LITERATURE: A Death in The Family – Realism

One of the most amazing things about Agee’s writing is the detailed simplicity with which he reveals the workings of his characters’ minds.  Here, Rufus has just been told of his father’s death and while his mother and his great aunt Hannah have done their best to make him and his little sister understand, there’s just no way to know how a child comprehends such news.  To make that news fit into his world that he suddenly sees as changed.

Waiting, in silence, during those many seconds before the first of them came really near him, he felt that it was so long to wait, and to be watched so closely and silently, and to watch back, that he wanted to go back into the alley and not be seen by them or by anybody else, and yet at the same time he knew that they were all approaching him with the realization  that something had happened to him that had not happened to any other boy in town, and that now at last they were bound to think well of him;   (p. 204)

Agee shows us not a maudlin grieving little boy, but the more realistic wondering one.  Rufus knows that he is using his father’s death to increase his popularity with the other boys, but he also later tries to justify it by knowing it would please his father if he were well-liked.  He is aware that somehow the change of death makes him "special" and he is trying on that role.  He has already questioned his mother as to whether he and Catherine were now orphans, and is a bit disappointed to find that he is not, knowing that orphans command an even greater admiration of sorts.  Chastised by his mother for thinking this way, Rufus is secretly surprised and happy to come up with his own formula (since he is only half-orphaned, his mother still being alive, and since his little sister Catherine is likewise half-orphaned, then he and Catherine together make a full orphan).  Better yet, the Reverend Jackson’s prayers at the service give him hope:

"O Lord, cherish and protect these innocent, orphaned children," he said with his eyes shut.  Then we are! Rufus thought, and knew that he was very bad.  (p. 235)

As Rufus and Catherine wait for their mother to come out, they reflect on seeing their father in the casket.  Rufus repeats to himself "Dead.  Dead."  Catherine was unhappy to see him so still and waxen, like a doll, rather than what she’d hoped would be merely sleeping.  The two children focus their thoughts on each other, still trying to comprehend what "never again" and "last time" will mean.

As do we all.

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