A Death in the Family
Agee's portrayal of the sweetness of day-to-day familial relations are powerful and poignant. His masterfully drawn characters take on a haunting reality in this vivid recreation of life -- and sudden death.
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This section of the text is called the prologue. The prologue is an introduction to part of discourse, poem, or novel. It sometimes calls attention the text's theme. Pay attention to what the prologue may reveal about the upcoming chapters.
The prologue uses imagery to help readers visualize the setting of the text. Watch the following video to learn more about imagery. (This annotation contains a video)
This is an image of a locust. (This annotation contains an image)
This simile is alluding to the following biblical verse: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
The highlighted text exemplifies which of the following literary terms?
Compare and contrast the written text of Agee's prologue and Barber's song. How does each version work to convey meaning, and which is more effective in doing so? Cite specific evidence from all sources.
Listen to Samuel Barber's song "Knoxville Summer of 1915." Barber created this song as setting music to Agee's text. (This annotation contains a video)
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile device) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this freature frequently...Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
What can a reader infer in regards to the highlighted statement?
Charlie Chaplin is the man Rufus' mother was referring to in the beginning of the chapter. She calls him "vulgar." What does this tell us about her character?
Charlie refers to the infamous actor, Charlie Chaplin. Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE was an English actor, comedian, and filmmaker who rose to fame in the silent era. (This annotation contains an image)
Here is an image of the actor, William S. Hart Rufus mentions. (This annotation contains an image)
The literary technique where authors provide the reader clues to an event that might happen in the future, is called foreshadowing. To learn more about foreshadowing, watch the video clip below. (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Rufus feel "the anguish of shame?"
What does the Life Saver symbolize for Rufus and his father?
What does the highlighted text possibly foreshadow? Think about the irony of the statement.
Watch the short video clip on symbolism, and pay attention to the image of the butterfly throughout the text. (This annotation contains a video)
Throughout the highlighted text, Agee repeats the word "contentment." What can be inferred from the use of "contentment"? (Consider connotative meanings). How does this impact your understanding of the text?
In the last section of chapter one, Agee personifies many images, such as the leaves and stars. What effect does this have on the structure of the text?
What mood is established in the opening lines of this chapter?
Since Ralph is intoxicated and Jay can relate to that feeling, Jay is having a hard time believing Ralph's story.
This is the second time Ralph has mentioned Jay as the "favorite" son. What does this say about Ralph and how he feels about Jay?
It is important to note how Jay is only eating to please his wife. He appreciates her generosity, and he shows his appreciation for her by eating all of the food.
What word best describes Mary and Jay's relationship?
Review the clip on foreshadowing to remind yourself about the importance of this literary device. (This annotation contains a video)
What does the troubled car and Agee's gloomy writing in chapter two foreshadow?
Which literary device is used to express a sound?
Chapter two illustrates the relationship between Jay and Mary. We see how much they truly care for each other; however, comments like the one highlighted indicate some marital strife. Pay attention to the development of these two characters as you continue to read.
As Jay drives out of the city, he begins to see more run-down areas (empty lots and houses). Pay close attention to how Agee structures city life versus rural life in his text. What does this say about the time period and the characters?
Throughout the text, Agee uses many similes to describe the setting and characters. View the following clip to learn about the importance of using similes in literature. (This annotation contains a video)
In 1916, cars and other automobiles were newly invented. Cars did not become widely available until the early 20th century. One of the first cars that was accessible to the masses was the 1908 Model T, an American car manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. Cars were rapidly adopted in the United States of America, where they replaced animal-drawn carriages and carts, but took much longer to be accepted in Western Europe and other less-developed parts of the world. (This annotation contains an image)
What can a reader infer from Jay calling the country "home country"?
What mood does Agee establish by using words like odd, alone, hollow, silence, and pallor?
What can be inferred about Mary's perspective of Jay's father?
Mary immediately recites a prayer after a hurtful thought about her father-in-law. This indicates that she has a strong faith in God.
How does Jay feel about religion?
