It is difficult to provide a true summary of this short story because, instead of presenting one linear narrative, it presents any number of possibilities as well as the various, competing fantasies experienced by the male characters in the story. All of them sexualize the titular babysitter, a young, unnamed girl who is probably around sixteen years of age. From the little boy she babysits, to her boyfriend and his friend, to the father of the children she babysits, all of the men objectify her—some even contemplating, in the story's most disturbing passages, what it would be like to rape her.
The story opens at 7:40 p.m., when the babysitter arrives at the home of Harry and Dolly Tucker to take care of their three children: Jimmy, Bitsy, and the baby. Mr. Tucker stares at the babysitter's breasts and thighs, and he imagines that she feels something for him too. She does not. After the Tuckers finally leave for the party, the babysitter feeds the kids, bathes them, puts them to bed, reads books, and watches television. This is all part of her standard routine. However, Mr. Tucker, while at the party with his wife, imagines returning to his home to find the babysitter having sex with her boyfriend, and he fantasizes about sending the boy home without his pants and then raping her.
The babysitter's boyfriend, Jack, hopes that he will have a chance to go over and see her. He wants to have sex with her, but it seems that she's been unwilling to go that far with him. He and his friend, Mark, the oldest son of the couple throwing the party, talk about ganging up on her sexually and raping her. However, Jack also considers defending her against Mark's assault. Even the little boy she watches, Jimmy, fantasizes about soaping her back in the bathtub, being spanked by her, and tickling her while she's naked.
In the end, the Tuckers might return home to find everything in its place, or they might return home to find the baby dead, or Mrs. Tucker might return to find her husband having raped the babysitter while she was still at the party. There are so many different narrative possibilities that it can be a challenge to keep them all straight, or to find the "true" plot. Ultimately, all of the possibilities seem to draw attention to two things: the objectification of the babysitter in the minds of these male characters and the myriad and kaleidoscopic possibilities in life and fiction.
Perhaps Coover’s most anthologized story, “The Babysitter” exemplifies the notion behind the title of the collection: a “pricksong,” or main theme, with “descants,” or variations on that theme. Using a series of one hundred and seven sections, the shortest containing only nineteen words and the longest nearly two-thirds of a page, “The Babysitter” takes the “pricksong” of an extremely ordinary event and transforms it with the descant of infinite possibility.
The main events can be summarized simply: At 7:40 p.m. a babysitter arrives to care for three children (Jimmy, Bitsy, and “the baby”); the parents, Harry and Dolly Tucker, leave for a party; the babysitter bathes the children, puts them to bed, and watches television; at 10:00 p.m. the parents return home. The action of the story occurs simultaneously in four locations: the Tucker household; a drugstore, where the babysitter’s boyfriend Jack plays pinball with his friend Mark, whose anonymous parents are hosting the party; the party itself; and on television.
There is a chronology of sorts in the story. The babysitter arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late. Over the next twenty minutes the parents leave; the sitter feeds, bathes, and wrestles with the children; Jack and Mark play pinball; and the characters on television dance in formal clothes. During the hour from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. the children resist going to bed, Harry Tucker (at the party) imagines having sex with the sitter and imagines her having sex with her boyfriend, Dolly Tucker worries that the sitter is not trustworthy, Jack...
(The entire section is 1,317 words.)