Themes and Meanings
Many of Andre Dubus’s short stories concern working-class families, and several have characters who work in bars. In “Killings,” the catalyst for the plot is a bartender, but the main characters are the middle-class family that is forever shattered by the appearance of the bartender’s estranged wife in their lives. Dubus, who spent the last thirteen years of his life in a wheelchair after a freak accident, often uses his fiction to remind readers just how suddenly and unalterably their lives can be changed.
In this story, Dubus invites his readers to ponder the disparity between people’s ethical responsibility to society and the primal urge to protect and avenge their loved ones. Matt, a gentle and devoted family man, tenderly watches his youngest son’s relationship with Mary Ann deepen. When her estranged husband kills Frank, Matt’s grief is intensified by his wife’s pain whenever she sees Richard in town. Matt’s agony that Richard walks free and seemingly unconcerned is compounded when he and Willis talk about the short sentences they have heard of other killers getting. Matt says he has to take care of the situation because it is too hard on Ruth, but the reader may wonder if that is just his excuse. It is also unclear how much Willis is only an accomplice and how much he fuels Matt’s anger.
At the end of the story, Matt tells Ruth what happened, but it is clear that he hardly comprehends his responsibility for it. He, Ruth, and presumably Willis, will be marked forever by the secret of the cold-blooded murder. Nevertheless, Dubus does not judge Matt and label him either a hero or a sinner—he simply presents the ethical problem to the reader.