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A Death in the Family
Masterpiece Theatre A Death in the Family
Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 7 links]

After Viewing: Questions and Activities

Ideal or Real?
What does it mean to say a character in a film or novel is "idealized"? Is the family in A Death in the Family idealized or realistic? Students will first work independently. Create two columns on a sheet of paper. Label one "real" and the other "ideal." Run through the cast of characters and place each character into one column or the other. Do the same with each of the relationships in the novel: marriages, siblings, parents, and children. Which scenes seem idealized? Which are realistic? List them in the appropriate column. Finally, place elements of the novel's setting into one column or the other: the homes, the town, the landscape.

Now compare and discuss the results. As the discussion progresses, encourage students to move entries from one column to another if they are persuaded by another student's argument. Together try to answer the general question: is this family real or ideal? Do we inevitably idealize the past and people who have died? Why? Do you think James Agee did this with his own family and family history?

Stages of Grief
Note to the instructor: As this may prove a sensitive topic for some students, you may wish to advise parents or consult with your school's guidance staff before presenting this material to your students.

How does Mary Follett react to her husband's sudden death? Would you have reacted in the same way? Is there anything universal about how humans respond to their own approaching death or the death of someone they love? In her landmark book On Death and Dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross looked at that last question and argued that human grieving is a process that moves through five identifiable stages:
  • Denial: refusing to admit the reality of the loss

  • Anger: asking "why me?", feeling a sense of unfairness, anger at being cheated

  • Bargaining: offering to give up something to change what has happened, making a bargain with God

  • Depression: admitting the reality of the loss, feeling deep sadness and pain

  • Acceptance: acknowledging that death is a permanent part of normal life and resuming a normal life

Can A Death in the Family be used as a case study to support Kubler-Ross's theory? Analyze Mary Follett's grief: does she pass through each stage? If so, recall a scene from the film or novel that illustrates her progress through the stage. Do other characters follow a similar pattern? Does Rufus? By the end of the film, has the family reached a stage of acceptance? Explain your answer. How did you feel at the end of the film?

In the film, Aunt Hannah tells Mary that death "is not a thing that can be prepared for, it just has to be lived through." If you choose, tell about a time you lived through a period of grief as a result of a death or another significant loss. You may wish to remember what you thought and felt on September 11, 2001 and in the days and months that followed. What do you recall about your reactions to loss? Do you recognize your own experience of grief in Kubler-Ross's five stages? Compare your experience to the grieving process of one of the characters in A Death in the Family. Do you believe there are universal stages of grief?

Religion in Death in the Family
How do the various adult characters' feelings about faith and religion differ in A Death in the Family? How do their differing religious beliefs cause tension? Which scenes reveal this the most? Draw a line to represent the spectrum of religious beliefs of the characters in A Death in the Family. Then indicate what point on the spectrum you would place each character from the film. Compare your chart to your classmates' charts. Do others agree with you?

Based on the dialogue, action, and imagery in the film, speculate about James Agee's moral and religious beliefs. Which adult character in A Death in the Family do you think Agee identified with most closely? For each question that follows, identify a scene from the film that supports your answer.

  • What does James Agee think is most important in human relationships?

  • Does James Agee believe in God? In organized religion?

  • What kind of a person do you think Agee wished to be?

  • Is Agee a judgmental person or a forgiving person? What makes you think so?

Music and Memory
Playing or describing music is a powerful way to recreate a mood or a setting. In A Death in the Family, both the author and the filmmaker chose to let music play an important role. How are music and singing important in the life of the Follett family? Recall scenes in which characters sing or play music together. What does the music symbolize? How has the director used singing to tie together different moments in the film? Jot down a list of songs or music groups you recall from your childhood. See if your classmates remember any of the same music. Do you remember where you were when you listened to the music? Are there specific memories, moments, or people that the music helps you recall? Compare the memories you have of this music to your classmates' and then to an older sibling's or parent's or grandparent's memories. Why do you think music from one's past can evoke so many personal memories?

Coming of Age
We usually associate "coming of age" with adolescence, but Rufus's understanding of himself, his family, and his world undergo a deep change at a younger age, as he lives through the death of his father. Although Rufus is only seven years old at the time, the death of his father is a turning point for him, and leads him to take his first steps toward adulthood, symbolized by being allowed to wear his new cap.

Recall and write about an event in your earlier years that changed you in an important way: a move to another town or school, the birth of a sibling, mastering something that was once very difficult for you, achieving an important goal. If you prefer, you can write about a fictional character or historical figure who passed through a life-changing experience. What changed -- for you, for the character, for Rufus? What types of experiences can trigger a character's or person's coming of age? Think of some rites of passage to adulthood that exist in today's world. Which ones, if any, are similar to ones that existed when Rufus was a child?

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