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A Death in the Family

Scheduled broadcast date: Monday, March 25, 2002
(Confirm with your local station)

An adaptation of James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic about a man's death and its impact on his family. Set in 1915, the film recreates Agee's small, painstakingly drawn world of domestic happiness and shows how quickly it can be destroyed. Directed by Gil Cates, the cast includes Annabeth Gish, John Slattery, and James Cromwell.

Discussion Questions

A Death in the Family
by James Agee (1938)

  1. Describe Mary and Jay Follett and their family before Jay's death. Is this an idealized portrait of a family, or a believable, realistic one?

  2. Early in the novel, Mary prays to be able to close "the gulf" between herself and her husband, Jay. Why is religious faith a source of tension in their otherwise strong and close marriage? When does the question of faith recur in the course of the novel? What do you think Agee's view of Christianity was? Is Agee critical of Mary and Aunt Hannah's Catholicism? Of Joel and Andrew's skepticism? What do we learn about the problem of faith when it is seen through the eyes of Rufus?

  3. There are other contrasts that shape the relationships between characters in the novel: differences between black and white, rich and poor, country life and city life, privilege and hard work. How does Agee show the ways in which these differences can create a "gulf" between people? What does he show us about how a family or a society can bridge the "gulf" and be drawn together?

  4. Agee's writing is characterized by attention to small details: gestures, subtle shifts of feeling, tactile descriptions of a mug of hot milk or a kiss on the lips. What scene from the novel will stay with you long after you have put this book back on the shelf? Without looking back at the text, what details can you recall? Was the scene included in the film? If it was, how well was it captured on screen?

  5. The point of view in the narrative shifts back and forth between characters, showing the reader, in each scene, only what the particular character witnesses and understands. Do you think this strategy was a good one for the story? What special contribution does Rufus's point of view make?

  6. The chronology of the storytelling shifts, too: from the present to the past and back again (see the note in the Vintage edition on the placement of the italicized sections). What do these scenes from the past add to the reader's understanding of the family's reaction to Jay's death?

  7. In bringing the novel to the screen, how did the filmmakers adapt Agee's storytelling strategies? Were they able to retain the novel's varied points of view? How? What choice did they make about the scenes presented in italics in the novel? Do you agree with their choice? Were there other changes or omissions you noticed? Speculate about the reasoning behind them.

  8. Knoxville: Summer, 1915, is a short memoir that Agee's editors placed at the front of the novel to serve as a prologue. Are there passages in the body of the novel that remind you of this short section? Could Rufus have narrated this first-person reflection? How did the filmmakers weave the prologue piece into the film?

  9. A Death in the Family has been called an autobiographical novel because the events and the central cast of characters are drawn from Agee's own life. James Agee grew up in Knoxville, where his young father Jay died in an auto accident when Agee (who was called Rufus as a child) was six years old. As a reader, does it make a difference to you to know that a work of fiction is based on real events? Why? Can an adult writer possibly recall and capture what he thought, felt and witnessed as a child? Is the accuracy of James Agee's memory important to the success of the novel as a work of art?

  10. Is this a story about one family or all families?

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