Ralph the Duck Questions and Answers
by Frederick Busch

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What are the themes in "Ralph the Duck" by Frederick Busch? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please clearly identify at least 3 themes and devote a separate paragraph to a discussion of each one.

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The short story “Ralph the Duck” has three main themes. The first is the theme of appearance versus reality. Characters in the story are often wrongly judged according to their appearances, or else they try to project false realities through calculated appearances. The second main theme is grief. The protagonist in the story is profoundly affected by the loss of his young daughter, and the consequent grief determines his character. The third theme is compassion. The protagonist’s compassion is in stark contrast to the lack of compassion from other characters, and his compassion also provides some closure to his grief.

Appearance versus reality

The protagonist of the story is a caretaker at a college. He drives a “Bronco with a leaky exhaust system,” and he wears “a cap made of navy wool and an old Marine fatigue jacket.” When other people (especially college professors) look at him, they see the job he does, the car he drives, and the clothes he wears, and from these appearances, they make a judgement as to what kind of person he should be. His professor, for example, talks down to him like one might talk down to a child. Commenting on a swear word in the narrator's essay, the professor tells him off "like a scout-master with a kid he'd caught (masturbating) in the outhouse."

As well as being guilty of judging the narrator based on superficial appearances, the professor is also guilty of trying to project a false image of himself with his own carefully managed appearance. He grows his hair longer and starts to wear "dark shirts with lighter ties" accompanied by "high-heeled cowboy boots." The narrator remarks that he looks "like someone in The Godfather." The professor also sometimes wears corduroy pants, which look baggy because "he want(s) them to look that way." The overall impression, in the context of the story, is that the professor takes great care to dress in such a way as to project a certain image of himself. In broad terms, he wants to appear "cool," in the figurative, vernacular sense of the word. The reality is that the professor is a sleazy, pretentious character, but he hopes to distract from that reality and conjure another by projecting artificial, affected appearances.

Grief

After the narrator comforts a distressed student, he says that he “thought of her as someone’s child” and this in turn, he says, “made me think of ours, of course.” The implication here is that the narrator and his partner, Fanny, have a child together. It becomes obvious later in the story that this child is dead, and this is confirmed towards the end of the story when the narrator tells the girl he has rescued that he “had a girl once … a small girl.” When we discover this, it becomes easier to understand the narrator’s character and his actions. He seems from the beginning of the story rather detached, despondent, and cynical.

All of these characteristics are arguably evidenced in the essay he writes (about a story called “A Rose for Emily”) which he calls "a paper about the mechanics of corpse" intercourse. He actually calls it something more crude, and more obscene than "intercourse," but I've substituted a more polite word for the sake of discretion. Later in the story, the narrator is reprimanded for hugging a student and afterwards tells the "director of nonacademic services" to "keep his job." At first, this sort of attitude might seem odd, but when we understand that he is perhaps still grieving for his daughter, his behavior becomes much more understandable.

Compassion

In the climax of the story, the narrator rescues a suicidal student, putting his own life at risk in the process. As the girl is standing in the freezing cold, dangerously close to a quarry, the narrator gets a blanket and puts it "down the front of (his) coat to keep it dry for her." He then wraps the blanket around her, even crouching down to cover her feet with his mittens, before driving her to the hospital. After they arrive at the hospital, and while the girl is being treated, the narrator sits cold and shaking on a dirty sofa, repeating, "Don't let her die. Don't let her die."

These signs of compassion are interesting because they are rooted, at least in part, in the narrator's aforementioned grief. He seems to imagine the girl as his own daughter and even says to himself, while waiting in the hospital, "She better not die this time." It's almost as if the narrator feels like he has another chance to save his own daughter in the form of this vulnerable, suicidal girl. It's also perhaps the case that the narrator may feel that this second chance represents some kind of closure to his grief.

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