A Death in the Family

By James Agee


Welcome to a journey through the hauntingly beautiful world of “A Death in the Family” 📚, a novel that weaves a tapestry of grief, love, and the complexities of human emotion. Authored by the talented James Agee, this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece shines a spotlight on the fragility of life and the resilience of the human spirit. Published posthumously in 1957, two years after Agee’s untimely death, this novel stands as a poignant exploration of loss and its aftermath within a family in 1915 Knoxville, Tennessee.

James Agee, an American novelist, screenwriter, journalist, poet, and film critic, was known for his powerful prose and ability to capture the essence of American life. His work often delved into personal and social themes, and “A Death in the Family” is no exception, offering a deeply autobiographical glimpse into the impact of sudden loss on a family. The novel, belonging to the genre of autobiographical fiction, seamlessly blurs the lines between reality and artistry, inviting readers to reflect on their own experiences of grief and healing.

So, let’s dive into the heart of Knoxville and uncover the layers of this timeless narrative, exploring the depth of Agee’s insight into the human condition. 🌟

Plot Summary

“A Death in the Family” by James Agee is a touching exploration of loss, grief, and the impact of death on a family. Let’s journey through the main events that shape this narrative:

Exposition — The story is set in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, focusing on the Tennyson family. We’re introduced to Jay Follett, his wife Mary, and their children Rufus and Catherine. The family’s peaceful life is the backdrop against which the story unfolds.

Rising Action — The tranquility of the Tennyson family is shattered when Jay receives a call that his father is seriously ill. Jay decides to make a late-night journey to his hometown. This decision sets the stage for the tragic turn of events that will deeply affect each family member.

Climax — The climax occurs when Jay is killed in a car accident while returning home. His sudden and unexpected death plunges his family into deep grief, highlighting the main theme of the novel: the impact of loss and the process of dealing with grief.

Falling Action — In the aftermath of Jay’s death, the family struggles to cope with their loss. Mary grapples with her newfound widowhood, the children with the loss of their father, and Jay’s parents with the death of their son. The family’s attempt to come to terms with their grief and to understand the meaning of Jay’s life and death constitutes the falling action.

Resolution — The novel concludes without a traditional resolution, reflecting the ongoing nature of grief. However, through their mourning and remembrance, the family begins to find a way to move forward, signifying the beginning of healing. The story ends with a powerful scene at the graveyard, offering a sense of closure and the continuation of life despite loss.

This detailed plot summary outlines the journey of the Tennyson family through tragedy, showcasing Agee’s profound understanding of human emotions and the complex process of grieving.

Character Analysis

“A Death in the Family” by James Agee offers a profound look into its characters, each uniquely affected by grief and loss. Here’s a closer look at the main characters:

  • Jay Follett — Jay is a loving and caring husband and father, whose sudden death is the central event of the novel. His character is explored retrospectively, through the memories and grief of his family members. Jay’s life and sudden absence highlight themes of fragility and the impact of loss.
  • Mary Follett — Mary, Jay’s wife, embodies the struggle of coping with unexpected loss. Her journey through grief, from denial to acceptance, is depicted with great sensitivity. Mary’s character explores the depths of widowhood, maternal responsibility, and the search for meaning in the face of tragedy.
  • Rufus Follett — Rufus, the eldest child of Jay and Mary, represents the innocence of youth confronted with the harsh realities of death. His relationship with his father and his quest to understand his father’s absence is a poignant part of the story. Rufus’s character development is significant, showcasing his growth and maturity as he navigates his grief.
  • Catherine Follett — Catherine, the younger child, provides a perspective of innocence and the often-overlooked impact of grief on very young children. Her understanding and reactions to her father’s death add another layer of emotional depth to the family’s experience.
  • Joel and Hannah Follett — Jay’s parents, Joel and Hannah, deal with the unspeakable pain of losing a child. Their grief, portrayed with deep empathy, adds generational perspective to the novel’s exploration of loss.

Here’s a summary of their character analysis:

Jay FollettLoving, caring, reflectiveFamily well-being, integrityExplored retrospectively; his death catalyzes the plot and character development of others
Mary FollettStrong, vulnerable, nurturingProtecting her children, finding peaceTransforms through grief, from denial to acceptance, showcasing resilience
Rufus FollettCurious, mature for his age, sensitiveUnderstanding his father’s death, growing upFaces harsh realities, grows in understanding and maturity
Catherine FollettInnocent, young, observantSeeking comfort and normalcyRepresents the subtle, often overlooked effects of loss on young children
Joel and Hannah FollettGrieving, reflective, supportiveComing to terms with their son’s death, supporting their daughter-in-law and grandchildrenTheir journey adds a generational perspective to grief and loss

Through these characters, Agee masterfully explores the myriad ways individuals cope with loss, each journey adding to the rich tapestry of human experience depicted in “A Death in the Family.”

