(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

(The entire section is 546 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In just over a hundred paragraphs presenting several different points of view, the story recounts the confusing events of a single evening, between 7:40 and 10:30 p.m. The multiple viewpoints frequently collide and even merge as the story revises itself, offering concurrent and competing plots. In other words, several plots occupy the same time and space and involve the same characters, whose fantasies influence reality. The story seems to ask the question, what would the world be like if everyone’s competing fantasies were to come true?

As Harry and Dolly Tucker dress for a cocktail party, the baby-sitter arrives at their house. Harry imagines that the girl is arching her back, jutting out her pert breasts, and twitching her thighs just for him. After the Tuckers leave, their young children, Jimmy and Bitsy, attack the baby-sitter playfully, jumping on her and tickling her. Jimmy fantasizes that his baby-sitter will overpower him and spank him.

Meanwhile, the baby-sitter’s boyfriend, Jack, and his friend Mark are playing pinball in a nearby arcade, discussing the idea of visiting her. Although the boys have carefully studied the pinball machine, they still cannot easily beat it. Jack would like either to collaborate with Mark in the seduction or rape of his girlfriend or protect her from Mark’s advances—or possibly both.

The story soon becomes an exercise in multiple choices. Does Mr. Tucker return home to discover the baby-sitter watching television alone, or has she been having sex with Jack and Mark, or is she giving Jimmy a bath? Does the baby-sitter spend a quiet evening alone, or is she harassed all night by anonymous phone calls and Peeping Toms? Is she raped and murdered by Jack, or by Jack and Mark, or perhaps by Mr. Tucker? Does the baby choke on a diaper pin or drown in the bathtub? Does everyone die at the end of the story, or does everyone quietly go to bed?

The answer to all these questions is yes. As one critic has pointed out, there are at least five hundred possible plot lines in this story.