A Death in the Family

by: James Agee

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Memory

Throughout the novel, Agee explores the memories of a number of different characters, most notably Rufus. Flashbacks, his most common means of doing so, gives us a view of which memories have stayed with the characters through the years. In seeing this, we gain insight into what events have helped to shape the characters' personalities. The italicized passages, which give the most detailed memories, are all Rufus's except the introductory part before the beginning of the novel, titled "Knoxville: Summer 1915." The first memory describes, in almost poetic form, Rufus's fear of the dark when he was very small—young enough to be in a crib. His father comes in and sings to him for a long time, soothing the young Rufus. The long, detailed passages in which Rufus seems to have a conversation with the dark demonstrate what a sensitive child he is. At the time, Mary is pregnant with little Catherine, and the rest of the italicized passage discusses her pregnancy. The second passage in italics consists of three distinct memories: the boys who used to tease Rufus on their way to school, the visit to see Great-Great-Grandmother Follet, and a trip Rufus's family took when Uncle Ted played a joke on him. All of these events in the novel help to show how deeply affected Rufus is by various events, and primarily how eager he is to please those around him.