Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Andre Dubus often peoples his stories with working-class characters and crafts plots that show how a random act can transform an ordinary life forever. Mitchell is a plainspoken man who had given up on finding love and a family until he married Susan, a divorced woman with two children. They do not have a great deal of money, but they have become a happy, functioning family. After witnessing a rape in the bar where he works and feeling there was nothing he could do to stop it, Mitchell’s joy in living is shattered. He feels he had an ethical responsibility to the victim but at the same time did not want to put himself in danger of being beaten up by the five men, which would have brought grief to his family.

The dilemma Dubus presents haunts the reader, who is led to ponder the moral questions, What would I do if I saw a crime being committed, but I were outnumbered and unarmed? How could I live with myself if I stood by and watched? The question is as relevant in a small-town bar in the United States as it was in the days of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Dubus gets into Mitchell’s soul, showing in a few paragraphs how his suffering is increased, rather than alleviated, by the compassion that people show him. Even the understanding of his wife and stepchildren does not comfort him. In fact, Susan’s total acceptance of his actions leaves him unable to share with her his deeper feelings of guilt and inadequacy. The reader feels that Mitchell believes that he can only be redeemed if he is punished for his “sin,” but the loss of peace in his heart is the biggest punishment he could receive.

Dubus also confronts the culture of violence common in the United States. Mitchell is immediately uncomfortable with the five rowdy strangers who come into the bar, primarily because he thinks they have been using drugs. When he realizes the men are about to rape the young woman and goes to call the police, it takes just a shove from one of the men to stop him. Fear of what such men would do to him is enough to immobilize him.