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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 7

Chapters 5–6

Section in Italics–End of Part One

Summary

Hannah Lynch, Rufus's great-aunt, calls Mary the day that Jay is away to see if Rufus would like to go shopping with her. Mary assures Hannah that she is sure Rufus would love to go, but Hannah insists that Mary ask the boy whether or not he wants to. Hannah says she will wait until three o'clock that afternoon; if Rufus has other things to do, Mary should let her know. Mary once again insists that Rufus is sure to want to go. Hannah also asks if Mary has heard anything from Jay; Mary replies she has not, which both women take as a sign that nothing very serious has happened. Andrew, Mary's brother, calls down to ask if there has been any news of Jay's father. When Hannah replies that there has not, Andrew returns to his painting.

Rufus, out of breath from hurrying, arrives to meet Aunt Hannah at his grandmother's house. He assures Hannah that he wants to go shopping with her. She can tell that he is saying what Mary instructed him to say, but she can also tell that he truly does want to come. As they are on their way out the door, they run into Rufus's Grandmother Lynch, who is slowly making her way down the hall. She pats Rufus on the cheek, and Hannah yells into the old woman's good ear that they are going shopping.

Rufus loves shopping with Hannah because she does it efficiently, without the "flurry and dawdling" of the other women Rufus knows. When she is just looking, she never disturbs the merchandise or calls over a clerk; when she needs to purchase something, she conducts the transaction with the clerk gracefully and efficiently. While Hannah shops, Rufus pays little attention to what she says, letting the words float above him as he looks at the merchandise. He enjoys Hannah's company, as she is the most considerate adult he knows: she asks him every ten minutes or so if he is tired, and she never seems annoyed when he says he has to go to the bathroom. Hannah buys a few things for herself and several more elaborate things as birthday presents for Mary and Andrew. Then Hannah turns to Rufus and tells him that she would like to give him a cap.

Rufus is so excited he can barely speak. For a moment Hannah thinks this means the boy would rather have something else, but he heatedly rebuts this thought. She can sense his feeling of conflict between the fact that he wants the cap and his knowledge that his mother does not want him to have a cap. Hannah assures Rufus that the cap it is something he really wants, she is sure that his mother would not object. At first, Rufus only chooses more conservative hats to try on, but Hannah can tell he is only choosing ones he thinks Mary would object to the least. Hannah urges Rufus to try on more caps, and he finally chooses one, a "thunderous fleecy check in jade green, canary yellow, black and white, which stuck out inches to either side above his ears and had a great scoop of visor beneath which his face was all but lost."

Analysis

Chapter 7 is only seven pages long; at this point the narrative switches to a lengthy section in italics. It is one of the last scenes in the book that is not shaped in some way by Jay's death. Agee demonstrates the closeness of the family, a family in which the great-aunt can call her grandnephew, take him shopping, and be attuned enough to his desires to know that he would love to get a cap. Aunt Hannah is more respectful of children than any other character in the novel; she never speaks down to them or makes any unnecessary fuss. She is portrayed as a sensible and intelligent woman in everything she does; Rufus describes her efficient method of shopping with admiration and pride.

The conversation between Mary and Hannah demonstrates Mary's strong will in several ways. First of all, Mary is determined that Rufus will go shopping with Hannah even if Rufus does not want to, despite Hannah's repeated request that Mary ask Rufus whether or not he wants to go. Hannah also asks Mary if there is anything that she can get for her while they are in town. Mary is about to mention some things, but then she remembers that Hannah will often not allow Mary to reimburse her. She is uncomfortable receiving gifts, which frustrates Hannah to a certain degree.

The cap can be seen as a symbol of innocence and childhood that is about to be taken away from Rufus when his father dies. It is the last instance of absolute happiness that we see Rufus experience in the novel. Aunt Hannah helps the boy choose the cap he really wants; she is very attuned to what he is thinking, as she knows that at first he will only try on conservative caps that his mother would allow. In encouraging Rufus to get the cap that he wants, Hannah is also encouraging him to listen to his own individual preferences. She reflects that she does not want to cause tension between Rufus and Mary, but she feels that, in this instance, Mary would get Rufus the cap herself if she knew how badly he wanted it. The fact that Rufus chooses a cap that is flamboyantly colored and too big for him reminds us of his youth; he is not old enough yet to care about looking handsome or stylish.

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