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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Section in Italics–End of Part One

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

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.

The style in this italicized part is distinctly more poetic than the general narrative. In parts it seems almost surreal; when Rufus is lying in his crib, at one point it seems that he is having an argument or exchange with the surrounding darkness. Agee goes on at great length about the vast fear the darkness inspires in the small child, which effectively illustrates how frightening even the simplest things can be to small children. However, the narrative does not stop there, but takes on a tone of all-seeing prayer that is far beyond any insight that a child in a crib would be capable of expressing. Agee says that Rufus feels that "this little boy he inhabited was only the cruelest of deceits. That he was but the nothingness of nothingness…from the depth and wide throat of eternity burned the cold, delirious chuckle of rare monsters beyond rare monsters, cruelty beyond cruelty." While Rufus could never have used those words to express his great fear, Agee uses them to inspire the same fear in us that the child experiences.

Rufus calls the second song that he wants his father to sing "gallon." Jay is always amused that Rufus mistakes the words "gal and" for gallon, though Mary and her relatives do not share in this amusement: "They felt, he knew, that he was not a man to take the word 'gallon' so purely as a joke; not that the drinking had been any sort of problem, for a long time now." By these words we learn that Jay did at one point have a drinking problem, and one that was so serious that people do not feel it appropriate to make light of it. However, because Jay says it has not been a problem "for a long time" when Rufus is still a baby, we learns that Jay must have gotten his drinking largely under control by the time he and Mary had children. Alcoholism is evidently something that Jay has worked hard to overcome; he mentions feeling thirsty, but then says that if he ever gets drunk again, he will kill himself.

The interaction between Rufus and Victoria represents Rufus's introduction to the issue of race and to the cultural differences between white and black people in the South. Rufus learns that an innocent question about why Victoria's skin is dark could be considered hurtful in light of all of the racial prejudice of the time and the place—even though such prejudice does not exist within Rufus's own family or in his head. Again, Agee presents a serious issue—here, racism—through Rufus's bewildered eyes, exploring it by way of Rufus's innocent questioning, much as he has earlier explored the topic of death in the conversation between Rufus and Mary.

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