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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Section in Italics–End of Part One

Chapter 7

Section in Italics–End of Part One, page 2

page 1 of 2
Summary

The narrative in this section takes place in the past, consisting of a description of a memory Rufus has when he was still a baby. In the beginning, in a poetic tone, the narrator describes the child grappling with the darkness around his bed, the white curtains moving in the wind, the leaves moving on the trees out the window. Rufus screams for his father. Jay comes in and lights a match in all the dark corners of the room to show Rufus that there is nothing to be afraid of. He then sings two songs to Rufus. Jay feels thankful to have Rufus as his son.

Mary comes in and says that Andrew had to go. She tells Jay that he has been in Rufus's room for over an hour. Jay says that Rufus had a bad dream and was afraid of the dark. At the time, Mary is pregnant with little Catherine. Rufus says that the two of them used to sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" together to him: his father would create notes and rhythms, while his mother would sing simply and clearly.

The memory then shifts forward in time. Rufus is puzzled as to why his mother is getting fatter and fatter, and why people look at her with such cheerful expectancy. Then his mother tells him that soon she is going to have a surprise. She will not tell him exactly what, as she does not think he could believe it even if she did tell him, so it is better to wait and see. Rufus is "aflame with curiosity." Then one day a large black woman named Victoria comes to his house. Rufus mentions to his mother that he likes the way Victoria smells; Mary tells him never to say that to Victoria, because she might take it the wrong way. Mary says that even though black people may smell different, they are very clean; she makes Rufus promise that he will never say anything to Victoria. He promises.

Victoria takes Rufus away to stay at his grandmother's house. While they are on the way there, Rufus asks her why her skin is so dark. Immediately after he asks the question he can tell that something is wrong. Victoria replies that that is just the way that God made her. He asks if that is why she's colored, and again she pauses, but replies that yes, that is why she's colored. After a few more moments she tells Rufus that she knows he does not mean any harm, but that he should not ask black people about the color of their skin because they might take it the wrong way.

After they walk on, Rufus tells Victoria he did not want to be mean to her. She kneels down on the path and says she knows he meant no harm; she just wanted to warn him because colored people have a hard enough time, and she would not want him to accidentally make anyone feel bad. Rufus says he never wanted to make Victoria feel bad, and she says, "Bless your little heart. I don't feel bad, not one bit," and hugs him. Then she brings him up the walk to his grandmother's house, where his grandmother is waiting.

Analysis

It is hard to say where James Agee would have inserted this section if he had lived long enough to finish editing his work. Editors, not Agee himself, placed it at the end of Part I of the novel, so we will ever know what Agee himself intended to do with the italicized sections that do not fit into the linear scheme of the overall narrative.

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