Skip over navigation

A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 8

Section in Italics–End of Part One

Chapters 9–10

Summary

At around ten o'clock the evening of the day Jay is supposed to return from his parents' house, Mary receives a phone call. The man on the other end of the line tells her that Jay has been in a serious accident. She immediately fears that it is his head that has been hurt. The man asks Mary to send a man in the family out to Powell Station, near Brannick's Blacksmith shop, the site of the accident. She asks if she should send for a doctor, and the man says "That's all right ma'am. Just some man that's kin." Mary calls her brother, Andrew, and he says that he and Walter Starr, a close family friend, will head out together. He also says they will bring Aunt Hannah over to keep Mary company while she waits.

Mary puts on water for tea and then makes up the bed in case Jay is well enough to come home. She does this in a frantic, worried manner, turning over the words of the phone call in her mind and trying to derive some further meaning out of what the man told her. Then Mary kneels on her knees and prays, but all she can think to say is "Thy will be done." When she returns to the kitchen, most of the water she has put on for tea has boiled away.

Andrew, Walter, and Aunt Hannah arrive at Mary's home. Andrew says that he will call as soon as he knows anything, and then he and Walter set off. Mary and Hannah sit at the kitchen table and Mary makes tea for them both, babbling on about which nurse Jay should have. Hannah senses that Mary needs to talk, so she lets her. Then Mary gets upset with herself for failing to ask the man on the phone any questions about Jay's condition. Mary again tries to parse the words the man said to discern what has happened. Then Mary's father calls, asking if there is any news, and Mary says that there is not.

Aunt Hannah tells Mary how highly Mary's father regards Jay, but Mary does not seem wholly convinced. Mary remembers that before they were married, her father would alternately praise Jay and then say that she would be foolish to marry him. But Hannah says that Mary's father felt both things, just as Mary had; Mary realized there was some truth in her family's misgivings about Jay, but she married him all the same. Then Mary tells Hannah that her marriage to Jay has not always been easy, but that they have reached a wonderful harmony in the past few months.

As the two women continue to wait, Hannah clasps Mary's hands between her own. She feels a growing respect for her niece in her time of hardship, and she remembers when, thirty years ago, she herself went through a similar ordeal. The two of them kneel down to pray together. Shortly thereafter, Mary tells Hannah that she wishes Andrew and Walter would return, because she is ready to know. She says she feels that Jay was probably dead when the man phoned her, and he did not want to tell her. She thinks that Andrew probably has not called because he wants to tell her in person. They both say that they hope it is not so, and then they hear footsteps on the front porch.

Analysis

All of Part Two is comprised of the events that take place on the night that jay is killed. Interestingly enough, Agee never narrates Jay's death from Jay's point of view; he only tells us the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of Jay's family members. This first chapter shows us how awful it is for Mary and Hannah to have to sit in the house, knowing nothing, waiting for Andrew and Walter to return to learn of the gravity of the situation. Agee describes in painstaking detail all the doubts and worries that torment Mary during this time. We see the various different ways that she copes with her distress. At first, she refuses to believe that anything really bad has happened, and instead focuses on which nurse should come and care for Jay when he is well enough to come home. Mary repeatedly replays and analyzes the words of the man who called her in the vain hope that she will be able to glean new meaning from his words. Finally, at the end of the chapter, she admits her worst fear aloud to Hannah—that Jay is already dead. Mary says that she hopes she is wrong, but that because they have waited so long it seems most likely that he has passed away.

Agee uses this chapter to create a parallel between the two women, informing us that Hannah suffered a similar loss thirty years ago. As Hannah watches Mary come to terms with the possibility that her husband may be dead, she is reminded of her own experience: "she was with her voice and with each word opening in Hannah those all but forgotten hours, almost thirty years past, during which the cross of living had first nakedly borne in upon her being… Your turn now, poor child, she thought." It is in this passage that we gain more insight into Hannah's character than at any other point in the story. Watching Mary suffer—and suffering with her—has a profound effect on Hannah, who feels a strong realization of what it means to be alive, to suffer, and to endure.

Religion continues to play a prominent part. Hannah and Mary are the two most religious characters in the novel, and in times of trouble they turn to their faith for solace. Mary first prays by herself in her room before anyone arrives, and near the end of the chapter Mary and Hannah kneel down and pray together. However, when they kneel down to pray together, Hannah expresses inner doubt of her belief in God: "she could not rid herself: something mistaken, unbearably piteous, infinitely malign was at large within that faithfulness." However, as Hannah kneels next to Mary and listens to the earnest tone of Mary's prayer, she is comforted, and her moment of unbelief becomes a "temptation successfully resisted through God's grace." After they finish praying, Mary finds the strength to admit that Jay may indeed already be dead.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us