LITERATURE: A Death in The Family – Tone

Agee has done wonderfully well at setting the mood and tone of these hours spent with Mary and her family after the death of her husband.  It is still predawn, heading towards early morning, and it’s been a very, very long night.  I do wonder how Mary’s two children are sleeping through all this activity.  Even in the hush of shock and loss the adults have touched upon so much emotion, so much philosophy and questioning of life.

Earlier Agee brought in a light touch of humor, a natural break in the stress.  Now he hits head on as the scene becomes weary, uncomfortable.

In this quietness their mother sat, and smiled nervously and politely, and tilted her trumpet in a generalized way towards all of them.  She realized that nobody was speaking and it was at such times, ordinarily, that she felt sure that she could speak without interrupting anyone, but she feared that anything that she might say might brutally or even absurdly disrupt a weaving of though and feeling whose motions within the room she could most faintly apprehend. (p. 149)

This signals a change in the atmosphere that encompasses the characters and their own feelings.  They’ve shared quite a bit in this night’s discussions, very much aware of each other’s thoughts and particular care is taken not to add distress to Mary’s troubles.  But here her mother is starting to return to her own situation; she is deaf and how she behaves in accordance with the situation is important to her.

After a little while it occurred to her that even to hold out her trumpet might seem to required something of them; she held it in her lap.  but lest any of them should feel that this was in any sense a reproach or should in the least feel sorry for her, she kept her little smile, thinking, how foolish, how very foolish to smile.

Even as we are considerate of others, part of our actions always do seem to include their reaction to us; her anxiety is not to hurt, yet not to be considered hurtful.  She softens it all with an inappropriate smile.  Her husband Joel is aware of her discomfort.

Smiling at grief, Joel thought.  He wondered whether his sister and his son and his daughter, if they were thinking of it at all, understood the smile as he was sure he did.  He wished that he could pat her hand.  By God, they’d better, he thought.

Such a nice indication of the love he holds for his wife.  His protective instincts, which we’ve seen earlier in his private talk with Mary, are so showing here of the good husband and father.

Agee may use long sentences and loads of commas (both of which are inborn within me) as he details the minutes and hours after the passing of a man–a son, husband, and father–but he hits real close to home with the tone of family relationships and how they face tragedy. 

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