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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapters 9–10

Chapter 8

Chapter 11

Summary

Chapter 9

Joel, Mary's father, and Catherine, Mary's mother, await news of Jay in their home. Joel is trying to read The New Republic; and Catherine is trying to do embroidery. She asks whether or not they should go to be with Mary, but Joel thinks that would be too much fussing since nobody knows what has happened yet. He says he already asked Mary (whom he calls "Poll") if she wanted them to come, and that she said not to. Catherine comments that Jay is not a good driver; though Joel agrees with her in his mind, out loud he protests that everyone is a bad driver.

As Joel reads, he thinks that he cannot feel that bad about Jay; he feels a deep general sadness but no personal grief. He thinks of all his daughter's spirit and intelligence being used up on household chores and religious fervor, and it upsets him. Meanwhile, Catherine thinks what a burden it would be for Mary and the children if Jay were indeed dead. Joel and Catherine clasp hands, and each feels a proud gratitude and love for the other.

Chapter 10

The narration shifts back to Mary's house. Andrew walks in the door. Mary asks, "He's dead, isn't he," and Andrew nods. She says "He was dead when you got there" and again Andrew nods, and tells her that Jay was instantly killed. They embrace, and then sit down to drink some whiskey. Andrew says that Walter has already gone to get Mary's parents. Andrew says he will wait until their parents arrive before he tells the story, because otherwise he will have to say everything twice.

Joel and Catherine arrive with Walter, and Mary thanks Walter profusely. After Walter leaves, Joel says he wants to have a word alone with Mary. They go into Jay and Mary's bedroom. Joel embraces Mary, and tells her that it is "just hell," but that she will have to carry on. He tells her to be careful; he knows she feels terrible right now, but says that it is going to get worse when the news really sinks in. Joel tells Mary that when those worse times come she must remember that bad things happen to everyone, and that worse things have happened before and will continue to happen. He says she will need to brace herself and hold herself together, especially for the children's sake. Joel says that times like these are the only tests of character that count, and that he knows Mary's religion will help her through it—but he also warns her not to hide behind religion in any way. Finally, he tells her he knows there will be financial difficulties, and he assures her that he will take care of them. Before they rejoin the others, Joel tells Mary that he has confidence in her.

Analysis

Chapter 9 is our only glimpse of Catherine and Joel when they are alone. Their love and concern for each other and for their daughter and son-in-law are evident. It is also clear that Catherine's difficulty hearing is frustrating for those around her, especially for her husband, even though he loves her. Just like Mary and Jay, Catherine and Joel often think the same things, but when one voices the thought, the other reacts negatively. When Jay speaks on the phone to Ralph in Chapter 2, for example, he wonders in his head if he can wait until morning, but then decides against it. When he returns upstairs and Mary suggests the same thing that Joel has just considered, he appears angry with her. In this chapter, when Joel thinks to himself that Jay drives "like hell broken loose," he immediately reprimands himself for having such a thought. However, a few moments later, when Catherine mentions carefully that jay drives "rather recklessly," Joel impatiently replies that "Everybody does."

In both instances, the husband gets angry with the wife for voicing aloud a thought that he had himself and then regretted, as the recurrence irritates him to be reminded of it. However, the fact that the wives have similar thoughts suggests to us that perhaps the thoughts are accurate. Other details in the narrative support this claim of veracity: we find out later that Jay very well could have waited until morning to go visit his father; other comments indicate that Jay does indeed drive too fast. The fact that Agee shows us both the inner thoughts of his characters and how these thoughts manifest in speech is a testament to his perceptiveness about the nature of human interaction.

In these two chapters we gain a much fuller understanding of Joel. As he waits for his daughter to call him in Chapter 9, he feels the heaviness of the air increase until it "felt like iron. He braced against it quietly to accept, endure it, relishing not only his exertion but the sullen, obdurate cruelty of the iron, for it was the cruelty which proved and measured his courage." In Chapter 10, we see Joel convey this perspective to his daughter; he does not console her or let her cry on his shoulder, but rather tells her the truth—he views the truth as the greatest kindness he can give to her. After warning Mary not to use religion as a crutch, Joel can tell by her response that she will not listen to anything he says regarding religion because he is not a religious man himself. This brief exchange highlights again the tensions that Mary's intense religious beliefs create within her family.

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