What are the effects of Dubus ordering to the events in his short story "Killings?" How would the effect of the story be different if it were told in chronological order?

The short story "Killings" by Andre Dubus tells of a father's plan to kill the murderer of his son. The story begins at the funeral of Matt's son Frank. It then describes the effects on Matt, his wife Ruth, and Matt's friend Willis of Frank's killer, Richard Strout, who is out on bail—being seen frequently in town. Matt tells Willis that he has been carrying a gun around with him, waiting for an opportunity to kill Strout. The story then flashes back to explain why Strout killed Frank. Strout and his wife Mary Anne had recently separated and were soon to be divorced.

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The short story "Killings" by Andre Dubus tells of a father's plan to kill the murderer of his son. The story begins at the funeral of Matt's son Frank. It then describes the effects on Matt, his wife Ruth, and Matt's friend Willis of Frank's killer, Richard Strout,...

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The short story "Killings" by Andre Dubus tells of a father's plan to kill the murderer of his son. The story begins at the funeral of Matt's son Frank. It then describes the effects on Matt, his wife Ruth, and Matt's friend Willis of Frank's killer, Richard Strout, who is out on bail—being seen frequently in town. Matt tells Willis that he has been carrying a gun around with him, waiting for an opportunity to kill Strout.

The story then flashes back to explain why Strout killed Frank. Strout and his wife Mary Anne had recently separated and were soon to be divorced. Frank met Mary Anne, they started dating, and Frank began spending a lot of time with Mary Anne and her two children. One night, Strout beat Frank up, but that did not deter Frank from continuing to see Mary Anne. Although Matt and Ruth had concerns about the relationship, they could see that Frank was happy with Mary Anne. Then one evening, Strout walked in while Frank was watching TV with Mary Anne's children, and he shot and killed Frank.

The story returns to the present. Matt and Willis stop Strout at gunpoint, take him out to a wooded area where they have pre-dug a grave, shoot Strout, and bury him. Matt comes home to his wife, who asks him if he has done it. He affirms that he has, and his wife says that they shouldn't tell their other children about it.

Dubus orders the story the way it is because his intention is to focus on the character of Matt and his desire for revenge. Matt is the main character, not Frank, and the story is about the complex emotions that a parent might deal with after their child's murder that might cause them to want to kill the murderer in retaliation. Because the author's emphasis is on Matt, and to a lesser extent on Ruth and Willis, and the reaction of these people to the killing of Frank, it is necessary within the strict confines of a short story to start and finish with their viewpoints. That's why the explanation of Strout's motivation for killing Frank is told in flashback. Although it is an important aspect of the story, it is secondary to the main theme of revenge.

If the story were told in chronological order, it would probably have to begin with Frank's point of view and tell how he meets Mary Anne, gets beat up by Strout, eventually gets killed, and so on. Matt's desire for revenge would only appear after the story would be well underway, which would weaken its impact. Dubus wants readers to focus on the aftermath of the first killing, and that's why he begins with the funeral. In this way, readers are drawn into the revenge theme from the start.

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Dubus's short story "Killings" is structured like many good stories are: with intense ambiguity at the beginning to create interest and audience investment, followed by flashbacks explaining the present motivation and situation facing the main character.

In the case of "Killings," the opening scene at the cemetery creates wonder for the reader. Readers wonder what happened to this family and continue reading to find out the answers. Then, by providing only pieces of the past, scattered intermittently throughout the telling of the present story, Dubus seems to lead his audience along enticingly and at a steady pace.

Furthermore, as the author first dangles the question "Why is this family at the cemetery?", followed by scattered images or scenes from the father's point of view as he grieves and seeks revenge, readers can travel through Matt's brain processes. For instance, as Matt jumps from past memories to the present, the whole story is finally revealed to the reader and Matt can more fully understand how his son found himself in a deadly situation. This technique of storytelling allows the reader to experience the situation as the main character's brain processes his grief. This is also universally relatable because the human brain can, and does, jump from the present to thinking of past memories just as this main character does. If the story had been written in chronological order, the connections with the characters, as well as the psychological journey, would not have been as strong or poignant.

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Andre Dubus’ decision to tell his story of the emotional toll taken on a middle-aged married couple in a small New England town of their youngest child’s murder in a nonlinear manner lends “Killings” an emotional weight that might have been diminished had the story been presented in a strict chronological order.  By opening the story with the Fowler family preparing to depart the cemetery where they have just buried their son and brother, the reader is quickly thrust into an emotionally-devastating tale in which the kidnapping and murder of the man responsible for Frank’s death forms the heart of the story.  Dubus interjects details of the act of revenge with Matt Fowler’s memories of his dead son and images of Frank enjoying life, including with Natalie, the ex-wife of Frank’s killer, Richard Strout.  Dubus describes Matt’s memories of raising his and Ruth’s three children while constantly worrying about their safety, only to see Frank grow up and have his life cut short, and the vengeance over which he fantasized with respect to Richard Strout:

“ . . .he and his children had survived their childhood, and he only worried about them when he knew they wre driving a long distance, and then he lost Frank in a way no father expected to lose his son, and he felt that all the fears he had borne while they were growing up, and all the grief he had been afraid of, had backed up like a huge wave and struck him on the beach and swept him out to sea. . . Beneath his listless wandering, every day in his soul he shot Richard Strout in the face . . .”

This passage from “Killings” occurs in the mind of Matt as he and Willis escort the kidnapped Strout to the site where they will execute him. This approach to story-telling provides Dubus the means to repeatedly illuminate Matt’s state of mind as he deals with the death of his son, the emotional devastation the death has had on his marriage to Ruth, and his determination to avenge Frank’s murder. 

Dubus could have told his story in a more conventional, linear fashion.  Whether doing so would have provided for the same emotional impact, however, is unlikely.  The background information provided in Matt’s reflections on the past enables the reader to fully comprehend the emotional weight under which the Fowlers have been living, and to understand the essential decency they represent.  That they have it in themselves to carry out the murder of Richard Strout provides “Killings” its’ tragic power.

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