Ralph the Duck Summary
by Frederick Busch

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Ralph the Duck Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The unnamed narrator, awakened at 5:25 a.m. by his vomiting dog, reveals that he has misbehaved the previous night, making his wife cry. He intimates that his behavior was part of a pattern and that his marriage has problems. They once had a daughter, but she evidently died in early childhood; he is less than forthcoming about details in this, as in most areas of his private life. He calls himself the oldest college student in the United States, although he knows it is not technically true. At forty-two years old, however, he is nearly twice the age of the average undergraduate on his campus, old enough, significantly, to be most students’ father. He is a military veteran, although just too old to have served in Vietnam. As an employee of the college, he is allowed to enroll for one class per semester and figures that he can finish his undergraduate degree in another sixteen years. Distanced from his classmates by both age and class—it is an elite private school—he has disdain for their smugness, their self-indulgence, and their privilege. He is also suspicious of his English professor, who is younger than he, handsome, and rather too slick. The professor seems to hope that the narrator is a Vietnam veteran, particularly a Special Forces operative.

The story moves by a series of encounters with a red-haired coed and the professor, while scenes with Fanny serve as punctuation or commentary. In the first, he finds the young woman standing outside her dormitory in her bathrobe and rubber-bottomed boots, crying that her father does not love her. When she says no one loves her, he gives her a hug and gets her to safety. His thanks is a mild reprimand from the head of nonacademic services for the physical contact. Shifting to his role as student, he finds himself corrected by the professor for using a four-letter word in a theme on Faulkner. The professor corrects him while using the same word himself, trying to prove that he is no prude in these matters. The narrator sees the professor as slumming, with his working-class-chic style of dress—denoted by his ironed dungarees—and his studied, regular-guy mannerisms.

After attending, and sleeping through, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) with Fanny, he has two telling encounters with the professor. In the first, he lies by saying that he did kill people in Vietnam, fulfilling the professor’s fantasy image of him. Then the narrator submits a brief anecdote about a character called Ralph the Duck, in which the tiny, helpless Ralph is...

(The entire section is 669 words.)