Rufus is the protagonist of the novel. The narrator spends more time relating his point of view than any other character's. We learn through a series of stories that Rufus is an intelligent and sensitive little boy. At the end of the novel, we is not entirely sure what he makes of his father's death. Rufus understands that death is a permanent condition, but the full weight of grief has not yet struck him.

Throughout the novel, Rufus questions his mother's and his aunt's faith in God. Whenever the women give him religious explanations, Rufus questions them tirelessly, wanting an answer that makes logical sense. A notable instance of this questioning is just after his father's death, when Mary calls Rufus and little Catherine to her and tells them that God has taken their father. Rufus must ask if his father is dead; the word "dead" has an absolute meaning for him that her religious explanation does not. When his aunt tells Rufus and Catherine the facts surrounding their father's murder, Rufus says that if the concussion killed his father, then it was not God that killed him. Rufus cannot understand how his aunt and his mother believe that it was both God and the concussion that killed his father.

Another aspect of Rufus's character emphasized throughout the novel is his need to fit in with and be accepted by other children. Badly wanting to make friends, he allows children to make fun of him because he feels that there may be a few among them who secretly like him, or else they would not talk to him at all. Rufus cannot understand the concept of teasing for fun; he thinks that the boys would not insist on teasing him over and over unless they liked him. Because he himself is innocent of malice, he cannot perceive it in others.

In many ways, Rufus exemplifies two conflicting views of childhood portrayed in the novel. He is as adult as any other character in the story with regard to what he sees and perceives in other people. The language Agee uses to describe Rufus and his experiences, especially in the italicized sections of the novel, is very poetic and often abstract, more complex than the language Agee uses to describe any other character's point of view. In other senses, however, Rufus is very much a child. His inability to fully comprehend his father's death, for example, is typical of small children; Rufus is not sure what the death is supposed to mean for him personally.