By Peyton Nielsen (’23)
American author Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” has fallen victim to the assumption of a fantasy piece since the 1969 publication of his short story collection Pricksongs & Descants. The short story bounces between narratives displaying intense metapsychosis and simultaneously tells the jumbled yet distinct tale of a connected array of people. The complex plot lines varyingly cross, stay completely unconnected, and at times contradict each other, walking the fine line between the mundane and the insane. While this post-modern sequence may lead readers to assume a fantastical consciousness of daydreams or an intense psychosis of the characters, the story offers an underlying commentary on American mass media consumption. Throughout the text, Coover develops numerous scenarios, blurring fact and fiction and inviting readers to “play detective” and uncover the true narrative. Through this tactic, Coover produces a unique underlying discourse on the modern bond to television. By using post-modern strategies in both structure and narration, Coover effectively critiques the nation’s intense relationship with television and the process of how audiences perceive media.
“The Babysitter” consists of one hundred and eight episodes that narrates the night of an unnamed babysitter; the two children she is babysitting, Jimmy and Bitsy; the children’s parents, Dolly and Harry Tucker; the babysitter’s boyfriend, Jack, and his friend, Mark, while also including scenes from the multiple television programs that are playing in the background. In each frame, multiple perspectives are in action, which often take competing and contradicting narratives. As the reader continues through the short story, they quickly become confused, as one frame will say one fact, while another frame a page or two later will blatantly contradict it. The story follows the basic plotline that Dolly and Harry Tucker get ready and attend a friend’s cocktail party, and the unnamed babysitter comes over to watch their two children, Jimmy and Bitsy. The babysitter has a boyfriend named Jack, and he has a friend named Mark. Besides the basic construction of these characters, we do not really know what the rest of the story truly contains, as it divulges into narratives of sexual desire, rape, murder, and innocence.
The indefiniteness of the story leaves the reader often with the impression that they may be misinterpreting or misremembering other parts of the account, but it is simply Coover’s distracting structure which gaslights the audience. The quasi-chronological device forces the readers into a feeling of paranoia, adding another element to the already anxious plot sequence. By the end of the story, readers are only assured of a few details: the babysitter arrived at the Tucker residence, Mr. and Mrs. Tucker went to and left a friend’s party, and the TV was on. The remainder of the plotlines’ key parts are continuously contradicted with each differing scenario; for example, we are unable to truly know who took a bath and who did not. Without the ability to identify a chronology of the events and understand which is the “true narrative,” the reader is forced to conclude that some components of the story must be a character’s fantasy, which halts any ability to approach a deeper analysis. However, while the story may be often read as different characters’ contrasting daydreams and realities or as a narrative of psychosis, “The Babysitter” allows for an analytical critique of the American relationship with TV through its unique structure.
Coover underscores his commentary about the modern relationship with television by developing the composition of the text to imitate that of the television, which repeats a discontinuous but formulaic structure of programming and advertisements that repeat and replay in different tropes and archetypes. The paragraphs are written outside of conventional literary tradition by refusing to offer a plot on a linear plane, a fully chronological sequence, logical causality, or even a definite conclusion. Rather, Coover alternates between “channels” of the cliché and the [sometimes humorously] grotesque, as if one were switching channels from a drama to a thriller. By offering an inconsistent and episodic structure, Coover probes the way in which the modern American views television and the desensitization to violence and addiction to media one often develops.
Additionally, Coover writes in the third-person omnipresent tense, engaging in visual and auditory imagery and movement descriptions. In conjunction with the third-person narration strategy, the use of the present tense, in comparison to the favored use of past tense in written fiction, parodies television’s aesthetics of liveness in conjunction with timestamps: “10:00. The dishes done, children to bed, her books read, she watches the news on television” (1). Rather than an itinerary of events that have already taken place, readers are given a present narrator with the ability to deliver a live report. The author’s choice of tense orders the characters’ actions and dialogue over their thoughts, thus denying the audience direct access to the characters’ cognizance while mimicking the voice of a narrator one would hear in a television show. Furthermore, this structure allows the short story to simulate the behavior of a screenplay, evident in the composition similar to block texts breaking up scenes and extended auditory and visual description throughout the story.
In a story of overly conflicting plotlines, the only apparent constants in the various episodes are sexual desire and the television. Forty-three of the one hundred and eight episodic segments refer to the television set, whether through a reference to the ongoing programming, a comment on it as background noise, or actual scenes from the alternating shows (2). Television is not simply a part of the story’s confusion but an invasive component of the story, evident in scenes such as when the children are play-fighting and tickling the babysitter: “he grabs a stocking foot and scratches the sole ruthlessly and she raises her legs trying to pitch him off… and on the screen, there’s a rattle of hooves…” (1). Moreover, in the first segment on “The Babysitter,” the television is prioritized in the narrative description, describing the musical on the TV while the narrator adds a brief conscious tangent: “no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind” (1). With the prominence of television underlying the episodic text, Coover expresses the ubiquity of media, most notably manifesting in individuals’ daily lives through television. This constant presence allows the author to criticize the consequences of mass media consumption and prompts the readers to question the information they receive through this consumption.
