Resources for Writing about literature

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Considerations for Critical Thinking and Writing

1. first response. How do you feel about Matt's act of revenge? Trace the emotions his character produces in you as the plot unfolds.

2. Discuss the significance of the title. Why is "Killings" a more appropriate title than "Killers"?

3. What are the effects of Dubus's ordering of events in the story? How would the effects be different if the story were told in a chronological order?

4. Describe the Fowler family before Frank's murder. How does the murder affect Matt?

5. What is learned about Richard from the flashback in paragraphs 32 through 75? How does this information affect your attitude toward him?


6. What is the effect of the description of Richard shooting Frank in paragraph 76?

7. How well planned is Matt's revenge? Why does he lie to Richard about sending him out west?

8. How do the details of the killing and the disposal of Richard's body reveal Matt's emotions? What is he thinking and feeling as he performs these actions? How did you feel reading about them?

9. Describe Matt at the end of the story when he tells his wife about the killing. How do you think this revenge killing will affect the Fowler family?

10. How might "Killings" be considered a love story as well as a murder story?

Connections to Other Selections

1. Compare and contrast Matt's motivation for murder with Emily's in "A Rose for Emily" (p. 72). Which character made you feel more empathy and sympathy for his or her actions? Why?

2. Explore the father-son relationships in "Killings" and William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" (p. 481). Read the section on psychological criticism in Chapter 37, "Critical Strategies for Reading." How do you think a psychological critic would interpret these relationships in each story?

3. In an essay discuss the respective treatments of family life in "Killings" and Gish Jen's "In the American Society" (p. 643). Do these very different stories have anything in common?



Thomas E. Kennedy (b. 1944)

On Morality and Revenge in "Killings" 1988

When Fowler fires at the younger man, "the explosion of the shot surrounded him, isolated him in a nimbus of sound that cut him off from all his time, all his history, isolated him standing absolutely still on the dirt road.... The second shot... seemed to be happening to someone else, someone he was watching." When Fowler returns home after he and his friend have buried Strout’s body, his wife is waiting for him in the dark bedroom. She knows, without having been told, what he has done, and she tries to make love to him while he relates the details, but he cannot make love, for he has isolated himself by his act. The final irony occurs when they realize they will be unable to tell their other children about it that the children will believe their brother's murderer has escaped trial and punishment and has run off. Thus, we see the first consequence of Fowler's unnatural act, the profound isolation he must suffer for it. Even his sob at the close of the story is one of isolation, "silent in his heart."

The story's point is clear: the blade of murder cuts both ways. Victim and killer are united and isolated, one in death, the other in the ultimate breach of respect for human life. Like Cain, the killer has distinguished himself from


humankind and presumably must suffer that distinction for the rest of his days. An intriguing question that follows from the story is whether the act of murder affects all men equally. Will a person of inferior morality suffer equally with a person of more sensitive humanity like Matt Fowler? Throughout Fowler's abduction of Strout, he must fight to prevent himself from witness­ing Strout’s humanity, must forbid him from speaking lest he become too close to the sound of his voice, must prevent himself from smelling the man's smells. When, finally, he must lie to Strout to accomplish the abduction, giving the younger man hope that he is not to be killed, Fowler suffers for his cruelty. Thus, there is not even a moment's satisfaction of vengeance for Fowler; his is a rational act, an extermination to eliminate Strout from their world and end Ruth's pain. Strout, presumably, killed Fowler's son in passion. It is interesting to compare the two acts and to compare the fate of suffering attached to each.

A profound lifelong isolation awaits Fowler as a result of his act of premeditated murder. It is intriguing to consider what Strout’s fate might have been had he stood trial and gone to prison for his act. The suggestion is that Strout was a man of inferior morality, the son of an affluent family who pampered him, a violent husband. Might the culmination of his weakness in mur­der and the suffering imposed on him for it, the experience of finally having to account for his actions, have resulted in his moral development and growth?

