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A Death in the Family

James Agee

Chapter 11

Chapters 9–10

Chapters 12–13

Summary

Mary and Joel return to the living room, where the rest of the family has congregated. Mary sits down next to her mother, Catherine, and Andrew sits on the side of Catherine's good ear so that he can speak loudly into her ear trumpet.

Andrew tells everyone that no one else was hurt in the accident, and that the man who found Jay was the man who phoned Mary. Andrew says that the man told him he heard a car coming up fast behind him, and that he thought the driver must have been in a big hurry or else crazy. (Andrew does not say aloud that the man's true words were "crazy drunk"). Then the man said he heard a terrible noise, and he went back to see what had happened. He found the car upside down and Jay thrown clear, lying on his back on the ground, already dead. The man stopped the next auto that came along and asked them to get a doctor.

The doctor said that Jay hit his chin hard on the steering wheel, and that the concussion from that impact killed him instantly. The men found that a cotter pin had worked loose from the steering mechanism of the car, and they found a rock with tire marks on it. They think the pin fell out, so that when Jay hit the rock he lost control of the car and was thrown forward, hitting his head, and was then thrown clear as the car ran off the road. The doctor said it was a chance in a million that Jay was killed by the concussion, that if the blow had been an inch to the right, Jay would still be alive.

Joel tells Andrew to shut up at that point, and Mary starts to cry. Mary keeps asking God to forgive her, and Hannah goes over to her and says there is no need to ask forgiveness because God expects her to be upset. Then Mary asks for a little more whiskey. Joel asks if the drink has not already gone to her head, and she replies that it has not as far as she can tell. Then Catherine suggests that perhaps they should not "prolong the discussion" of how much alcohol Mary can stand. Mary and Andrew start laughing because it sounds as though Catherine means that Mary is so thirsty that she is desperate for more booze—which is funny because Mary hardly ever drinks. Then everyone collapses with somewhat hysterical laughter for a few moments.

They all collect themselves and then apologize to Catherine for laughing at her comment—it was just they were so relieved to have something to laugh at. Then Joel says, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." Mary disagrees with him, and he tells her to forget it. Then Andrew says it is a blessing Jay was killed rather than being paralyzed for life, seeing as Jay was so strong and active and hated to be an invalid. Everyone agrees. Andrew says that he saw Jay's body when the undertaker undressed him, and there was not a mark on his body, and that Jay has the most magnificent physique he's ever seen. Mary then thinks that a suitable epitaph would be "In his strength." Then she asks Andrew to go call Jay's family and tell them the news.

Analysis

Agee makes the intimacy of the family especially clear in this chapter, as we see their different ways of coping with Jay's death. Andrew is alternately considerate and callous; it is kind of him to sit on Catherine's good side, but somewhat cruel of him to tell Mary that it was only a one in a million chance that a concussion would kill Jay. But Andrew has also taken care to get all the details about the death correct so that Mary would have no doubt that Jay died instantly and did not suffer. The varying reactions Jay's death has caused within Andrew show how difficult it is for everyone to cope. It makes Andrew and Joel angry when Mary pleads for God to forgive her; Andrew thinks to himself, "God, if you exist, come here and let me spit in Your face. Forgive her, indeed!"

The fact that Andrew leaves out what the man said about Jay possibly being "crazy drunk" is significant to the suggestion of alcoholism that hovers in the background throughout the story. Andrew knows that Jay used to have a drinking problem, and he does not want to even suggest to Mary that drink could have been the cause of the accident. The narrative never resolves this uncertainty, as we never find out whether Jay was drunk at the time of the accident.

Hannah goes to Mary and tells her it is only natural to grieve, and that she must stop asking God's forgiveness for doing so. It is good that Hannah intervenes, as she is the only other religious person and therefore probably the only one Mary would listen to on that point. Their conversation demonstrates once again how alone the two women are within their family in terms of their religion. This divide is again emphasized when Joel makes the comment about how the gods kill humans "for sport" (a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear) and Mary protests. Joel tries to hold himself together, but thinks, "If she tries to tell me it's God's inscrutable mercy, I'll have to leave the room."

The family's laughing fit is a point of relief for us in the narrative and for the characters within the plot as well. Though they all know their laughing is inappropriate, none of them can stop because they are in such need of the comic relief. The family's hysteria highlights how awful the situation is: nothing at that point is truly funny, so they cling to the one funny occurrence—Catherine's comment—and wring an inordinate amount of humor out of it.

At the end of Andrew's story, when Mary asks Andrew to phone Jay's family, he asks her what the phone number is. She cannot remember it, which makes her feel guilty. She says that Jay was always the one who called. The fact that Mary has never called her in-laws herself is another subtle hint at the tension between Jay's family and the woman he married.

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