Throughout “The Babysitter,” Coover utilizes the television to play multiple roles in the short story. On the level of content in the text, the programming schedule creates a structure of determinism in which the characters’ behaviors mimic the programs themselves. In television programs and movies, there is the concept of a definite ending that the characters cannot affect, as it is the written plot and script. This motif manifests itself through the babysitter’s evening at the Tucker residence. Upon her arrival, a musical plays in the background at 7:40 and switches to a Western at 8:00, followed by a spy show at 8:30. At 9:00, a drama, a murder mystery, and a ballgame play on different channels. The 10:00 news is followed by a “late late movie” to conclude the short story. For the babysitter, the color television set is one of the primary reasons she accepts the job. Consequently, she lets the television and its programming schedule set the theme and pace for the children’s play and activity: during the 8:00 Western, the narrator describes the babysitter playing with Jimmy and Bitsy as “a crazy rodeo of long bucking legs” (1). Furthermore, most of the characters’ actions are caricatured by the televised dramas of the continuous television shows. The violence, paranoia, sexual desire, and murder which make up the television stream gradually take over both the minds and behaviors of the characters as the plotlines become more and more bizarre, constructed of murder, stalking, and rape, mirroring the storylines of the actual TV shows that depict crude scenes of violence in modern desensitized society. This is most evident as the plotlines on TV morph into the sexual fantasies of Mr. Tucker about the much younger babysitter. In a melodramatic love story shown on TV, the male lead leaves his invalid wife for a younger lover. Mr. Tucker then expresses his desire for sexual intimacy with the much younger babysitter, with some plots even suggesting that she is consensual to these actions and other plots framing this affair as violent and one-sided (1).
The TV acts as the only source of narrative trustworthiness. Although the text functions as a third-person account that supposedly holds a great sense of reliability and objectiveness, the proliferation in the perplexing elements of events quickly leads the audience towards a sense of distrust in the narrator. While the short story builds through the reproduction of quasi-chronological possibilities that continuously contradict one another, Coover offers one point of stability in the story through the solid plots of the television shows and accompanying time stamps, dedicating entire segments to some programs. The programming sequence is the only event that is not presented as intersecting and contradictory scenarios. Serving as the sole item of stability throughout the plotlines, the programming schedule provides a point of intersection between Coover’s varying realities and allows for a uniform measure of time. The consistent appearance of the television shows elicits a confidence in which “The Babysitter” otherwise systematically seeks to invalidate.
In his one hundred and eight narrative fragments, Coover establishes numerous mutually exclusive scenarios of the events of the night. The babysitter is and is not objectified through the sexual fantasies of the boy she babysits, of his father, of her boyfriend, and of her boyfriend’s friend, sometimes all four male characters, sometimes only some, and sometimes none at all. The storyline is simultaneously discontinuous, intersecting, and conflicting, with clips of television specials and commercials in between these segments that mirror the events through scenes of violence, suspense, movement, and melodrama. The evening evolves into fluctuating degrees of bizarreness and catastrophe: the babysitter may or may not have sex with her boyfriend, with his friend, or with the father, and it may or may not be consensual. She may or may not get stalked, raped, and murdered by Jack and Mark, by solely Jack, or by Mr. Tucker. She may or may not accidentally kill the youngest child she is babysitting by suffocating him or letting him drown in the bathtub. Mirroring the grotesque sequences that occur on television, the contradictory scenarios represent the inaccuracies and infidelities of mass media, along with the surrealness of the news, which is a valid analysis both today and in 1969. This surreal aspect is most clearly captured by the last scene of “The Babysitter.”
Mrs. Tucker faces the culmination of the story’s most tragic variety of events: her three children and the babysitter dead, her husband gone, and her house destroyed. At what should be a moment of hysteria and pain, Mrs. Tucker’s reaction is to “see what’s on the late late movie,” reflecting the desensitization to violence and death in the media.
The story ironically stages the convergence of the arbitrated and the authentic that is fundamental to televisual culture. Its highly unreliable narration exposes the unstable, jumbled nature of social constructs and how it is influenced by certain aspects of the world and the knowledge disseminated by the media. The text not only complicates the claims of authenticity that the television holds in contemporary society but also inserts the very concepts of reliability, validity, and irrefutable facts into question. Juxtaposing the television’s promise of directly connecting viewers with an accurate knowledge of events, Coover’s indefiniteness of the story allows his audience to question the processes of representation, interpretation, and storytelling that produce the facts and events we perceive daily through media.
Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” employs an episodic structure to represent the modern relationship between the consumer and the television–a rather postmodern struggle. The author utilizes an unconventional literary structure that mimics television channels to display the divergence of contradictory narratives that become increasingly bizarre and employ an array of round characters that become caricatures of the suspenseful and violent events of television. Through coinciding and conflicting plots that blend fiction and reality, Coover effectively establishes a comprehensive case against the modern obsession with mass media and the quick acceptance of information that is presented to us through a continuous and unreliable screen, asking readers to question the development of the very facts that one is so quick to believe.
Peyton Nielsen is an American Studies and Economics major, with a minor in Digital Marketing. Her article was originally written for Professor Nan Da’s College Seminar ‘Introduction to American Short Fiction.’
- Coover, Robert. “The Babysitter.” Pricksongs & Descants, by Robert Coover, Cape, 1969, pp. 238.
- Humm, Peter. “Reading the Lines: Television and New Fiction.” Re-Reading English, by Peter Widdowson, Methuen, 1982, pp. 199.