Last Updated on July 31, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
Coover uses a writing technique that involves telling multiple stories within one overall story. There are so many contradictory smaller stories that the reader is not sure which are true. This technique allows Coover to pose the question of the reliability of the plot. The stories within the story are all presented as "true" within the fictional narrative—but they simply can't all be true. At the end of the story, the reader is destabilized and is not sure what is fact and what is fiction.
The author's technique emphasizes the idea that the narrator is not reliable and that sorting one's way through a text involves guessing and second-guessing oneself. The narrator is not present to guide a reader reliably through this text. Instead, reading is an act of destabilization in which one's ideas and assumptions are challenged and one is left with more questions than answers.
This story, written in the late 1960s, is symbolic of the way in which many people were calling for a widespread challenge of authority at that time. The 1960s were a time when authority and traditional structures, including the government, higher education, and gender roles, were under attack. There was no longer assumed to be one truth, and this idea is reflected in the multiple narrative strands in the story. The narration, like other forms of authority in society, is no longer all-powerful; it is instead self-contradictory and confusing. In this way, "The Babysitter" is a prime example of postmodern literature.
This story is also about the way in which women have traditionally been treated in society. The babysitter is a symbol of innocence, a young woman who is trusted to watch children as a way to be inducted into the maternal role that she is later expected to assume when she has her own children. However, in this story, she is herself negligent, and she is subjected to the sexual and violent fantasies of others. She is a target of male violence, and her role represents the way in which women are subject to threats and violence in our society.
The television is a motif in this story. As events unfold, the television plays in the background. Its garish colors and sounds mirror, but also distort, reality. There is a story about a babysitter who meets a disastrous end on the television news, so it's hard for the reader to sort out what is really happening in the story and what is just playing on television in the story. Coover suggests that the world portrayed on television warps our version of reality and makes it difficult to sort out reality from fiction.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 137
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Gordon, Lois G. Robert Coover: The Universal Fictionmaking Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Kennedy, Thomas E. Robert Coover: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
McCaffery, Larry. “As Guilty as the Rest of Them: An Interview with Robert Coover.” Critique 42, no. 1 (Fall, 2000): 115-125.
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Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthleme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Pughe, Thomas. Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth. Berlin: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1994.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423
Structurally, “The Babysitter” follows the chronology of a television schedule. It is divided into five sections, each of which corresponds to a program on television. The first section, which covers the time period from 7:40 to 8:00 p.m., is dominated by images and sounds of a musical on television. This section complements Mr. Tucker’s “musical” fantasy of the baby-sitter. In the second section, which corresponds to Jimmy’s “spanking” fantasy, a western organizes and informs the events between 8:00 and 8:30. The third section, unified by a spy show, encompasses the period from 8:30 to 9:00 and corresponds to Jack’s “spying” fantasy. Between 9:00 and 10:00, the baby-sitter changes channels constantly, switching back and forth among three programs: a love story, a ball game, and a murder mystery. It is not easy to associate any of these programs with a specific character, but the murder mystery, which receives the most attention in the various plots, seems to parallel the actions of Mark and Jack, while the love story seems to parallel the triangle of Harry, Dolly, and the baby-sitter. Covering the period from 10:00 to 10:30, the last section repeatedly mentions the news, the only “real” or nonfiction program on the television. Whereas the fictional programs feed the fantasies and influence the actions of the characters, the news program assesses the damage of the Great American Baby-sitter.
The shifting points of view in the story simulate the changing of channels and television’s fragmentation of reality. At the beginning of the story it is relatively easy to identify and distinguish the various points of view. The first paragraph, for example, is probably told from the point of view of the baby-sitter; the second from that of Mr. Tucker; and the third from that of Jack. Jimmy’s point of view is not represented until the fifth paragraph and Mrs. Tucker’s not until the eleventh. It is uncertain whether any of the paragraphs represent Mark’s, Bitsy’s, or the Host’s point of view.
Early in the story, Coover uses tag phrases to help the reader link the individual paragraphs to characters. For example, the recurring phrase “light brown hair” identifies Mr. Tucker, while “enough’s enough” or “that’s enough” identifies Jack. As the story progresses, however, the points of view begin to conflate, frustrating attempts to distinguish among them. By the end of the story, chaos has replaced clarity and coherence. The shifting points of view and the steadily increasing confusion make “The Babysitter” a particularly effective satire on television and justify its classification as an antistory.