Why is "Killings" a more appropriate title than "Killers" for Andre Dubus's short story?

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"Killings" is a more appropriate title for Dubus's story because the focus is on all of the killings, both literal (Frank and Richard) and metaphorical (Ruth, who is suffering from the strain of Frank’s death). It also does not necessarily identify Matt as a “killer” even though he has killed.

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If we consider the words themselves, there is a fundamental difference. “Killings” is an action and a much less loaded term. “Killers,” on the other hand, is a descriptive term and a noun identifying one who has killed. If someone is a killer, they have murdered someone or something. There is an immediate negative connotation, a moral judgment against someone who is a killer. “Killings” is a more effective title for Andre Dubus’s story because Matt Fowler is not a “killer” even though he has killed. In the end, he even seems to feel remorse for the act.

There is also the fact that there are various killings in the story, both literal and metaphorical. The focus is on the act of killing, yes, but also on the intent. Morality is gray in Dubus’s story. Matt’s son Frank is killed. Matt and Willis carry out the killing of Richard in revenge. Ruth is complicit in the fact that she knew this would happen. Matt also says at one point that the strain, the loss, the sight of her son’s killer walking around is “killing” Ruth. There are killings in many forms throughout the short story, but the focus is always on the action along with intent and not necessarily on the killing alone. For Dubus, one can kill without being a “killer.” Is Matt a “killer” for an act of emotional revenge? He is a grieving father whose son has been murdered. He finds that he cannot endure his son’s killer “walking the goddamn streets” during that period before the trial (as well as the way it is affecting his family). So he takes it into his own hands. He has killed, but this does not define him.

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Matt and Ruth Fowler are eminently decent people, Matt being a respected local physician and Ruth a music teacher.  They could be considered pillars of their community, with three grown children, the youngest of whom, Frank, they have recently buried following his murder.  Andre Dubus titled his short story “Killings” because he intends to emphasize that the Fowlers are not killers, even after they do in fact carry out the murder of the man who killed their son.  Frank’s older brother, Steve, states at the end of Frank’s funeral, in reference to Richard Strout, the murderer who walks free because he’s out on bail, that “I should kill him.”  It is the first in a long series of references to killing, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.  As Matt talks to his friend Willis, he mentions how their son’s murder and the repeated sight of Strout walking free is affecting Ruth’s emotional state: “She can’t even go out for cigarettes and aspirin.  It’s killing her.”  And, of course, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Matt and Willis are planning to kill Strout.  Finally, and most poignantly, Matt and Ruth’s relationship is dying because of the strain of having lost a child to a violent murderer. 

Dubus titled his story “Killings” instead of “Killers” because he understands the humanity in each of the characters, even Richard Strout, an entirely unsympathetic character.  It is the Fowlers, however, who kill without being “killers.”  The focus for the author is on the act, not on the individual.  Matt and Willis planned and carried out the killing of Richard Strout.  Ruth was not involved, but it is clear that she knew what was happening.  When Matt returns home after the deed is complete, she asks of him, “Did you do it?”  A killing has occurred, but these people are not killers.  As they turn in for the night, they hold each other, but cannot make love:  “ . . . holding Ruth, his cheek touching her breast, he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart.”

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