The short story Killings is written by Andre Dubus and was first published in 1979. The short story has also been adapted into a motion picture called In the Bedroom by director Todd Field in 2001. The movie had actors Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei and Tom Wilkinson in the lead roles and was even nominated for several Academy Awards. The story is set in the town of Massachusetts and explores the psychology and emotions of bereaved parents who have just lost a twenty-one year old son- murdered for having a relationship with a woman who had a jealous ex-husband and two children. Dubus treats the character of the murderer, Richard Strout, humanely and provides an empathetic perspective so that the reader can actually feel the frustration of the young man whose wife was seeing a man much younger than her and his jealousy getting the better of him.
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Dubus has concentrated on the revenge killing of Richard by Frank’s father, Matt Fowler. Richard had committed a murder of passion as he felt provoked by Frank’s intimacy with his estranged wife and two sons. Dubus has pictured Richard Strout as a crude man without a very high sense of morality. This is further demonstrated by the fact that Richard starts to date other women as soon as he is out of prison on bail. Matt and Ruth, Frank’s parents, have encountered Richard roaming around scot-free without any remorse as is apparent in Matt’s comment to his friend Willis Trottier, “He walks the Goddamn streets” (Dubus 4). This angers Matt and saddens Ruth as they feel that the murdered of their son had gotten away without being punished for his brutal crime.
The main message in the story is that even though Matt Fowler avenges his son’s death, finds no peace and is haunted by a sense of guilt and utter loneliness. Retribution and revenge for the murder of a loved one, though, a very natural human instinct, is not always the answer to the loss of the person. Matt Fowler felt justified in kidnapping and killing Richard Strout, however, having accomplished his final act of revenge, does not find peace. The question Dubus has raised in this story is whether revenge is a better solution to forgiveness.
At the end of the story we are left to wonder whether Matt Fowler would have been better off forgiving Richard Strout instead of killing him. By kidnapping and killing Richard, Matt Fowler only reinforced violence which affected not just him but his entire family. Dubus provides details of the gruesome murders in the story to bring out the horror of the crimes they committed. Richard had shot Frank three times in front of his children which Dubus uses to highlight the mindless and abhorrent behavior of Richard. This act of passion and revenge turns the life of an otherwise ordinary happy person into a nightmare and pushes him to commit a crime that he would not have dreamt of if he had not been so provoked. The Fowlers reckon that Strout would only serve five years at the most in jail on charges of man slaughter which is not nearly enough for Ruth and Matt.
In the story, Dubus has written about two murders, yet, the reader is tempted to label only Richard as the real murderer and not Matt because the reader feels an innate empathy for the bereaved father. We tend to justify Matt’s criminal act even though both the killings were similar in nature and both the murderers were allowed to go free after their heinous crimes. This is probably because we look for justice and Richard being let out on bail and showing himself around without any punishment being given to him makes us feel that he deserved what happened to him.
As humans, we are emotional and look for closure in any given event, however horrific and the final denouement seems to be justified. It is also important to remember that Matt Fowler was not a killer by temperament whereas Richard was hot-tempered and callous. Goading Matt into an act which was unnatural for him seems to justify the end. The killing of Richard Strout was only a means of achieving the ends of justice- or that is what Matt imagined.
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Even though, Matt has a confidante in Willis and has the sympathy of the entire community, in the end he is plagued with this knowledge that he is no less a murderer than Richard. He is ridden with guilt and this makes him feel isolated and morally dead. The irony is that as readers we feel empathy for the Fowlers and even though we cannot condone what Matt did we feel there should have been a way where family, friends and the larger community had intervened and allowed Ruth and Matt to share their grief. Not having a channel to express their agony, Matt turned violent in his mind and killed Richard everyday in the face (Dubus 10) just as Richard had killed his son.
Dubus has left his readers wondering whether for all the empathy that they must feel for Matt and Ruth’s loss, was the pre-planned, cold-blooded murder of Richard necessary to experience a feeling that justice had been done and feel purged off their growing inner violence. As things would have it, Matt does not feel tranquil and struggles to whip up the hatred he felt for his son’s murderer after going through his house and seeing the more human side of Richard. The role of Willis in the planning and execution in the kidnapping and killing of Richard has been shown to be a bit dubious. It is true that being a good friend of the Fowlers he would feel strongly for them, but to cold-bloodedly plan the murder of a young man who went to school with his own sons needs more justification. Ruth and Matt’s motivation for exterminating the cause of their sorrow may find a resonant sympathy in the hearts of the readers but Willis’ motivation to abet in the killing of Richard brings us to face the reality of how brutal we have become.
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