Themes and Symbols

“A Death in the Family” by James Agee is rich with themes and symbols that weave through the narrative, adding depth and resonance. Let’s explore the major ones:

  • The Fragility of Life — The sudden death of Jay Follett serves as a stark reminder of life’s unpredictability and fragility. This theme is central to the novel, prompting reflection on the value of each moment and the importance of family bonds.
  • Grief and Healing — The novel intricately explores the processes of grief and healing. Each character’s journey through mourning demonstrates the personal and unique nature of coping with loss, as well as the slow, often painful path toward healing.
  • Family Dynamics and Relationships — The dynamics within the Follett family, and how they shift in response to tragedy, are key to understanding the novel. Agee examines the strength and resilience of familial bonds, highlighting both the support and the strains that emerge in times of crisis.
  • Memory and Legacy — Through the lens of the Follett family’s memories of Jay, Agee delves into the themes of memory and legacy. The way characters remember Jay reflects their coping mechanisms and underscores the impact a person’s life has on the living.
  • The Search for Meaning — Characters in the novel grapple with existential questions and the search for meaning in the face of inexplicable loss. This theme is particularly evident in Mary’s spiritual and philosophical questioning following Jay’s death.


  • The Family Home — The Follett household symbolizes both the stability and the fragility of family life. It serves as a setting for much of the family’s grieving process and represents both a sanctuary and a reminder of loss.
  • The Car Accident — The accident that takes Jay’s life is not only a plot device but also a symbol of sudden, irreversible change. It marks the before and after in the family’s life, embodying the randomness and cruelty of fate.
  • Nature and the Seasons — Nature, with its cycles of growth, decay, and renewal, mirrors the themes of life, death, and healing in the novel. The changing seasons reflect the passage of time and the slow process of recovery from grief.

Through these themes and symbols, “A Death in the Family” offers a poignant exploration of the human condition, inviting readers to reflect on the complexities of life, loss, and the enduring power of love and memory.

Style and Tone

James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” is distinguished by its distinct writing style and tone, which contribute significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the book. Let’s delve into these elements:

  • Lyrical Prose — Agee’s prose is often lyrical and poetic, imbued with a sense of musicality that enhances the emotional depth of the narrative. This stylistic choice creates a reflective and sometimes melancholic atmosphere, inviting readers to deeply empathize with the characters’ experiences.
  • Stream of Consciousness — The novel employs a stream of consciousness technique, especially in the portrayal of characters’ thoughts and inner struggles. This method allows Agee to capture the complexity of human emotions and the tumultuous nature of grief, offering an intimate glimpse into the characters’ minds.
  • Detailed Descriptions — Agee’s detailed descriptions of settings, especially the natural surroundings and the family home, play a crucial role in establishing the mood. These descriptions not only ground the story in a specific time and place but also symbolize the characters’ emotional states, adding a layer of richness to the narrative.
  • Varied Tone — The tone of the book varies, reflecting the shifting emotions and perspectives of its characters. From the warmth and joy of family life to the stark, overwhelming grief of loss, the tone adapts to convey the nuanced experiences of each character, making the story resonate with authenticity and depth.
  • Use of Dialogue — The dialogue in the novel is realistic and revealing, providing insights into characters’ personalities, relationships, and evolving emotional landscapes. Agee skillfully uses dialogue not only to advance the plot but also to deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters and their struggles.

These elements of style and tone are central to the experience of reading “A Death in the Family,” enabling Agee to explore themes of love, loss, and the search for meaning with sensitivity and insight. Through his masterful use of language, Agee creates a poignant and immersive narrative that stays with readers long after they turn the last page.

Literary Devices used in A Death in the Family

James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” is notable for its sophisticated use of literary devices, which enrich the narrative and deepen the emotional impact of the story. Here are the top 10 devices used in the novel:

