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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 5–6

Chapters 3–4

Chapter 7

Summary

Chapter 5

In the morning, Mary tells the children that Jay has gone to see Grampa Follet, and that he will probably be back before nightfall. She explains that Grampa Follet is sick and may die, and she explains death as a sort of sleep from which one only wakes up in heaven. Rufus asks if the cat and the rabbits they had as pets are in heaven, and Mary says they probably are. Rufus asks her why God lets people die, and Mary tells him it is all part of a greater plan that people cannot see or understand, but everyone must trust in God's judgment all the same. She says that God wants people to come to him, "to find him"—as little Catherine, Rufus's younger sister, puts it, "like hide-and-go-seek." Rufus gets angry at Catherine, saying that God could not mess around playing games. Catherine starts crying, and Mary makes Rufus apologize before hustling him off to school.

Chapter 6

Meanwhile, Jay has arrived at the farm, and he is angry for having been so alarmed. Indeed, Ralph exaggerated the state of Jay's father. The night before, Jay's father had a more severe and painful attack than ever before. At this point, the narration switches to what Ralph was thinking and feeling all night. He woke up in a panic, and on his way over to his parents' house he had a few swigs from the whiskey bottle in his office. When he arrived, he kept trying to hug his mother and make her feel better, but every time he hugged her, her voice grew more and more remote. She understood that Ralph was asking for help rather than offering it, but her heart was not with him, and his sobs and the stench of alcohol on his breath made her feel sick.

Throughout the night, Ralph kept getting thirsty and stepped out to take more swigs from his bottle. Finally he went out and, realizing the little flask was empty, slammed his head against the side of the house so hard that it bled. When he went in, his wife and mother came over and "pretended it was perfectly natural to stumble in a flat clay dooryard…when they agreed that it was a mean lump but needed no further attention, he felt, suddenly, sad, and as little as a child, and he wished he were."

Ralph has an incredibly low opinion of himself. He reflects that his every action is shaped by what he thinks will make the best impression on others; he is not independent or brave in the least. He realizes that his mother loves him, but that she feels sorry for him and does not have any respect for him. Ralph looks at his wife and knows that she is afraid of him. Worst of all, he knows that this is all his fault. He does not feel that he is truly a man: "I'm not a man. I'm a baby. Ralph is the baby. Ralph is the baby."

Analysis

Agee uses the points of view of children to explore some of the heavy issues that the novel, raising them in an innocent, untrained way that sheds new light onto each circumstance and gives us a fuller sense of the human truths that the narrative conveys. Chapter 5 offers the novel's first exploration of the complicated topic of death; instead of analyzing of interpreting them himself, Agee uses the questioning voice of a child. This technique is effective because Rufus is an intelligent and sensitive child; we are invested in finding out how his mother will respond to his queries, as he raises important points.

Rufus speaks aloud for the first time in this chapter, and he tirelessly questions his mother about where his father is going and why. His questions grow progressively more serious, and while the whole exchange is humorous, it carries undercurrents of meaning that resound later in the story. Indeed, all of the questions that Rufus asks about Grampa Follet are questions that everyone must ask themselves later as they recoil from Jay's death. Furthermore, the way in which Mary responds also foretells how she will react later—she turns to religion for answers. However, at this point in time she does not seem intent on convincing Rufus of the importance and authority of religion; she merely wants to fend off the discussion and send him on his way to school.

Rufus's dissatisfaction with the answers religious dogma provides is indicative of not only his own views, but also the views of Jay and much of Mary's own family. Aunt Hannah is the only one who shares Mary's religious faith; no one else can really understand it, and some are even somewhat repulsed by it. Rufus's questions find more faults with Mary's explanation than Mary can successfully account for to a child that does not have faith and is merely curious. Indeed, the novel as a whole does not lend religion any special authority; it merely presents religion as one of a number of potential coping strategies.

The fact that Ralph has such a bad alcohol problem is not surprising in light of the fact that the narrator has hinted that Jay enjoys drinking as well—alcoholism is partly an inherited disease. Ralph is one of the least likable characters in the novel, and in Chapter 6 his weakness and insecurity is more fully characterized than at any other point in the novel. While Ralph is standing by his sick father's bedside, he keeps thinking of excuses to leave so that he can have another swig from the bottle. It is painfully obvious to all present what he is doing; he knows this, but he is unable stop. The more Ralph drinks, the more self-critical he becomes, until at the end we understand that he feels he has no more power than a baby. Ralph is, both literally and figuratively, the baby of the family—Jay is not only older, but also a much stronger and more mature character.

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