By Rufus asking all of these questions, what does it tell readers?
Ralph literally did not loose his head. This is an example of Agee over exaggerating to show the instability of Ralph. This type of exaggeration is called a hyperbole.
Which word best describes how Ralph is feeling in the highlighted text?
Ralph's mother is reluctant to embrace him and allow him to console her. She knows deep down that Ralph needs help due to his alcoholism, but her mind is on her husband and not on Ralph.
The more alcohol Ralph consumes, the more self-critical he becomes. What does Jay compare himself to in the metaphor used in the highlighted text?
Which word best represents the mood for this chapter?
This chapter establishes a certain mood for readers. View the short clip on mood and tone and think about the mood for this chapter. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is a synonym for the word "dawdling"?
What is the effect of the simile used in the highlighted sentence?
If you remember in the first chapter, Rufus saw a child wearing a hat, and to him that emphasized manliness.
What does the cap symbolize?
Part one ends with a section in italics. This narrative takes place in the past. Think about why this section was placed at the end of chapter seven rather than at another point in the story.
Which word is being personified in this section?
It is clear to see how Jay feels about his children. He is very calm towards Rufus and comforts him by making darkness not seem scary.
Explain the importance of this memory. How does this flashback affect your understanding of the text?
What does the highlighted text indicate about Jay when Rufus was a baby?
What does Rufus mean when he says his dad was talking like a "darky"?
During this time, racism and segregation were prevalent.
What can be inferred by Rufus's statement?
Agee introduces the issue of race through the eyes of Rufus. Rufus does not understand why Victoria is darker in color than he is, and this memory indicates the time period in which African Americans did not have as many rights at white Americans.
Chapters 1-7 Quiz
It is interesting to note that the man asks for another man to come to the accident rather than Mary herself. Think about what this says about the time period, and/or the seriousness of the accident.
What tone is established in the highlighted text?
Mary is basically saying that what is done, is done, and what will be, will be. It is all in God's hands now.
What do the dashes in the highlighted sentence indicate?
Mary keeps repeating the conversation over again in her mind and asking herself why she did not ask more questions. At first she refuses to admit something very serious could be wrong by making a bed for Jay, and now she is thinking the worst. Pay attention to how Mary continues to cope with the news of Jay's accident.
Why does the sound of the phone frighten Aunt Hannah and Mary?
What does the highlighted text reveal about Aunt Hannah?
Aunt Hannah and Mary are two religious characters in the text. Pay attention to how religion plays an important role in Mary's life and how it compares to other characters' beliefs.
The words incredulous or incredulously have been used several times throughout the chapter. Use this word in a sentence of your own.
Joel and Catherine are Mary's parents. Her father calls Mary "Poll."
What does the simile in the highlighted text indicate about Jay's driving?
Why does Joel feel resentment towards Jay?
Think about why Joel may not feel personal grief about Jay's accident. Will this affect how he interacts with Mary after the news of Jay's accident is revealed?
Throughout the text, Agee uses the word "dark" in many different ways. The darkness of a room, the darkness of a person, the darkness as a feeling, etc. Continue to locate the different connotative meanings of the word "dark."
Why does Mary want to drink?
Religion is a source of tension between Mary and her family. This issue is prominent in the text. Pay attention to why Mary's beliefs differ from most in her family.
What does Joel mean by Mary having to have "gumption"?
Joel does not console his daughter, but rather tells her the truth. He tells Mary to not hide behind her religion during this healing process.
What information about Jay can be inferred from the highlighted text?
A cotter pin is a metal fastener with two tines that are bent during installation used to fasten metal together. (This annotation contains an image)
Jay was killed instantly from a concussion. Although concussions usually are caused by a blow to the head, they can also occur when the head and upper body are violently shaken. These injuries can cause a loss of consciousness, or in Jay's case death.
Why is Mary asking God for forgiveness?
During this tense and emotional moment, Agee brings a little comic relief with this scene. Think about why comic relief is needed to relieve some of the tension in this passage.
If Jay would have survived the accident, what would have happened to him?