  1. Foreshadowing — Agee subtly hints at upcoming events, particularly the tragic death that centralizes the novel’s plot. This technique creates a sense of impending doom and adds depth to the narrative’s emotional landscape.
  2. Imagery — The author employs vivid imagery to paint detailed pictures of the settings, characters, and events. This not only enhances the reader’s experience but also serves to symbolize the themes of loss, memory, and the passage of time.
  3. Symbolism — Objects, events, and characters in the novel often symbolize larger themes. For example, the family home represents both stability and fragility, echoing the novel’s exploration of family dynamics in the face of loss.
  4. Metaphor — Agee uses metaphors to draw comparisons that deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters’ emotions and the thematic currents running through the novel. These metaphors enrich the narrative by adding layers of meaning.
  5. Simile — Similes are used to make descriptive passages more evocative. By likening one thing to another, Agee helps readers connect emotionally with the characters’ experiences.
  6. Personification — The author gives human qualities to inanimate objects and abstract ideas, particularly in descriptions of nature. This literary device enhances the mood and atmosphere of the story, making the setting an integral part of the narrative.
  7. Irony — There are moments of irony, where the outcome of events contrasts starkly with what was expected or hoped for. This device is used to underscore the unpredictability of life and the poignancy of the characters’ struggles.
  8. Alliteration — Agee occasionally employs alliteration to give a lyrical quality to his prose, enhancing its musicality and the overall reading experience.
  9. Flashback — The novel frequently uses flashbacks to reveal the backstory of the characters, particularly Jay. This device enriches the narrative by providing context and depth, allowing readers to fully grasp the impact of the unfolding events.
  10. Stream of Consciousness — Agee skillfully uses this technique to depict the flow of characters’ thoughts and feelings in a direct and unstructured manner. This device is particularly effective in conveying the complexity of grief and the inner workings of the characters’ minds.

These literary devices are integral to the fabric of “A Death in the Family,” working together to create a richly textured and emotionally resonant work that captures the nuances of human experience.

Literary Devices Examples

For each of the top 10 literary devices used in “A Death in the Family” by James Agee, here are tables providing 3 examples and explanations for how they are utilized in the book:


Jay’s decision to drive at nightHints at the tragic accident, setting a somber tone for the narrative.
Conversations about health and safetySubtly suggest the imminent danger, preparing the reader for the emotional impact of Jay’s death.
The storm before Jay leavesSymbolizes turmoil and foreshadows the chaos that his death will bring to his family.


Descriptions of the family homeEvokes a sense of warmth and security, contrasting sharply with the coldness of loss.
The portrayal of the accident sceneCreates a vivid picture of the tragedy, amplifying the shock and grief experienced by the characters.
Nature scenesReflect the internal states of the characters, using the external environment to mirror their emotional landscapes.


The family homeRepresents stability and the fragile nature of human life, emphasizing the impact of loss.
Jay’s carSymbolizes the sudden, uncontrollable forces that can disrupt life, serving as a harbinger of change.
The seasonsSymbolize the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, paralleling the family’s journey through grief.


“Life’s fabric”Compares life to a fabric, illustrating its complexity and the way events are interwoven.
“Grief’s ocean”Describes grief as an ocean, conveying its depth, unpredictability, and the way it can engulf individuals.
“The house of memory”Uses the house as a metaphor for memory, showing how past experiences shape our present and future.


“Like leaves in the wind”Describes the characters’ vulnerability and lack of control in the face of death.
“As silent as shadows”Conveys the quietness and solemnity of the family’s mourning process.
“Grief washed over her like a wave”Illustrates the overwhelming and sudden nature of grief.


Nature mourning with the familyGives nature human emotions, suggesting a universal grief shared with the environment.
The car’s “angry roar”Imbues the car with human-like aggression, foreshadowing the tragedy it causes.
The house’s “watchful eyes”Suggests the home is a guardian of the family’s memories and emotions.


Jay’s carefulness in life contrasted with his accidental deathHighlights the ironic nature of fate and the unpredictability of life.
The family’s anticipation of Jay’s returnCreates a poignant contrast between hope and the reality of his death.
The community’s trivial concernsStand in stark contrast to the profound grief of Jay’s family, underscoring the isolation felt in mourning.


“Silent, somber sky”Enhances the moodiness of the scene, reflecting the family’s grief.
“Bright, bustling, day”Contrasts with the family’s sorrow, highlighting the disconnect between their internal world and the external one.
“Fleeting, fragile life”Emphasizes the transient nature of existence, reinforcing the novel’s themes.


Memories of Jay’s childhoodProvide depth to his character and highlight the impact of his loss on the family.
Mary recalling moments with JayServes to deepen the reader’s understanding of their relationship and the magnitude of her loss.
Rufus’s recollections of his fatherIllustrate the process of memory in coping with grief and the way it shapes personal growth.

Stream of Consciousness

Mary’s inner turmoil following Jay’s deathOffers an intimate look into her grieving process, showcasing the chaotic nature of her thoughts.
Rufus’s reflections on his fatherReveals his struggle to understand death and memory, highlighting his emotional and cognitive processing.

| The family’s varied thoughts during the funeral | Provides a multifaceted view of grief, illustrating how each member copes differently with the loss. |

These examples underscore how James Agee masterfully employs literary devices to enhance the narrative depth and emotional resonance of “A Death in the Family.”

