A Death in the Family

by: James Agee

Chapter 16

Summary Chapter 16

Rufus's inability to truly understand the gravity of the situation becomes clear when he talks with the boys who are going to school. Even though it is his father who has died, he lets another boy tell the story first. It is as though it did not really happen to Rufus himself; he recites the events leading up to Jay's death as if by rote. Rufus's detachment from the events is meaningful to us because we already know that he has a hard time fitting in with his peers; the fact that he is willing to use his father's death to gain acceptance or respect is sad. This tactic for impressing other children probably will not work in the future, either: after Jay's death is no longer news, the children will probably treat Rufus much as they did before. Furthermore, things may be worse, because then the fact that Rufus's father is dead will be one more thing that sets him apart from the other boys.

The problem of alcoholism surfaces yet again in this chapter. The fact that one boy's father thinks Jay was drunk when the accident happened suggests that the broader community—not just Rufus's family—is aware of Jay's drinking problem. The possibility that his father was drunk does not even seem plausible to Rufus, as his father has not had a serious drinking problem since before he was born. Rufus dismisses the suggestion out of hand, and says that his father crashed because he was driving quickly in order to get home sooner.

Aunt Hannah tries to impress upon the children the proper way to behave in light of the events that have occurred. As the children have not fully realized what is going on around them, it is difficult for them to remember to stay in the house and keep from fighting. Rufus feels guilty for making Hannah cry, but he is also confused about the fact that Hannah wants him to help Catherine: since Catherine will not let him color, he is helping the only way he can think of. Later, when Rufus is in the sitting room, he remembers his father's admonitions about bragging, and suddenly he feels as though he bragged about his father's death to the other children. Rufus's guilt, however, cannot be relieved this time, as he can no longer apologize directly to his father.