A Death in the Family

by: James Agee

Chapters 12–13

Summary Chapters 12–13

As Andrew and his parents make their way home, he keeps thinking of the words to a Christmas song "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Meanwhile, Mary and Hannah make their way to bed. Mary feels a sense of hopelessness, even as she says her prayers, and she grieves for Jay.

Analysis

In these chapters, although Rufus and little Catherine are not present, childish, difficult behavior remains, as we see when Joel he questions the presence of Jay's ghost. At this point, the perspective of children and that of adults appears to intersect, which demonstrates to us that reality is not as clear-cut as it seemed before Jay died. In a time of loss, neither adults nor children have all the answers. Earlier in the novel, Agee speaks of childhood as though it were a sort of sham contrived by adults; now he shows why this is true. There are times in life when everyone feels helpless, regardless of age. In a sense, all the adults in Part Two of the novel are like children in that they must wait, unknowing and unprepared, for what is to come.

Unlike children, though, the adults can fall back on the fact that they have dealt with difficult experiences in the past: Joel has his pessimistic fatalism; Andrew has his agnosticism, Hannah and Mary have their differing levels of religious conviction—the former a sturdy, tried-and-true stoicism, the latter a passionate and slightly overwrought righteousness. Undoubtedly each character gains some solace for beliefs that are reaffirming in the face of devastation. But Agee does not grant any single one of these views any particular authority. The repeated voicing of the different opinions eventually reduces them to a collection of notions that are inconclusive and unsatisfying to all involved.

The family tensions between Mary and her in-laws are exacerbated by Mary's decision not to allow Ralph to act as Jay's undertaker. Ralph's request is slightly ridiculous, but Mary feels bad because she knows that now Ralph will be upset with her. Andrew comforts Mary by saying that her mother-in-law is not stupid, and that she would not let an ignorant complaint of Ralph's change her high opinion of Mary. The tensions between Mary and her father are heightened by the supposed appearance of the ghost. Joel states that he cannot believe in anything that cannot be proven, whereas Mary is comfortable relying on her faith and her sense that Jay is with them. Joel does not want to distress Mary, however, and he is quick to say that he does not know much about anything and that she should not mind what he says.

Jay's much-implied alcoholism surfaces again in these chapters. Mary remembers being angry with Jay because it occurs to her that perhaps he was drunk on the day he was driving home. The thought disturbs her so profoundly that she turns and looks at her brother, but then she believes that if there were any possibility of such a thing, Andrew would have told her. The former severity of Jay's drinking problem becomes clear through the difficulty Mary has in getting the idea to leave her head.