What then, finally, is the meaning for human society of Fowler's homicidal revenge? We understand Fowler. We follow him through his deed not without the desire for him to complete it, to succeed, to rid the world of this killer. We note his reluctance, his moral hesitation, the morality he must overcome, and we urge him, on some level, to overcome it. Once he has begun the action, abducted Strout, we know he must complete it, even if we share his mixed feel­ings about the choice he has made. Yet what is the final result for the world? Strout is eliminated, but Fowler is left mortally wounded to walk the earth, and his suffering will spread, has already begun to spread to his children.

From Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction

Considerations for Critical Thinking and Writing

1. Explain how you would answer the following question raised by Kennedy: "Will a person of inferior morality suffer equally with a person of more sensitive humanity like Matt Fowler?"

2. Discuss why and how profound isolation affects nearly all the characters in this story.

A. L. Bader (b. 1902)

Nothing Happens in Modern Short Stories 1945

Any teacher who has ever confronted a class with representative modern short stories will remember the disappointment, the puzzled "so-what" attitude, of certain members of the group. "Nothing happens in some of these stories," "They just end," or "They're not real stories" are frequent criticisms.... Sometimes the phrase "Nothing happens" seems to mean that nothing significant


happens, but in a great many cases it means that the modern short story is charged with a lack of narrative structure. Readers and critics accustomed to an older type of story ate baffled by a newer type. They sense the underlying and unifying design of the one, but they find nothing equivalent to it in the other. Hence they maintain that the modern short story is plotless, static, fragmentary, amorphous -- frequently a mere character sketch or vignette, or a mere reporting of a transient moment, or the capturing of a mood or nuance -- everything, in fact, except a story.

From "The Structure of the Modern Story" in College English

Considerations for Critical Thinking and Writing

1. What is the basic objection to the "newer type" of short story? How does it differ from the "older type"?

2. Consider any one of the stories from the Album of Contemporary Stories (pp. 617-68) as an example of the newer type. Does anything "happen" in the story? How does it differ from the excerpt from Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (p. 62)?

3. Read a recent story published in The New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly and compare its narrative structure with that of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" (p. 72).




Character is essential to plot. Without characters Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes would be a travelogue through the jungle and Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" little more than a faded history of a sleepy town in the South. If stories were depopulated, the plots would disappear because stories and plots are interrelated. A dangerous jungle is important only because we care what effect it has on a character. Characters are influenced by events just as events are shaped by characters. Tarzan's physical strength is the result of his growing up in the jungle, and his strength, along with his inherited intelligence, allows him to be master there.

The methods by which a writer creates people in a story so that they seem actually to exist are called characterization. Huck Finn never lived, yet those who have read Mark Twain's novel about his adventures along the Mississippi River feel as if they know him. A good writer gives us the illusion that a character is real, but we should also remember that a character is not an actual person but instead has been created by the author. Though we might walk out of a room in which Huck Finn's Pap talks racist nonsense, we would not throw away the book in a similar fit of anger. This illusion of reality is the magic that allows us to move beyond the circum­stances of our own lives into a writer's fictional world, where we can encounter everyone from royalty to paupers, murderers, lovers, cheaters, martyrs, artists, destroyers, and, nearly always, some part of ourselves. The life that a writer breathes into a character adds to our own experiences and enlarges our view of the world.

A character is usually but not always a person. In Jack London's Call of the Wild, the protagonist is a devoted sled dog; in Hetman Melville's Moby-Dick, the antagonist is an unfathomable whale. Perhaps the only possible qualification to be placed on character is that whatever it is -- whether an animal or even an inanimate object, such as a robot--it must have some recognizable human qualities. The action of the plot interests us primarily because we



care about what happens to people and what they do. We may identify with a character's desires and aspirations, or we may be disgusted by his or her viciousness and selfishness. To understand our response to a story, we should be able to recognize the methods of characterization the author uses.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Charles Dickens is well known for creating characters who have stepped off the pages of his fictions into the imaginations and memories of his readers. His characters are successful not because readers might have encountered such people in their own lives, but because his characterizations are vivid and convincing. He manages to make strange and eccentric people appear familiar. The following excerpt from Hard Times is the novel's entire first chapter. In it Dickens introduces and characterizes a school principal addressing a classroom full of children.