Mary's family and friends are trying to console Mary by making her realize the life Jay would have if he survived the accident. They are trying to make Mary understand the way Jay died is better than the alternative.
"In his strength" is the epitaph Mary will put on Jay's gravestone. An epitaph is a phrase or statement written in memory of a person who has died. Think about what this saying means, and if it truly represents Jay's memory.
Joel's statement is a similar concept expressed in transcendentalism. Writers like Emerson, Longfellow and Thoreau emphasize the importance of carpe diem, basically living in the moment because tomorrow is never guaranteed.
What can be said about Mary's relationship with her in-laws?
Even though Mary does not have a close relationship with her in-laws, she still cares about their feelings. Mary does not want this news to cause more harm to her father-in-law.
What does Ralph want to do that Mary insists he cannot?
Mary is wondering about Jay's state of mind when he died. Was he drunk or was Jay sober? Think about why Jay's state would be a concern for Mary.
The characters start to hear and feel something in the room. Pay attention to what this "presence" indicates about the characters in this chapter.
Which literary term is emphasized in the highlighted text?
Whether or not Mary is hallucinating, feeling Jay's presence brings her closure. She is able to say her final goodbyes and begin to move forward with his passing.
Throughout part two, Agee mentions Catherine's trumpet. What does the trumpet symbolize, and how does it relate to the overall theme of the novel?
Jay's death does not just affect his family, but his close friends. Think about why Andrew and Walter had to identity the body and not Jay's wife. Does this say something about the time period and setting of the novel?
In the highlighted text, what is the simile comparing?
A "hot toddy" is typically a mixed drink made of liquor and water with sugar and spices and served hot.
As Andrew is heading home, he keeps thinking of the Christmas song, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." (This annotation contains a link)
Using the annotation above, what does the song symbolize?
Even though Rufus is an intelligent young child, he is also very
What does the highlighted text indicate about Mary?
The boys' behavior is a direct result of Rufus' need for acceptance. This is even shown in the beginning of the book when Rufus is trying to impress his father. Think about why Rufus is overly concerned about impressing others.
Explain how Rufus's gullibility makes him a direct target for the boys? What does this say about his character?
Jay is laughing about the idea of his grandmother being about 103 or 104 years old.
Authors use indirect and direct characterization to emphasize certain traits about characters. Watch the video below and see if you can find any direct or indirect characterization. (This annotation contains a video)
In the above paragraph, what is an example of direct characterization?
How does the italicized section in part two relate to the first sentence of the novel: "So successfully disguised to myself as a child"?
The brand-new davenport is a sofa. (This annotation contains an image)
Which word(s) best describe(s) Rufus's character?
Part Two Quiz
According to the website GodWeb, "Birds signify the presence of God, whether in the form of the dove that signaled the presence of the Holy Spirit at the time of Christ's baptism, the mother eagle that cares for its young, or the sparrow that signifies God's concern for the most insignificant living things."
When Rufus wakes he is so excited to show his father his cap. He compares his excitement to Christmas morning.
Using the annotation on the first page of the chapter, explain why Agee uses the sparrow in this particular section of the text. How does it impact the overall meaning of the text? Cite specific evidence to support your claim.
It is important to note how Catherine sniffles because it "seemed" very serious and sad, not because she was serious and sad. This indicates how Catherine does not fully understand the meaning of death and what has happened to her father.
Throughout the entire text, Rufus wants to impress and make his father proud. Indirectly, Rufus is now taking on the fatherly role which would make Jay really proud.
Which tone is established through Catherine's point of view?
Which word or phrase is an example of an onomatopoeia?
Catherine again knows something is wrong, but she is not feeling a sense of loss. Agee is illustrating how the meaning of death is hard for children to comprehend.
View the short clip below to learn more about onomatopoeia. (This annotation contains a video)
Rufus does not understand the idea of faith and religion. He thinks God would not put him to "sleep" for having an accident. Catherine does not fully understand how if he was in the car then he would not be in a jar like the kitties. Again, Agee is emphasizing the difficulty of explaining death to children.
