Ralph the Duck Themes
by Frederick Busch

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Despite the odd title, this story shares with many stories of the 1980’s certain basic elements: the disaffected protagonist whose life is at a standstill, his shaky marriage and unhappy personal history, a significant encounter that takes him outside himself, and the movement toward knowledge of self.

The story explores a number of issues, perhaps chief among them the question of what it means to be a man in the late twentieth century and all that such a question entails: self-knowledge, communication, relationships, gender roles, heroism, parental responsibility. At the beginning of the story, the narrator seems to feel useless in his life. His marriage is rocky and his daughter is gone. He is a student on a very slow track. His military service, at the freight yards in Baltimore handling war equipment and supplies, was less than heroic. His attempts at communication, both with Fanny and in his English class, are exercises in frustration, and his hugging of the student is misinterpreted as sexual harassment. His status as a perpetual college student suggests that he has not quite arrived at full adult status, which is reinforced by his sense of failure as a parent.

Saving the young woman, then, addresses many of the narrator’s needs simultaneously. Alone in her nightgown in a snowstorm, she is the orphaned waif for whom he becomes the father figure, seemingly the only adult who truly cares about her. Her predicament puts him in the role of hero, and driving up to the quarry and back constitutes heroic action, despite his matter-of-fact tone. His steed, as befits a somewhat ironic hero, is not a white horse but a battered Ford Bronco. He must use his persuasive powers to save someone who does not wish to be saved. He also confronts the one...

(The entire section is 467 words.)