From Hard Times 1854

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and toot out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders -- nay, his very neck cloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was -- all helped the emphasis.

"In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!"

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Dickens withholds his character's name until the beginning of the second chapter; he calls this fact-bound educator Mr. Gradgrind. Authors


sometimes put as much time and effort into naming their characters as parents invest in naming their children. Names can be used to indicate qualities that the writer associates with the characters. Mr. Gradgrind is precisely what his name suggests. The "schoolmaster" employed by Grad­grind is Mr. M'Choakumchild. Pronounce this name aloud and you have the essence of this teacher's educational philosophy. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth is cold and relentless in his single-minded quest for revenge. The innocent and youthful protagonist in Hetman Melville's Billy Budd is nipped in the bud by the evil Claggatt, whose name simply sounds unpleasant.

Names are also used in films to suggest a character's nature. One ex­ample that is destined to be a classic is the infamous villain Darth Vader, whose name identifies his role as an invader allied with the dark and death. On the heroic side, it makes sense that Marion Morrison decided to change his box-office name to John Wayne in order to play tough, masculine roles because both the first and last of his chosen names are unam­biguously male and to the point, while his given name is androgynous. There may also be some significance to the lack of a specific identity. In Godwin's "A Sorrowful Woman" (p. 33) the woman, man, boy, and girl are reduced to a set of domestic functions, and their not being named emphasizes their roles as opposed to their individual identities. Of course, not every name is suggestive of the qualities a character may embody, but it is frequently worth determining what is in a name.

The only way to tell whether a name reveals character is to look at the other information the author supplies about the character. We evaluate fictional characters in much the same way we understand people in our own lives. By piecing together bits of information, we create a context that allows us to interpret their behavior. We can predict, for instance, that an acquaintance who is a chronic complainer is not likely to have anything good to say about a roommate. We interpret words and actions in the light of what we already know about someone, and that is why keeping track of what characters say (and how they say it) along with what they do (and don't do) is important.

Authors reveal characters by other means too. Physical descriptions can indicate important inner qualities; disheveled clothing, a crafty smile, or a blush might communicate as much as or more than what a character says. Characters can also be revealed by the words and actions of others who respond to them. In literature, moreover, we have one great advantage that life cannot offer; a work of fiction can give us access to a person's thoughts. Although in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (p. 113) we learn about Bartleby primarily through descriptive details, words, actions, and his relationships with the other characters, Melville allows us to enter the lawyer's consciousness.

Authors have two major methods of presenting characters: showing and telling. Characters shown in dramatic situations reveal themselves in-directly by what they say and do. In the first paragraph of the excerpt from Hard Times, Dickens shows us some of Gradgrind's utilitarian educational


principles by having him speak. We can infer the kind of person he is from his reference to boys and girls as "reasoning animals," but we are not told what to think of him until the second paragraph. It would be impossible to admire Gradgrind after reading the physical description of him and the school that he oversees. The adjectives in the second paragraph make the author's evaluation of Gradgrind's values and personality clear: everything about him is rigidly "square"; his mouth is "thin, and hard set"; his voice is "inflexible, dry, and dictatorial"; and he presides over a "plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom." Dickens directly lets us know how to feel about Gradgrind, but he does so artistically. Instead of simply being presented with a statement that Gradgrind is destructively practical, we get a detailed and amusing description.

