Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In American culture and literature, baby-sitters have long been the objects of lust and fantasy, especially for middle-aged men. One need only turn to John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp (1978) and John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband” (1954) to find examples of baby-sitters who have become the targets of lustful married men. Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” explores this fascination. The title character serves as the object of desire for three generations of males: preadolescent Jimmy, teenage Jack, and middle-aged Harry Tucker.

In a role reminiscent of the pot-belly stove in Stephen Crane’s 1898 short story “The Blue Hotel,” the Tuckers’ living room television set functions as an extension of the characters. It commands their attention, participates in their activities, and even vies with them for narrative control. The characters regard the television not only as a source of entertainment but also as a reward for obedience, an employment perk (in the baby-sitter’s case), an alibi or excuse, and a companion-protector. So conspicuous is the television’s presence and role that “The Babysitter” can be interpreted as an indictment of television for its harmful effects on viewers. In the course of his intentionally confusing narrative, Coover examines television’s coupling of sex and violence, its tendency to desensitize people, its tacit encouragement of voyeurism, and its function as a surrogate...

(The entire section is 574 words.)