A Death in the Family – FAQs

What is “A Death in the Family” about?
It’s a novel by James Agee that explores the impact of sudden loss on a family in 1915 Knoxville, Tennessee, focusing on the aftermath of Jay Follett’s unexpected death and its effect on his wife, children, and parents.

Who are the main characters in “A Death in the Family”?
The main characters include Jay Follett, his wife Mary, their children Rufus and Catherine, and Jay’s parents, Joel and Hannah Follett.

What themes are explored in “A Death in the Family”?
The novel delves into themes such as the fragility of life, grief and healing, family dynamics, memory and legacy, and the search for meaning in the face of tragedy.

How does James Agee use literary devices in the novel?
Agee employs various literary devices including foreshadowing, imagery, symbolism, metaphor, simile, personification, irony, alliteration, flashback, and stream of consciousness to deepen the narrative and enhance its emotional impact.

Is “A Death in the Family” based on a true story?
Yes, the novel is semi-autobiographical, drawing on James Agee’s own experiences with his father’s death when he was a child.

How does the novel’s setting contribute to its themes?
The setting of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1915, juxtaposes the stability of family life with the upheaval caused by Jay Follett’s death, reflecting the themes of loss and the search for continuity in the midst of change.

What literary awards has “A Death in the Family” received?
The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958, a year after it was published posthumously.

How does “A Death in the Family” portray grief?
Grief is portrayed as a complex, multifaceted process that affects each character differently, highlighting the personal nature of mourning and the slow journey towards healing.

Can “A Death in the Family” be considered a classic?
Yes, it is considered a classic of American literature, recognized for its profound exploration of family, loss, and the human condition.

What makes “A Death in the Family” a significant work of literature?
Its significant lies in its emotional depth, nuanced character portrayals, rich thematic exploration, and Agee’s masterful use of language and literary devices, making it a timeless exploration of human grief and resilience.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What is the setting of “A Death in the Family”?New York City, 1920sKnoxville, Tennessee, 1915Chicago, Illinois, 1930sSan Francisco, California, 1940sB
Who receives a call about a family illness that prompts a fateful journey?Mary FollettJay FollettRufus FollettJoel FollettB
What major theme is explored through the narrative?The excitement of urban lifeThe challenges of technological advancementsThe impact of loss on a familyThe adventures of childhoodC
Which literary device is frequently used to reveal characters’ inner thoughts?IronyFlashbackStream of ConsciousnessMetaphorC
How does James Agee’s novel begin?With a family reunionWith a detailed description of KnoxvilleWith a character contemplating natureWith an ominous phone callD
What symbolizes the cycle of life and death in the novel?The family carThe changing seasonsThe family homeThe city of KnoxvilleB
Which character struggles with existential questions after Jay’s death?Catherine FollettRufus FollettMary FollettHannah FollettC
What award did “A Death in the Family” win?The National Book AwardThe Pulitzer Prize for FictionThe Nobel Prize in LiteratureThe Booker PrizeB
Which literary device does Agee use to enhance the narrative’s emotional depth?AllegoryImagerySatireHyperboleB
What is the novel’s perspective on grief?It is an avoidable part of lifeIt is a shared experience that unites the communityIt is a unique and personal journey for each individualIt is a minor theme that the characters quickly overcomeC


Identify the Literary Devices Used in the Following Paragraph from “A Death in the Family”:

“The night whispered through the trees, a soft murmur of the day’s end. Stars blinked into existence, one by one, as if the sky were slowly lighting candles to guide the lost. In the distance, a dog barked, its sound carrying a lonely note over the quiet town. Mary sat by the window, the glass cool against her cheek, watching as the world outside prepared to sleep. The stillness was a balm to her troubled thoughts, yet within her, a storm raged, as relentless as the turning of the earth.”


  1. Personification: “The night whispered through the trees” and “the sky were slowly lighting candles to guide the lost” – These phrases give human qualities to the night and sky, enhancing the mood and atmosphere.
  2. Imagery: The entire paragraph is rich with imagery, from the whispering night and blinking stars to the cool glass against Mary’s cheek. This vivid description helps readers visualize the scene and empathize with Mary’s emotional state.
  3. Simile: “as if the sky were slowly lighting candles to guide the lost” – This simile compares the appearance of stars in the night sky to candles being lit, evoking a sense of guidance and hope amidst darkness.
  4. Metaphor: “within her, a storm raged, as relentless as the turning of the earth” – This metaphor compares Mary’s internal turmoil to a storm, suggesting the intensity and constancy of her emotions.