Student Question

What are three flashbacks in Andre Dubus's Killings, and how do they affect the story's characterization, theme, and pacing?

Quick answer:

As the story opens, Matt Fowler is attending his youngest son Frank’s funeral. Before the reader actually learns that Frank has been killed, Dubus jumps back in time to provide background information about how Matt and his wife Ruth are grieving. The first flashback describes a fight between Richard Strout and Frank; this is followed by a second flashback that illustrates an earlier meeting between Strout and Frank’s girlfriend Mary Ann. These flashbacks establish both the context for the present situation and illustrate the emotional effect of their loss on Matt and Ruth. Frank’s death causes Matt and Ruth to become obsessed with revenge against Strout; they desire nothing less than Strout’s death.

Expert Answers

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Andre Dubus begins his short story Killings at the cemetery where his main protagonist, Matt Fowler, Matt’s wife, Ruth, and his oldest son Steve, have just buried Frank, the youngest of the Fowler’s three children—the baby of the family. As the story proceeds, Matt discusses an as-yet-to-be-introduced character who one can quickly surmise is responsible for Frank’s death. Matt visits with an obviously close friend, Willis, and the two engage in a conversation that clearly revolves around this unidentified figure, whose presence among the town’s citizenry obviously greatly upsets Matt and Ruth. The interaction between Matt and Willis begins with the former commenting, “He walks around the Goddamn streets.” In this small New England town, sightings of the man Matt and Ruth hold responsible for their youngest child’s death are frequent and inevitable. Additionally, Matt and Willis lament the deterioration of the town, with crime apparently rising: “. . .we got junkies here now too.” In short, Dubus has quickly depicted the decline of a town and of one particular family suffering the loss of their son and the continued freedom of the man they hold responsible. As the opening passages come to an end, it is revealed that Matt is contemplating taking the law into his own hands to avenge Frank’s death. It is now that Dubus employs his first flashback.

The second part of Killings describes the life of Richard Strout, a once-promising athlete who was failing in school and whose prospects were, once the possibility of professional sports was eliminated, limited at best. This biographical detail leads directly to the flashback. Strout is depicted as a thug, a ne'er-do-well with tendencies towards violence: 
“One night he beat Frank. Frank was living at home and waiting for September, for graduate school in economics, and working as a lifeguard at Salisbury Beach, where he met Mary Ann Strout, in her first month of separation.”
As Frank explains his wounds later that evening to his parent, it is clear that Dubus is using this flashback to provide the necessary background for the reader to understand the opening scene at the cemetery. The flashback sets the tone for the history of tension between Frank and Richard Strout. Absent this background information, the anguish tearing at the Fowlers and Matt and Ruth’s desire for revenge would be missing. The tone of the story would be confused, with the reader left to surmise the context in which everything that preceded this flashback took place. We now know that Frank is involved with the young, divorced mother whose ex-husband is the violent, oft-drunk Richard Strout, and that Richard has physically beaten Frank in at least one instance prior to the latter’s eventual death. And Mary Ann is four years older than Frank, contributing to Matt's and particularly Ruth’s disdain for the relationship. Finally, both Richard and Mary Ann’s history of extramarital liaisons further complicates the picture.
Dubus continues to use flashbacks to fill in the gaps, to illuminate the extent to which Matt and Ruth contended with what they believed could lead to negative consequences. Matt is the more forgiving, a man understanding his grown son’s biological and emotional demands. Ruth, the protective mother, is far more wary of Frank and Mary Ann’s relationship. Another flashback describes Matt and Frank going to a baseball game at Boston’s Fenway Park, the long drive an opportunity for Matt to talk to his son about the difficulties of such a young person becoming engaged in such a serious relationship, his plans for the future potentially impeded by such an entanglement. All of this builds the foundation for the act of revenge to follow. Dubus is meticulously establishing the inherent goodness of the Fowlers and the innate evil lurking in the heart of the story’s antagonist, Richard Strout. These flashback sequences are immediately followed by the scene of Richard shooting Frank, another flashback sequence, and one that illuminates the depravity of Richard’s nature. The passage begins, “Richard Strout shot Frank in front of the boys. They were sitting on the living room floor watching television. . .Strout came in the front door and shot Frank twice in the chest and once in the face with a 9 mm automatic.”
By providing these flashbacks, Dubus sets a very ominous tone and compels the reader to be silent and acquiescent witnesses to the act of vengeance that follows. Certainly, the reader could sympathize with Matt and Ruth’s situation without the flashback scenes, but the story would be empty without them. We are presented with human beings whose lives are tragically torn apart, and without the details provided in the flashback sequences, the reader would be bereft of the emotional baggage that places him or her squarely in the Fowlers' camp. Questions of revenge and of vigilantism provide the grist for many a contentious debate. By depicting Frank in almost angelic terms while portraying his killer as violent and seemingly beyond redemption, Dubus allows for the complicity of the reader in the vigilantism that provides the story’s climactic sequence.

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