Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Many of Andre Dubus’s short stories concern working-class families, and several have characters who work in bars. In “Killings,” the catalyst for the plot is a bartender, but the main characters are the middle-class family that is forever shattered by the appearance of the bartender’s estranged wife in their lives. Dubus, who spent the last thirteen years of his life in a wheelchair after a freak accident, often uses his fiction to remind readers just how suddenly and unalterably their lives can be changed.

In this story, Dubus invites his readers to ponder the disparity between people’s ethical responsibility to society and the primal urge to protect and avenge their loved ones. Matt, a gentle and devoted family man, tenderly watches his youngest son’s relationship with Mary Ann deepen. When her estranged husband kills Frank, Matt’s grief is intensified by his wife’s pain whenever she sees Richard in town. Matt’s agony that Richard walks free and seemingly unconcerned is compounded when he and Willis talk about the short sentences they have heard of other killers getting. Matt says he has to take care of the situation because it is too hard on Ruth, but the reader may wonder if that is just his excuse. It is also unclear how much Willis is only an accomplice and how much he fuels Matt’s anger.

At the end of the story, Matt tells Ruth what happened, but it is clear that he hardly comprehends his responsibility for it. He, Ruth, and presumably Willis, will be marked forever by the secret of the cold-blooded murder. Nevertheless, Dubus does not judge Matt and label him either a hero or a sinner—he simply presents the ethical problem to the reader.


Dubus develops an entire community in "Killings" that is numbed by violence. At the beginning of the story, Steve Fowler says aloud what Matt and Ruth are thinking: that someone should kill Richard Strout. After the funeral, Steve returns to his home with his wife to Baltimore. Matt slowly calculates what may be necessary to commit such an act. Ruth and Matt have an understanding about what needs to be done.

This undercurrent of violence permeates the entire story. By any other account, the Fowlers are a good family. Frank’s murder upsets the foundation of who they are. Matt absorbs Ruth’s anxiety and frustration. He feels her suffering and he combines it with his own to justify cold-blooded murder. When Willis and Matt discuss another local murder, neither one is self-aware. They discuss their own opinions about local injustices and then talk about Matt’s gun. In any other context, this conversation would be violent and unruly. However, in the wake of Frank’s murder, the characters are free to let their violent imaginations run away with them.

Richard Strout also embodies violence with his overwhelming strength as an athlete, and what he has done with it since leaving college. His football game days are over, but he still manages to relieve stress by pounding other people. His past of fist- fights and arguments with his ex-wife suggest he is a violent individual that loses control.

Matt works with a singular form of deception when he plans to kill Richard. While he and his wife, Ruth, share their grief and frustration they do not discuss details for killing Richard. Matt absorbs this motivation from his wife. He plans the act secretly with Willis. When he leaves to go out with Willis for a nightcap, Matt believes that Ruth knows what the two men are about to do. When Matt says good night to her, he felt she could “see in his eyes the gun.” Yet, she does not stop him. In a sense, they are deceiving each other.

Willis also deceives his wife, Martha. Their arrangement, night after night, is the result of many years of practice. Willis runs his restaurant and often gets home in the middle of the night. To avoid being woken up, Martha takes sleeping pills. On the night of their kidnapping and murder of Richard, Willis sets up a scene for Martha. He has left ice, Scotch, and soda in the game room so that he can tell Martha in the morning that he left the restaurant and brought Matt home for a drink. Willis and Martha clearly have an understanding. She does not need to know what he is doing.

The deception continues as Matt and Willis kidnap Richard. They tell him they are sending him away (to jump his bail) for a job in California. They instruct him to pack a suitcase. The entire plan is to deceive others into thinking that Richard has left town on a trip.

Dubus weaves natural elements throughout the narrative. The Charles and Merrimack Rivers are places that connect events...

(The entire section is 1235 words.)