Skip over navigation

A Death in the Family

James Agee

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

Is religion a constructive or a destructive force in A Death in the Family?

For Hannah, religion appears to be a source of solace in life, but not a fervent, passionate influence on it. For Mary, however, religion is extremely important; she cannot imagine abandoning her religious views. She prays constantly throughout the novel and tries to impress upon her children the importance of believing in God. Her religious explanations puzzle her children, but they seem willing enough to accept them.

After Jay dies, religion becomes a more destructive force in the Follet family. In times of duress, it is difficult for one to see a family member turn to a force that one believes is powerless—which is exactly what Mary's relatives must watch as they see her suffer and pray to God. As long as it is a help to Mary to pray, her family thinks it is fine for her to have as a comfort, but Joel warns her not to use religion as a crutch and neglect her other duties as a mother. At the end of the story, however, we get the impression that Mary has, to a certain degree, become religious to an extent that harms her family. Because Rufus and little Catherine cannot share in Mary's ardent beliefs, religion becomes something that separates her from them: "She could not say anything, and neither could they; they began to realize she was praying, and now instead of love for her they felt sadness, and politely waited for her to finish."

Why does Agee tell much of the narrative from Rufus's perspective?

In A A Death in the Family, Rufus is a very perceptive and intelligent child. Because he is young, there is much he does not know and understand about the world, but because he is perceptive, he notices much even when he does not understand the full implication of what he sees. For example, when he and his family go to visit his Great-Great-Grandmother Follet, Rufus gives her a hug, and describes her features and smell in incredible detail. When he steps away from her chair, he notices that there is a trickle of water under her chair, but we are not sure if he knows that this is urine. This is a perfect example of Rufus's simultaneous insight and ignorance: he can tell that the old woman is happy, but the cause of her joy may just be from urinating—not from recognizing him—and we are not sure that Rufus understands this.

Telling the story largely from Rufus's perspective also allows Agee to infuse the narrative with bits of humor that keep the story from being unremittingly dreary. For example, after Jay's death, Rufus wonders whether he and Catherine now qualify as orphans. His mother tells him that they do not, as they still have her, while orphans do not have any parents at all. Rufus mulls this over in his head for a few minutes, and decides that he and Catherine are both half- orphan because they are each missing their father. He knows that a half and a half make a whole, and tells Catherine solemnly that together they make up a whole orphan. Amusing moments such as this are a welcome reprieve from the more intense topics of religion, death, and grieving that the novel explores.

Comment on the ending of the novel. How does it tie in to the rest of the story?

The novel's ending continues the questioning that takes place within the novel as a whole. Rufus continues to question his uncle's views about religion, and whether or not he "loves" or "hates" his mother and his aunt for their religious beliefs. By ending the novel on a note of uncertainty, Agee lends the novel greater authority, as it becomes more true to life: just as we are never sure what the future holds in our own lives, the characters are left uncertain what the future holds in theirs. Will Mary become too religious and neglect the children? Will Rufus and Catherine be alright? Will Andrew become religious? Agee leaves all of these questions unanswered. If he had tacked on a happy ending, it likely would have been far less realistic. Even if the present ending is not especially reassuring, it is certainly thought provoking.

Trace the nature imagery that appears throughout A Death in the Family. When and how does Agee use such imagery? With what result?

If you were an editor, where would you place the italicized scenes within the rest of the text? Why?

Comment on Agee's depiction of childhood. Is it accurate? Use examples to support your answer.

How does the setting of the novel shape its themes? Could the story take place anywhere, or is it important that it is set in Tennessee? Explain.

Were Mary and Jay, in your opinion, happily married? Why or why not? What obstacles did they have to surmount?

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