LITERATURE: A Death in The Family – Psychological Realism

There is a section of the novel that goes back into an early time in Rufus’ childhood that Agee has incorporated into the story at a point where we are wondering what Jay has walked into at his own father’s house, this being the main story line, the dramatic arc.

Done in italics, the first part recalls an incident (still third person, but a rather intimate view of a scared child) wherein in the middle of a party, Jay must go upstairs to calm Rufus’ distress and fear of the dark.  We are treated to an insightful interplay between father and son:

"Bad dream?" 
He shook his head, no.
"Then what’s the trouble?"
He looked at his father.
"Feared, a—fraid of the dark?"
He nodded.  He felt tears on his eyes.
"Noooooooo," his father said, pronouncing it like ‘do’.  Big boys don’t get skeered of a little dark.  Big boys don’t cry.  Where’s the dark that skeered you?  Is it over here?"  With his head he indicated the darkest corner.  The child nodded.  He strode over, struck a match on the seat of his pants.
Nothing there.
"Nothing there that oughtn’t to be."  (p. 71)

There’s more here too; there’s a questioning of belief and of God and of parenthood.  Much is made in metaphor and much is used to establish the bonds of parent and child.  In a further discourse, Rufus interacts with his mother, and there we see a different form of relationship.

He did not know what "she’s worth the saving" meant, and it was one of the things he always took care not to ask, because although it sounded so gentle, he was also sure that somewhere inside it there was something terrible to be afraid of exactly because it sounded so gently, and he would become very much afraid instead of only a little afraid if he asked  and learned what it meant.  (p. 78)

There are different dynamics between Rufus and his mother, surprisingly there appears to be a matter of trust and of learning what can be clothed and hidden within words.  What’s great about this is that the experience of adulthood is filtered through the eyes of a child and how he sees his world:

He smelled like dry grass, leather and tobacco, and sometimes a different smell, full of great energy and a fierce kind of fun, but also a feeling that things might go wrong.  He knew what that was because he had heard them arguing.  Whiskey.  (p. 80)

What an intense evaluation of a man, put into the simplest forms of cognizance by a little boy.

It is as well a lesson to be learned by the writer.

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