A Death in the Family
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"A Death in the Family" Characters Analysis

By James Agee

fiction | 320 pages | Published in 2008

Forty years after its original publication, James Agee's last novel seems, more than ever, an American classic. For in his lyrical, sorrowful account of a man's death and its impact on his family, Agee painstakingly created a small world of domestic happiness and then showed how quickly and casually it could be destroyed. On a sultry summer night in 1915, Jay Follet leaves his house in Knoxville, Tennessee, to tend to his father, whom he believes is dying. The summons turns out to be a false alarm, but on his way back to his family, Jay has a car accident and is killed instantly. Dancing back and forth in time and braiding the viewpoints of Jay's wife, brother, and young son, Rufus, Agee creates an overwhelmingly powerful novel of innocence, tenderness, and loss that should be read aloud for the sheer music of its prose. "An utterly individual and original book...one of the most deeply worked out expressions of human feeling that I have ever read."--Alfred Kazin, New York Times Book Review "It is, in the full sense, poetry....The language of the book, at once luminous and discreet...remains in the mind."--New Republic "People I know who read A Death in the Family forty years ago still talk about it. So do I. It is a great book, and I'm happy to see it done anew."--Andre Dubus, author of Dancing After Hours and Meditations From A Moveable Chair

ISBN_13:9781440641794
ISBN_10:144064179X

Estimated read time: 7 min read

List of Characters

Character NameRole
Jay FolletProtagonist
Mary FolletJay's wife
Rufus FolletJay and Mary's son
Catherine LynchMary's sister
Ralph FolletJay's brother
Brother GeorgeFamily friend
Aunt HannahJay's aunt
Uncle AlexJay's uncle
Uncle JimJay's uncle

Role Identification

In "A Death in the Family" by James Agee, we are introduced to a diverse cast of characters who come together after the sudden death of Jay Follet, the protagonist's father. Each character plays a significant role, contributing to the overall narrative and shedding light on various aspects of Jay's life and the impact of his death on his family.

Character Descriptions

  1. Jay Follet: Jay is the central character of the story and the one whose death sets the events in motion. He is a loving father and husband, known for his kind heart and strong moral values. Jay is a hardworking man who takes immense pride in providing for his family.
  2. Mary Follet: Mary is Jay's devoted wife. She is portrayed as a supportive and caring woman who grieves deeply after her husband's death. Mary is also depicted as a nurturing mother who tries her best to comfort their son, Rufus, during this difficult time.
  3. Rufus Follet: Rufus is Jay and Mary's young son. He is depicted as an innocent and vulnerable child who struggles to understand and cope with the sudden loss of his father. Rufus's perspective throughout the story offers a poignant portrayal of grief experienced through the eyes of a child.
  4. Catherine Lynch: Catherine is Mary's sister, who provides emotional support to Mary and Rufus after Jay's death. She offers a different perspective on family dynamics and serves as a confidante and sounding board for Mary's grief.
  5. Ralph Follet: Ralph is Jay's brother and serves as a source of comfort and support during the family's time of mourning. He offers a contrasting perspective on life choices and relationships, highlighting the complexities within the extended family.
  6. Brother George: Brother George is a close family friend who plays an important role in providing solace and support to the grieving family. His presence brings a spiritual aspect to the narrative, offering guidance and wisdom during this challenging time.
  7. Aunt Hannah: Aunt Hannah is Jay's aunt, who shares stories and reminiscences about Jay, providing a deeper understanding of his character and background. She represents the connection to the past and acts as a bridge between generations.
  8. Uncle Alex: Uncle Alex is Jay's uncle, who offers practical help and support during the aftermath of Jay's death. He helps with funeral arrangements and serves as a reliable and dependable presence in the family's time of need.
  9. Uncle Jim: Uncle Jim is Jay's uncle, who expresses sorrow and grief over Jay's passing. His role demonstrates the wider impact of Jay's death on the extended family and the community as a whole.

Character Traits

  1. Jay Follet: Hardworking, loving, dedicated, moral, responsible.
  2. Mary Follet: Supportive, caring, nurturing, grieving, resilient.
  3. Rufus Follet: Innocent, vulnerable, confused, grieving, sensitive.
  4. Catherine Lynch: Compassionate, understanding, empathetic, supportive, strong.
  5. Ralph Follet: Comforting, wise, insightful, understanding, loyal.
  6. Brother George: Spiritual, wise, compassionate, calming, guiding.
  7. Aunt Hannah: Nostalgic, wise, storytelling, connected, loving.
  8. Uncle Alex: Practical, dependable, helpful, reliable, supportive.
  9. Uncle Jim: Grieving, sorrowful, sentimental, family-oriented, compassionate.

Character Background

Jay Follet is the focal point of "A Death in the Family." He grew up in a working-class family and became dedicated to providing a better life for his own family. Jay is described as a man of strong moral character and a hard worker, striving to create a secure and comfortable environment for his loved ones. He cherishes his relationships with his wife, Mary, and their son, Rufus, and his commitment to them shines through in his actions.

Character Arcs

The character arcs in "A Death in the Family" revolve around the emotional journey and growth experienced by the various characters in the aftermath of Jay's death.

  1. Jay Follet: Although Jay's death occurs early in the story, his presence continues to be felt throughout the narrative. His character arc is portrayed mostly through the memories and stories shared by the other characters, highlighting his impact on their lives and the void left by his passing.
  2. Mary Follet: Mary's character arc primarily revolves around her grief and the process of healing while trying to navigate life without her husband. She transforms from a grieving widow to a woman who finds the strength to move forward while cherishing the memories of her beloved husband.
  3. Rufus Follet: Rufus experiences a profound change as he grapples with the loss of his father. His character arc illustrates the journey of a young child trying to make sense of death, eventually leading to a shift in his perspective and the understanding that life will never be the same.
  4. Other characters, such as Catherine, Ralph, Brother George, Aunt Hannah, Uncle Alex, and Uncle Jim, also undergo their own character arcs as they navigate grief and come to terms with the impact of Jay's death on their lives. They experience growth, reflection, and a deeper understanding of what truly matters in life.

Relationships

The relationships portrayed in "A Death in the Family" are integral to the story's exploration of grief and the healing process. The primary relationships are:

  1. Jay and Mary: Jay and Mary's relationship is the cornerstone of the story. Their deep love and mutual support are evident in the memories shared and the impact of Jay's death on Mary's grief journey.
  2. Jay and Rufus: Although Jay's physical presence is limited to the early part of the story, the bond he shared with Rufus is beautifully depicted. Rufus's perspective allows the reader to witness the impact of Jay's death through the lens of a vulnerable child.
  3. Mary and Rufus: Mary's role as a mother is central to her relationship with Rufus. After Jay's death, their bond deepens as they navigate the complexities of grief and loss together, finding solace in their shared memories of Jay.
  4. Extended family relationships: The interactions between Catherine, Ralph, Brother George, Aunt Hannah, Uncle Alex, and Uncle Jim provide a broader context for the grieving process. They offer support, share stories, and provide comfort to Mary and Rufus, highlighting the importance of family during times of sorrow.

In conclusion, "A Death in the Family" presents a diverse array of characters whose roles, traits, backgrounds, character arcs, and relationships provide a tapestry of how grief impacts individuals and binds families together in times of tragedy. Through their stories, James Agee invites readers to reflect on the universal themes of loss, resilience, and the power of enduring love.