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“Killings” was written in 1979, by Andre Dubus. Dubus explores the emotions of the parents of a young man, Frank Fowler, who has been murdered. Even though the story has been written in a very disconnected manner, the reader strongly feels the emotions of all the characters in the story.
The story begins with the funeral of Frank Fowler, where the family of the young man is introduced. Even though the parents of Frank, Matt and Ruth Fowler, don’t say a word during the funeral, their pain is obvious by their body language and the way Matt views the whole situation. The only person who is vocal about his feelings is Steve, Frank’s older brother, who says “I should kill him” (Dubus 3).
The emotions that are expressed by Steve in the beginning of the novel are not any different from the emotions of the parents. In fact, any person whose young son has been killed would want the killer to meet the same fate. Even it is quite common for such thoughts to cross the minds of a person, not many people would think of actually killing the murderer.
Frank was killed by Richard Strout, the soon to be ex-husband of Mary Ann Strout. Even though Richard and Mary Ann were in the process of getting a divorce, he couldn’t stand watching Mary Ann go out with another man i.e. Frank. Vengeance motivated Richard to kill Frank. Little did he know that he was about to meet the same fate in the near future.
Actions of Matt
Even though Richard is guilty of Frank’s murder he is freely walk the streets which severs the pain of Matt and Ruth Fowler. Matt in particular feels responsible for the murder of his young son since a father is supposed to protect his children from any harm. The death of Frank makes him feel as if he has failed to protect his son from the evil and partly feels responsible for his death.
However, Matt remains disconnected from the whole situation through out the novel. He loves his wife Ruth a lot and hates to see her in pain. Richard’s bail makes it even harder for them to live, especially for Ruth since she sees him quite often on the streets. Mary Ann does not hesitate to tell Matt in their bed room that she wants Richard to die. This behaviour of Mary Ann has a significant impact on the action of Matt. Soon Matt begins to weigh his options.
His friend Willis also plays in important role in shaping the thoughts of Matt. He is the one who tells Matt how easy it is in their town to get away with a murder. This encourages Matt to seriously think about killing Richard for his evil act. Matt and Ruth want justice for the murder of their son and are willing to do anything for it.
Matt finally decides to kill Richard and carefully makes a plan with his friend Willis to carry out the act. Matt does not suddenly decides to kill Richard, but slowly makes up his mind about what he wants to do. He makes his decision after careful consideration and after discussing it with Ruth and Willis.
He wants to kill Richard for justice and, more importantly, for his wife who is devastated each time she sees Richard on the street. But there is another motive behind this decision, a motive perhaps even Matt is not fully aware of. That motive is of revenge, which also motivated Richard to kill Frank. Even though Matt is capable of rationally understanding the situation and handling it wisely, he is overcome by grief and decides to stay disconnected from the situation around him and his very own acts.
Kant’s Moral Theory and Matt
The act of Matt may be seen as morally correct by some people while other may think that it is wrong. Kant’s Moral Theory suggests that an act is not judged by its consequences but by its motive (Zimmerman). Kant suggests that an act is considered to be right if the intention is right.
Since the man does not have any control on the consequences of the act, therefore, an act should not be judged on the basis of the consequences but on the intentions and motives of a person (Zimmerman). Moreover, Kant’s moral theory suggests that “we must not only act ‘out of duty’ (have the right motive) but also ‘according to duty’ or ‘as duty requires’ (do what is right)” (MacKinnon 68).
According to Kant’s Moral Theory, the act of killing Richard is morally right since Matt’s intention was to get justice for the murder of his son. Moreover, the legal system of the country failed to provide justice to Frank’s family as Richard was given bail and was allowed to freely walk the streets again as if he had done nothing wrong. Matt decided to kill Richard so that he could relief his wife and himself from the misery that they were going through. Moreover, they strongly believed that Richard got what he deserved.
The Principle of Double Effect and Matt
Another ethical criterion which may be used to evaluate the act Matt Fowler is the principle of double effect. The principle of double effect suggests that it is morally permissible for a person to commit an act which he knows will cause some harm or evil only if it is done to achieve a greater good (Ugorji).
However, the act is only permissible under the conditions that (i) “the act must be morally permissible. One cannot do what is wrong to bring about a good end” (MacKinnon 87), (ii) the intention must be to achieve a good end, and (iii) “the good end must outweigh any harm that is done” (MacKinnon 88).
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Considering the principle of double effect, Matt’s act of killing Richard may or may not be permissible. According to the principle, it is not permissible for a person to do something bad in order to achieve good. Matt wants to kill Richard to attain peace for his wife and himself. His motive is to achieve good but he fails to achieve the good end even after committing the bad act.
Moreover, according to the principle, the good act must outweigh any harm that is done by the person. Matt’s does a bad act to achieve something good but in the end fails to achieve the good even after committing the bad act, making the whole act morally wrong. It can be said that killing Richard was both, morally correct and incorrect according to the principle of double effect. Correct in the sense that it finally relieves his wife of the pain of seeing Richard, and incorrect because Matt had to pay a high price to achieve it.
Matt does not realize the consequences of his act until he actually commits the act. It is only after killing Richard that Matt realizes that his act has not only killed the murderer of his son, but it also killed Matt’s soul. He keeps himself disconnected from the situation throughout the story which helps him to do what he planned.
He listened to his wife and his friend but he avoided considering his own feeling, emotions, and moral principles. He does not open up to the situation until it’s too late. It is only after the murder of Richard that Matt realizes that Richard too was a human being, just like his son. Even though is aware of the guilt of Richard, he is unable to justify his act of killing him. The act does not relief him of his misery but adds to it and isolates him even more from everything and everyone around him.
In the end, it is hard to tell the difference between the murders of Frank and Richard since both the murders are motivated by revenge. Matt, however, manages to get rid of his wife’s pain who finally smiles in the end but that comes with heavy price of a lifelong isolation for Matt himself. Matt is left with the feelings of guilt, depression, and isolation in the end, killing his moral being because he can’t get over the fact that he actually killed another human being.
Dubus, Andre. “Killings.” Dubus, Andre. Finding a girl in America: a novella and ten short stories. New Hampshire: David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1980. 3-20.
MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues. Thomson Learning, 2000.
Ugorji, Lucius Iwejuru. The principle of double effect: a critical appraisal of its traditional understanding and its modern reinterpretation. P. Lang, 1985.
Zimmerman, Michael J. The concept of moral obligation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.