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What are the plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme in "Killings"?

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"Killings" by Andre Dubus is a short story that was first published in The Sewanee Review in 1979 and was made into a successful film, In the Bedroom, in 2001. Andre Jules Dubus (1936 – 1999), the author, was a writer born in Louisiana who, after a stint in the Marines, earned an MFA from the University of Iowa. He then embarked on a career writing short stories and essays. He also taught at Bradford College in Massachusetts.

The story is narrated in the third person and follows the lives of the Fowler family. It is set in a working-class town in Massachusetts in the 1970s, the period in which it was written.

Taken in chronological order, the main events of the story are:

  • Richard Strout marries Mary Ann Strout. They have two children.
  • Mary Ann separates from Richard and begins dating a younger man, Frank Fowler.
  • Richard kills Frank but is let out on bail awaiting trial.
  • Matt Fowler is upset that his wife Ruth has to encounter Richard in town while Richard is out on bail.
  • Matt and his friend Willis kidnap and murder Richard, disposing of Richard's body in the woods.

Its main themes are the effects of violence on families, how violence breeds more violence, and the justifiability of violence.

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The main character is Matt Fowler, who is grieving the murder of his son, Frank. Frank was killed by Richard Strout because Frank was dating Strout's estranged wife. Strout shot Frank in front of the wife and children. 

Matt's wife, Ruth, is struggling with the death of her son. She is also struggling at the perceived lack of justice, as Strout's family is wealthy and he seems to be "getting off" for the murder. To help his wife cope, Matt conspires with his friend, Willis, to kill Strout. They abduct Strout, making it look like he jumped bail, and kill and bury him in the middle of the woods, miles from town. The story ends with Matt telling Ruth that is it finished, and that they will let their other children think that he ran away.

The story is told in episodes, not in a chronological sequence. This type of structuring for the plot allows the audience to get emotionally invested in the story, and allows for foreshadowing and irony. The point of view is 3rd person limited, because we see several different character's experiences, but don't know all their thoughts and feelings. Matt's thoughts and feelings are the focus of the story, and we understand him to be the protagonist. The story is set in New York in August, though we aren't given a particular year. 

Different themes emerge from this story, but a key theme seems to be violence and responsibility. Specifically, Dubus seems to want his audience to consider different reasons behind violence, and ethically whether they are justifiable. In Killings, Matt seems to feel his violence against Strout to more justifiable than Strout's violence against Frank. Furthermore, the connotation of the title itself invites ambiguity -- why "Killings" rather than "Murders," a more precise description of the type of violence seen? This complex issues invite the audience to ponder and discuss the role of violence in our culture.

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