What is Agee's purpose of making the children mispronounce the following words: embankment, instantly, and concussion?
Death at any age is hard, but Rufus is really struggling to understand the absence of his father.
Rufus thinks if he goes to school today (after the death of his father) the students will
Even if Jay was not drinking at this time, due to his past problems with alcohol, the town believes he was drinking during the night of his accident. This indicates that the community is well aware of his alcoholic past.
How does Rufus feel at this moment?
Agee uses the boys' conversation to further explain how death is incomprehensible for children. The boys are so focused on the word drunk they do not seem to understand that Rufus's father has passed away and is never returning - something an adult would understand.
How is Rufus acting in this scene?
He feels guilty for "showing off" to people about his father's death. At his age, should he feel guilty or he is justified in his actions?
Rufus is regretting his decision to brag about his father's death, and he is looking at his father's chair as if he is there to receive Rufus's apology.
Rufus walks over to his late father's chair and tastes it. He says it tastes like darkness. What does this mean?
View the short video below to learn more about denotation vs connotation. Think about how Agee uses certain words to evoke different meanings as well as express the time period of the text. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the connotative meaning of the word queer in the highlighted sentence?
Rufus's mother is trying to emphasize how much he is still loved even if his father has passed away; however, is she justified in her response about orphans and how they are very unhappy little children?
Why is it important for Rufus to find out if he is an orphan?
Which word best describes Father Jackson's demeanor?
Father Jackson does not show any sympathy towards the children, and he even questions if he should reprimand them. His demeanor and actions seem opposite of how one would expect a priest to act. Is Agee making another suggestion about religion?
The rhythmic and pleasant tone grabs the children's attention. They seem mesmerized by the inflections in his voice.
Walter's generosity and respect for the children is contrasted by
Here is an image of a gramophone. (This annotation contains an image)
Bragging is something his father did not like either. Will Mr. Starr be the one to take on a fatherly role for Rufus?
Whose point of view is the beginning of chapter 18 told through?
As Mary is trying to leave for the funeral, she collapses. This indicates how hard this moment is for Mary.
Mary is coming to terms and learning how to cope with Jay's death.
Explain why Agee has Rufus's character explain the "indifferent" look in his father's dead body in such detail. What does this tell us about Rufus's character?
According to the Catholic church, "The Our Father" is the best of all prayers because it is the Lord's Prayer, taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, and because it is a prayer of perfect and unselfish love.
Is it odd to hear the priest call Catherine and Rufus orphaned children? Mary insisted to Rufus they were not orphaned children. What is Agee saying about religion by having the priest refer to the children in this way?
Andrew and Joel are upset with Mary because
Which mood best represents this section?
Mr. Starr allows the children to see the funeral procession. He believes they will appreciate seeing this later in life even if they may not understand it right now.
Why does Agee use a robin in this selection rather than another bird? How does this symbol relate to the overall meaning of the text? Cite specific evidence from the text.
Robins have a powerful significance in ancient myth and lore. One tale has its origins in European mythology, in which the bird of Spring is linked with the New Year and symbolizes divine sacrifice and the rebirth of the spirit. Medieval Europe lore often depicted the robin attending the Christ child, an emblem of the Passion to come. The tiny robin flew to Jesus's Crown of Thorns, striving bravely to pluck the thorns away with his beak. Unfortunately, the bird only tore his own breast on the thorns. Since then it was thought that robins wore red feathers on their chests as a badge of honor. The robin is a bird of divine service.
What is this that Mary cannot bear without?
What makes Andrew believe in God or in a higher being?
What does the butterfly symbolize?
Just a few moments ago, Andrew is talking about faith and the possibility of a god, but now he is criticizing religion by calling Father Jackson a bad word. This adds more confusion about religion for Rufus.
Rufus is having a hard time understanding his uncle. Does he hate religion which includes Aunt Hannah and his mother or is it just Father Jackson?
True or False. The end of the novel ties up the difficulties within this family dynamic.
Part Three Quiz