We can contrast Dickens's direct presentation in this paragraph with the indirect showing that Gail Godwin uses in "A Sorrowful Woman" (p. 33). Godwin avoids telling us how we should think about the characters. Their story includes little description and no evaluations or interpreta­tions by the author. To determine the significance of the events, the reader must pay close attention to what the characters say and do. Like Godwin, many twentieth-century authors favor showing over telling because showing allows readers to discover the meanings, which modern authors are often reluctant to impose on an audience for whom fixed meanings and values are not as strong as they once were. However, most writers continue to reveal characters by telling as well as showing when the technique suits their purposes -- when, for example, a minor character must be sketched economically or when a long time has elapsed, causing changes in a major character. Telling and showing complement each other.

Characters can be convincing whether they are presented by telling or showing, provided their actions are motivated. There must be reasons for how they behave and what they say. If adequate motivation is offered, we can understand and find plausible their actions no matter how bizarre. In "A Rose for Emily" (p. 72), Faulkner makes Emily Grierson's intimacy with a corpse credible by preparing us with information about her father's death along with her inability to leave the past and live in the present. Emily turns out to be consistent. Although we are surprised by the ending of the story, the behavior it reveals is compatible with her temperament.

Some kinds of fiction consciously break away from our expectations of traditional realistic stories. Consistency, plausibility, and motivation are not very useful concepts for understanding and evaluating characterizations in modern absurdist literature, for instance, in which characters are often alienated from themselves and thief environment in an irrational world. In this world there is no possibility for traditional heroic action; instead we find an antihero who has little control over events. Yossarian from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is an example of a protagonist who is thwarted by the absurd terms on which life offers itself to many twentieth-century characters.

In most stories we expect characters to act plausibly and in ways consis­tent with their personalities, but that does not mean that characters cannot


develop and change. A dynamic character undergoes some kind of change because of the action of the plot. Huck Finn's view of Jim, the runaway slave in Mark Twain's novel, develops during their experiences on the raft. Huck discovers Jim's humanity and, therefore, cannot betray him because Huck no longer sees his companion as merely the property of a white owner. On the other hand, Huck's friend, Tom Sawyer, is a static character because he does not change. He remains interested only in high adventure, even at the risk of Jim's life. As static characters often do, Tom serves as a foil to Huck; his frivolous concerns are contrasted with Huck's serious development. A foil helps to reveal by contrast the distinctive qualities of another character.

The protagonist in a story is usually a dynamic character who experiences some conflict that makes an impact on his or her life. Less commonly, static characters can also be protagonists. Pup Van Winkle wakes up from his twenty-year sleep in Washington Irving's story to discover his family dramatically changed and his country no longer a British colony, but none of these important events has an impact on his character; he continues to be the same shiftless and idle man that he was before he fell asleep. The protagonist in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is also a static character; indeed, she rejects all change. Our understanding of her changes, but she does not. Ordinarily, however, a plot contains one or two dynamic characters with any number of static characters in supporting roles. This is especially true of short stories, in which brevity limits the possibilities of character development.

The extent to which a character is developed is another means by which character can be analyzed. The novelist E. M. Forster coined the terms flat and round to distinguish degrees of character development. A flat character embodies one or two qualities, ideas, or traits that can be readily described in a brief summary. For instance, Mr. M'Choakumchild in Dickens's Hard Times stifles students instead of encouraging them to grow. Flat characters tend to be one-dimensional. They are readily accessible because their characteristics are few and simple; they are not created to be psychologically complex.

Some flat characters are immediately recognizable as stock characters. These stereotypes are particularly popular in formula fiction, television programs, and action movies. Stock characters are types father than individuals. The poor but dedicated writer falls in love with a hard-working understudy, who gets nowhere because the corrupt producer favors his boozy, pampered mistress for the leading role. Characters such as these -- the loyal servant, the mean stepfather, the henpecked husband, the dumb blonde, the sadistic army officer, the dotty grandmother -- are prepackaged; they lack individuality because their authors have, in a sense, not imaginatively created them but simply summoned them from a warehouse of clichés and social prejudices. Stock characters can become fresh if a good writer makes them vivid, interesting, or memorable, but too often a writer's use of these stereotypes is simply weak characterization.
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