LITERATURE: A Death in The Family – Comic Relief

Agee, in his tremendous adherence to realism, knows enough to throw in an offset to the dramatic tension in the scene.  In this case, it is Mary’s mother, Catherine, who is hard of hearing and uses an ear ‘trumpet’ to hear Andrew relate the story of Jay’s accident and death.  Obviously, this is eventually going to cause a misunderstanding and the result is that the family cannot help but falling into laughter and this laughter grows as it feeds upon itself just as the worry and fear had just hours earlier.

As the narrator allows us into the heads of the main characters, we note a change after this release of tension.  From Andrew, as he begins again after apologizing to his mother:

"She means it," Joel said.  "She’s not hurt any more." 

"I know she does," Andrew said.  "That’s why I’m Goddamned if I’ll leave her out.  Honestly, Mama," he told her, "just let me tell you.  Then we can all hear.  Don’t you see?’ 

"Well, if you’re sure; of course I’d be most grateful.  Thank you."  She bowed, smiled, and tilted her trumpet.

It required immediate speech.  That trumpet’s like a pelican’s mouth, he thought.  Toss in a fish.  "I’m sorry, Mama," he said.  "I’ve got to try to collect my wits."  (p. 131)

I recall being at the neighbor’s house after we came back from the hospital, sadly confirming the death of her husband.  Something eventually was said that made us all laugh, wiping out some of the horror of phone calls and CPR and doctors and more phone calls.  It’s almost a way of realizing the reality of it all.

With Agee, though this was based on his own recall of his father’s death, the writer in him knows how far to allow the characters to go without a change just as well as he knows how long the reader will stand the somber mood before he too needs a break from it.

Nicely done.   

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