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How does love drive the plots of "A Rose for Emily" and "Killings"? Why is "Killings" plural, and how are flashbacks used in it?

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Love is a driving force in both William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” and Andre Dubus’s “Killings.” Emily Grierson is a disturbed woman whose concepts of love and relationships are fatally tarnished by her upbringing, her father having discouraged Emily from romantic connections. She lives a sheltered existence even after her father’s death and lives a solitary life with an aging African American housekeeper. The nature of her existence ultimately leads to the tragic developments that are revealed in the story’s conclusion. Emily has killed out of love, but it is not the purity of love that characterizes Matt and Ruth Fowler's feelings for their murdered son Frank. Nor is it the purity of love that leads Richard Strout to murder Frank. Both Emily Grierson and Richard Strout kill out of obsession. Both have serious psychological issues that are unresolved, albeit Emily can be considered a product of her environment and upbringing, while Richard displays the characteristics of a psychopath who is innately evil. Emily is a pathetic figure; Richard is a criminal. Of the killings that occur in these stories, it is Matt and Ruth’s murder of Richard that best exemplifies love. They (Ruth was not directly involved in the murder but is certainly morally and possibly legally complicit) plan and murder Richard Strout out of revenge, so painful is the loss of their son and so maddening the failure of the criminal justice system.

Dubus undoubtedly used the plural form of “killing” simply because multiple murders occur in his story. Frank’s murder is related in flashback sequences that explain the melancholy opening to “Killings” in the cemetery following Frank’s burial. Frank’s older brother, Steve, tells Matt, “I should kill him.” The stage is set for a murder motivated out of a desperate need for justice. Matt executes that mission. In the flashbacks, we learn of the nature of Frank’s death at the hands of the brutal, remorseless, and jealous former husband of his girlfriend. There are two killings is this story. Although, motivations differ in terms of the psychological conditions at play. There is, however, another, more metaphorical application of the word “killing.” That is the emotional deadening of Matt and Ruth following Frank’s death. They are still physically alive, but something inside both died when their youngest son was shot and killed.

Flashbacks, as noted in the above paragraph, are used to establish setting and to relate the motivations behind that opening scene at the cemetery. Flashbacks are routinely used by writers of both literature and film as a narrative tool to fill in vital gaps in stories. Why is this protagonist acting the way he or she is? What happened that has motivated this character to act in this manner? Flashbacks are an important device that help convey better than perhaps would occur in a more linear structure the motivations of the protagonist(s). They can lend the narrative a greater emotional effect. That is certainly the case in “Killings.”

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In both "A Rose for Emily" and "Killings," the plot is driven by murder and by love. Emily long ago killed her lover, Homer Barron, to keep him forever with her (as she keeps his skeleton sealed in a room in her house). In "Killings," Matt is so overcome by grief when Richard Strout kills Matt's youngest son, Frank, that Matt decides to kill Richard in an act of vengeance. Both killings are motivated by love, even as they are also acts of hate and fear.

The title of the story "Killings" is plural because on a literal level, there are two killings in the story--both the murder of Frank and the later murder of Richard Strout. In addition, it is clear that Frank's murder has figuratively caused the deaths of his parents, Matt and Ruth. Dubus writes that since Frank's murder, Matt "had not so much moved through his life as wandered through it, his sprits like a dazed body bumping into furniture and corners." Since his son's death, Matt has not lived a full life but has been half-alive, and it is clear that his soul is dead. Similarly, after Homer Barron disappears (and presumably has been killed), Miss Emily seems dead. Faulkner writes, "the front door remained closed. Now and then we would see her at a window for a moment...but for almost six months she did not appear on the streets." Clearly, the murder of his son has caused Matt to die a figurative death, as has Emily's murder of her lover.

There are several flashbacks in both stories. For example, in "Killings," Dubus writes about how fearful Matt was as a father. Dubus writes about Matt's children climbing a tree in the back yard, "Smiling, he watched them, imagining the fall: and he was poised to catch the small body before it hit the earth." This flashback helps explain Matt's motivations for killing his son's murderer and his protective stance as a father. 

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