Ralph the Duck Questions and Answers
by Frederick Busch

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Who are the characters in Ralph the Duck by Frederick Busch? This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please write a separate paragraph of analysis for each key character you discuss.

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The Narrator

The unnamed protagonist also serves as the narrator of the story. He begins in a relatively immature place, symbolized by his continuing status as a college student at forty-two years of age and his rocky relationship with his wife, to whom he admits he is "awful" at times. He and his wife have evidently lost a daughter, and the narrator seems to seize opportunities to help a young, female student upon whom his predatory professor seems to prey. Ultimately, he fights hard to save her life, saying that "She better not die this time," showing how much he seems to think of her paternally, hoping that she does not die as it seems his daughter did. Perhaps it was his daughter's death that stunted the narrator's own growth. He becomes a hero, something with which he is uncomfortable but which signals his entry into real adulthood.

Fanny

The narrator's wife, Fanny, seems to care deeply about her husband, though he is "awful" (by his own admission) sometimes. When he is upset about a low grade on a recent assignment, he tells her that he "wrote about Ralph the Duck." She seems to know this story already, which suggests that he'd made the story up for his own child years before. She tries to comfort him, embracing him and calling him "honey" over and over. In the end, she's the one who tells him that he's a hero now, and she encourages him to fight the bad grade and insist it be raised since the narrator evidently told the story of Ralph the Duck to the girl he saved, persuading her to give up her desire for death at this time. Persuasion was the purpose of the assignment in the first place.

The Professor

The narrator's unnamed professor seems to want people to think he is down-to-earth and working-class, wearing sweaters and sneakers—but he irons his khakis and writes pretentious feedback on his students's essays. He does not know anything about cars, not even about their batteries dying, but he does conduct affairs with his vulnerable female students, who are many years his juniors. His failure to love the red-haired girl cared for by the narrator is part of what seems to cause her breakdown. The narrator, it seems, is left to fix a lot of what the professor does not properly take care of: his car, the student, etc. The professor seems juvenile by contrast.

The Student

Finally, the red-haired student who is having an affair with the professor is helped by the narrator on more than one occasion. The story ends just after he talks her in from the cold—she says that she really does want to die—and gets her to the hospital. She seems like just a child, and the narrator feels like the only person in the world who really cares about her. His treatment of her helps us to see how much he grows throughout the story.

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