation, but also in lifestyle, making the split between urban and rural more materially visible. Jay would never have had to get up at dawn to make it to the market on time; however, the people waiting for the ferry do. This country-city conflict represents a central concern in American culture at that time. Agee himself was born in Knoxville in 1909, when the town was rapidly becoming an urban center; his experience of the city's growth is evident in this autobiographical novel.

Agee's own family had ties to both the rural past and the urban future. He himself lost a father when he was young, and like Jay, his father came from a mountain family and embodied the characteristics of people who left farms and became urbanized. Agee's mother came from a different and much more urban background. Like Mary, Agee's mother was intelligent and passionately committed to the church. A notable difference between Agee's parents that is also present in Jay and Mary is that formal religion is very important for the mother, but not of much importance to the father. We therefore begin to understand that religious faith, like alcohol, is a point of contention between Mary and Jay that is likely to reappear in some form at a later point in the story.

The tension between urban and rural is felt not so much between Mary and Jay as individuals, but rather between the families of each spouse. We get the impression that Jay's family thinks that Mary looks down on them, presumably because she has had a more privileged upbringing, comes from a socially prominent family, and has been well educated. Likewise, we learn that Jay was probably raised in a rural environment from the fact that the more he drives into the country, the more it becomes "home country" to him.

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