Laughter and Community in James Agee’s A Death in the Family

Laughter and Community in James Agee's A Death in The Family | Lindsay Aarons

Laughter and Community in James Agee's A Death in The Family | Lindsay Aarons

James Agee’s A Death in the Family begins with an absolute insistence on community and group identity; the five-page prologue, one of the few sections in the book that is told in first-person, sketches a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee that clearly defines not only the families that live in the community, but the fairly strict family roles that are played out in each household. The only one who seems not to fit as well into his little compartmentalized role is the narrator, who ends the sections with a prayer for his family and says, “and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever, but will not ever tell me who I am.”[1] This idea of shifting identity is carried throughout the novel as Agee deftly shows that it is group dynamics–as evidenced by laughter–that determines the roles we play.

Part One of the novel begins with Rufus and his father going to the movie theatre to see a Charlie Chaplin film. In this case, the theatre serves as a symbol for community: all audience members face the flickering screen in the dark and laugh at the antics of the crazy tramp. In the first three pages alone, the words “everybody laughed,” or something roughly equaling them, is repeated ten times, emphasizing the fact that each person in the audience identifies with their role and laughs on cue, falling into place in their little one-night community. Almost immediately, however, the reader discovers that that Rufus never really identifies as being part of the “everybody”; even when he is laughing with them, he seems to have an awareness that, though he is with them, he, unlike his father, is not of them.

Throughout the novel, Rufus seems to have a special sensitivity to laughter and its purpose in conversation; early on, it is pointed out that laughter does not necessarily signify that something is funny or humorous when his father laughs at a joke that has become tired over time: “His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.”[2] The laughter is serving to connect the little family, which Jay and Rufus’ mother, Mary, already know and the little boy is just discovering. It is laughter that serves as a kind of glue for groups of people, even people who do not know each other, as Rufus and Jay do not know the men in the bar they meet after the movie: “Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed.” [3] It is this laughter that helps people to bond, for it is a sharing between friends that is both automatic and nonverbal.

Much as laughter can help forge relationships, however, it can easily exclude those who do not know what the laughter is about; even the laughter of just one person can create a boundary that excludes others,as Jay feels excluded when his mother is laughing but will not explain why:

“He did not know how to ask her what she was amused by and as he watched her,
wondering what it was, and she watched his puzzlement, she sometimes looked more
amused than ever, and once when she looked particularly amused, and he looked
particularly bewildered, her smile became shaky and turned into laughter and,
quickly taking his face between her hands, she exclaimed, ‘I’m not laughing at you, darling.’ and for the first time he felt perhaps she was.” [4]

Often times, this exclusion can be inadvertent, either because it was unintended, as Mary’s laughter seems to be in the quotation above, or through simple miscommunication, as when Mary’s mother through her deafness does not understand a joke: “[…] they all roared, laughing their heads off, while Catherine sat there watching them, disapproving such levity at such a time, and unhappily suspecting for some reason they were laughing at her; but in courtesy and reproof, and an expectation of hearing the joke, smiling and lifting her trumpet.” [5] Even this laughter, however, takes on a tinge of cruelty when “they paid no attention to her; they scarcely seemed to know she was there.” [6] Though they are laughing so desperately as something she has said, they cannot be bothered to explain to her the joke, because it would disrupt their laughter and ruin the moment, the sense of belonging that they get at her expense.

Rufus is often the butt of this cruel kind of laughter, a deliberate exclusion by the older boys who go to school. Though he wants so badly to belong to a group, to identify with them, they single him out to pick on him, taking amused pleasure from his awkward attempts to fit in: “Why was it that when some of them were asking him, and others were backing them up or just looking on, there was some kind of a strange, tight force in the air all around them that made them all seem very much together and made him feel very much alone and very eager to be liked by them, together with them?” [7] Even Rufus, who is just a little boy, can recognize this kind of group affiliation and want to be part of it: “The more alone he felt, the more he wanted to feel that he was not alone, but one of them.” [8] Though he has no reason to like them and every reason to dislike them, still he wants to be liked by them.

This shame and longing to belong on the part of the ostracized individual is only strengthened by those accepted into the fold of the laughing group, as evidenced by the family’s laughter at Rufus’ younger sister Catherine: “[…] and they laughed and Catherine looked at them and began to realize they were laughing at her, and […] that made them laugh some more, and even Rufus joined in, and they only stopped when Catherine began to stick out her lower lip and her mother said, ‘Mercy, child, you’ve got to learn to take a joke.'” [9] In this way, the group relinquishes all responsibility for the wounded feelings on the part of the butt of the joke, blaming hyper-sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. Unfortunately for Rufus, the boy accepts the shame imposed by the group, attaching it to himself and his name when the bullies pick on him.

And so it is that Rufus is willing to do nearly anything to belong to this group; at the movie theatre, he laughs at Charlie Chaplin’s escapades with eggs, though he secretly feels sorry for the tramp: “[…] and Rufus’ father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of the laughter was too much for him, and he laughed too.” [10] Though he personally knows how painful it is to be the target of a group’s laughter, he joins in an effort to belong. He even goes so far as to brag about the death of his father to gain admiration and respect: “He could now see vividly how they would all look up when he came into the schoolroom and how the teacher would say something nice about his father and about him, and he knew that on this day everybody would treat him well, and even look up to him, for something had happened to him which had not happened to any other boy in school, any other boy in town.” [11] He feels that his father’s death, though tragic, gives him distinction which might lead to the group accepting him into their fold; unfortunately, however, “He felt even more profoundly empty and idle than before.” [12] He knows that an acceptance bought with his father’s deathwould be worthless, were it ever to work in the first place.

Ironically enough, it is only those who are outside the group who can recognize where the shame truly should lie; when Jay’s friend, “Uncle” Ted, tricks Rufus into thinking some cheese will jump off the table when whistled at, it is Rufus’ mother who comes to his defense: “‘He’s got plenty of common sense,’ his mother flashed. ‘He’s a very bright child indeed, if you must know. But he’s been brought up to trust older people when they tell him something. Not be suspicious of everybody. And so he trusted you. Because he likes you, Ted. Doesn’t that make you ashamed?” [13] Because she is neither in the laughing group nor the ridiculed individual, she recognizes that it is Ted who should feel bad, not her son; Jay, because he wishes to be on good terms with Ted, does not criticize Ted’s actions, however much it may humiliate his son. He is part of the laughing group, and so does not realize that the guilt is as much his as it is Ted’s.

And so, though the roles of the individuals change, depending on who is the easiest target, one thing remains constant: “‘Doesn’t anybody like to be laughed at.'” [14] And while Rufus struggles with his desire and seeming inability to belong to a community, the reader recognizes that he does belong to a group, though it is a group of which he is completely unaware. There is an entire community reading the book through the eyes of Rufus, outraged by the boy’s mortification, who thinks the older boys going to school are brats and Uncle Ted is an ass and they all deserve a good kick in the pants; so, though Rufus will never entirely belong with any of the groups in the book, we the reader identify with him and are, in a way, a community to which he cannot belong but which is shaped by his experiences and, ultimately, by him.

Work Cited:

[1] Agee, James. A Death in the Family. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc: New York, New York. 1998. Page 7.

[2] Page 11.

[3] Page 15-6.

[4] Page 93.

[5] Page 153.

[6] Page 153.

[7] Page 198.

[8] Page 199.

[9] Page 220.

[10] Page 13.

[11] Page 240-1.

[12] Page 240.

[13] Page 222.

[14] Page 220.