A Death in the Family
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"A Death in the Family" Summary

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


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A family grapples with the tragic loss of a loved one and must navigate the complexities of grief and healing.


"A Death in the Family" is a novel by American author James Agee. Published posthumously in 1957, this semi-autobiographical work explores the themes of loss, grief, and the complexities of family relationships. Through vivid imagery and poignant storytelling, Agee takes readers on a journey of self-discovery and emotional transformation. In this summary, we will delve into the plot, characters, themes, and insights of this profound novel.

Brief Synopsis

Set in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early 1900s, "A Death in the Family" primarily revolves around the lives of the members of the Widener family. The novel opens by introducing Jay Follet, the central character and a young father, as he spends an evening with his son Rufus. However, tragedy strikes when Jay is killed in a car accident, leaving behind his wife Mary and their young children.

The plot encompasses the aftermath of Jay's death, examining its impact on both Mary and Rufus, and delving into their emotional journeys as they grapple with grief, loss, and the fragments of a shattered family. Agee eloquently captures the rawness of their experiences, painting a realistic and heart-wrenching picture of the ways in which death can shape and transform the lives it touches.

Main Events

The novel is divided into several sections, each exploring a different stage of grief and offering glimpses into the lives of various family members and friends affected by Jay's death. Some of the main events include:

  1. The news of Jay's death reaches Mary and she struggles to come to terms with her sudden widowhood.
  2. Rufus, Jay and Mary's young son, witnesses his father's death and becomes haunted by the traumatic event. He struggles to comprehend the finality of death and embarks on a journey towards understanding and acceptance.
  3. Mary seeks comfort from her family and friends, particularly her brother Andrew and her religious cousin Elsie, who provide different perspectives on coping with loss.
  4. Rufus's encounter with his father's childhood friend, Uncle Ralph, brings forth memories and stories about his father, helping Rufus gain a deeper understanding of Jay's character and legacy.
  5. The Widener family attends Jay's funeral and experiences the bittersweet moments of saying goodbye while reminiscing about happier times.
  6. Through flashbacks and introspection, the novel delves into Jay's earlier life, his dreams, struggles, and the everyday joys he experienced with his family.

Main Characters

Jay FolletA young father and husband who dies in a car accident early in the novel. His death sets the story in motion.
Mary FolletJay's wife and mother of their children. She must navigate the challenges of grief and find strength to carry on.
Rufus FolletJay and Mary's young son who witnesses his father's death. The novel explores his emotional journey in the aftermath.
AndrewMary's brother, who provides support and guidance during her time of grief.
ElsieMary's religious cousin who offers spiritual solace and tries to help Mary navigate the complexities of loss and faith.

Themes and Insights

Grief and Loss

One of the central themes of "A Death in the Family" is grief and loss. Agee skillfully portrays the multifaceted nature of mourning and captures the emotional rollercoaster experienced by those left behind after a loved one's death. Through the characters of Mary and Rufus, readers witness the different ways in which grief manifests itself and the transformative power it holds.

Family and Relationships

The novel also explores the complexities of family dynamics and the impact of Jay's death on the Widener family. Agee delves into the intimate moments shared within the family unit and provides insights into the nuances of relationships, capturing the love, tensions, and intergenerational connections that exist within the family framework.

Childhood and Innocence

Another theme present in the novel is childhood and innocence. Through Rufus's perspective, Agee offers a poignant portrayal of a young boy's loss of innocence in the face of tragedy. Rufus's journey to understanding the concept of death is marked by confusion, fear, and fragments of memory that Agee skillfully weaves into the narrative.

The Fragility of Life

Agee brings to the forefront the fragility of human life and the importance of cherishing every moment. The suddenness of Jay's death serves as a reminder that life can be fleeting and unpredictable. This theme prompts readers to reflect on the value of time and the significance of treasuring the everyday moments that often go unnoticed.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Death in the Family" offers readers a profound exploration of grief, loss, and the intricacies of family relationships. Through Agee's masterful storytelling and vividly drawn characters, readers are invited to reflect on their own experiences of loss and the transformative power of love and resilience.

The novel delves into the depths of human emotion, showcasing the enduring strength of the human spirit in the face of tragedy. Its poignancy serves as a reminder to cherish our loved ones and live each day to the fullest, embracing both the joys and sorrows that life presents.


"A Death in the Family" is a beautifully crafted novel that transcends time and speaks to the universal human experiences of love, loss, and the intricate tapestry of family life. James Agee's exploration of grief and the emotional journey of his characters leaves a lasting impression on readers, opening up a space for introspection and empathy.

This book is a must-read for those who appreciate literary works that delve into the profound aspects of the human condition, and it continues to resonate with readers decades after its publication.

A Death in the Family FAQ

  1. What is 'A Death in the Family' about?

    A Death in the Family is a novel by James Agee that explores the impact of a father's sudden death on his family in 1915 Tennessee.

  2. Who is the author of 'A Death in the Family'?

    The author of 'A Death in the Family' is James Agee.

  3. When was 'A Death in the Family' published?

    'A Death in the Family' was first published in 1957, two years after the author's death.

  4. Is 'A Death in the Family' based on a true story?

    Although 'A Death in the Family' draws inspiration from author James Agee's own life experiences, it is not a true story but a work of fiction.

  5. What are some major themes in 'A Death in the Family'?

    Some major themes in 'A Death in the Family' include grief and loss, family dynamics, the passage of time, and the search for meaning and faith.

  6. Is 'A Death in the Family' a sad or uplifting book?

    'A Death in the Family' is often considered a poignant and emotionally powerful book that explores the deep sadness and grief following a death in the family. However, it also offers moments of hope and the exploration of life's complexities.

  7. Is 'A Death in the Family' suitable for young readers?

    'A Death in the Family' deals with mature themes and contains some explicit language, so it may not be suitable for young readers. It is recommended for older teens and adults.

  8. Has 'A Death in the Family' won any awards?

    Yes, 'A Death in the Family' won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958, a year after its initial publication.

  9. Are there any adaptations of 'A Death in the Family'?

    Yes, 'A Death in the Family' was adapted into a play, and there have been film adaptations as well.

  10. Where can I purchase 'A Death in the Family'?

    You can purchase 'A Death in the Family' from various online book retailers, as well as in physical bookstores.