Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by

Ray Lawler

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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: Act 2, Scene 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A few days later, Roo, still dressed from work, is asleep on the couch as the sound of a drunk argument comes from outside. Olive enters the house, yelling at whoever's outside to pay the taxi driver, and Emma hisses at her to be quiet to let Roo sleep. Olive is surprised that Roo's asleep, and upset with Emma for letting him sleep. She goes to wake him up as Barney calls for Emma to come settle things with the taxi driver.
Even if working in the city is considered less masculine, Roo's exhaustion shows that it's still hard work. This in turn begins to imply that the characters' assessment of the relationship between masculinity and work is completely arbitrary.
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When Olive shakes Roo, it takes him a minute to fully wake up. Olive tells Roo that Barney is very drunk and is here with a friend. She describes the friend as Roo becomes alert. He gets up to look out the window and returns to Olive angry: the "friend" is Johnnie Dowd. They hear laughter from outside and Olive quickly comes up with a plan to allow Roo to escape seeing Johnnie, but Roo refuses because he doesn't want Johnnie to think he's scared. Olive makes Roo promise to not start anything.
Here there's a definite maturity gap between Roo and Barney. After a long day's work Roo looks adult and responsible, while Barney's drunken decision to bring Johnnie home to see Roo appears exceptionally short-sighted. Olive shows her loyalty to Roo by trying to save him from the situation, which in turn affirms that Barney is breaking tradition by bringing another cane field worker here.
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An extremely drunk Barney appears on the verandah. He has ahold of Emma's apron and asks her loudly for a kiss while Pearl and Johnnie try to control him. When Barney lunges at Emma, she breaks free and runs into the house. Johnnie laughs and warns Barney that he'll be in trouble for "carnival knowledge." Emma sharply reprimands him and runs upstairs. Olive snaps at Barney to stop, and Pearl seems relieved to have help. As Barney tries to break free, he and Johnnie swing into the room. In silence, Roo stares at Johnnie and Barney.
At Barney's age, this drunken behavior seems particularly irresponsible and even dangerous, since even the hard and sharp Emma struggles to escape him. Drinking with Johnnie is also a betrayal of the layoff season traditions, which only heightens the negative connotations of Barney’s drunkenness, particularly for Roo.
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Johnnie congenially greets Roo and they exchange awkward pleasantries. Barney steps forward and begins to try to talk to Roo, but Johnnie pushes Barney back and steps towards Roo himself. He holds out his hand and tells Roo he'd like to shake hands. Roo grudgingly accepts, which excites Barney. In his excitement Barney turns to kiss Pearl and Pearl, disgusted, runs upstairs. When Barney starts talking again, Johnnie roughly tells him to stop before turning back to Roo and apologizing for laughing at him. Roo tries to deflect the apology, but Johnnie persists.
When Johnnie takes charge and doesn't allow Barney to dictate the terms of this interaction, Barney looks young, immature, and entirely incapable. Johnnie, on the other hand, looks responsible and adult despite his actual youth. This is yet another reminder that maturity is not necessarily associated with age.
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After an awkward pause, Johnnie says that the boys want to see Roo, and they were wondering if they could all go to the stadium tonight. Roo uneasily tries to escape the invitation and Olive tells the men that Roo has other plans for the night. Unperturbed, Johnnie suggests they all go to the races the next day. When Olive again tries to say that Roo has other plans, Roo cuts her off and agrees to go. Johnnie enthusiastically starts to make plans, but Roo tells Johnnie to plan with Barney and let him know. He motions to his dirty clothes and says he needs to shower. Johnnie comments that they caught him just home from work. As he leaves the room, Roo agrees, and seems pained.
For Roo, having Johnnie see him in his work clothes during the layoff season makes it unavoidably real that this season is different than the others. It robs him of the ability to lie and tell the boys upon his return to the cane fields that his layoff season went as usual. Similarly, having to admit to someone like Johnnie that he works in the paint factory makes Roo face up to the uncomfortable fact that they'll think less of his masculinity because of his job, which will in turn rob Roo of more of his power.
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Olive coldly asks Johnnie if he'll stay for dinner, but Johnnie declines the invitation. She follows Roo upstairs. Barney, elated, tells Johnnie that getting Roo to shake was easy. Johnnie is less thrilled—he says that Roo treated him like he was a prickly cactus. Johnnie darkly says that Roo had better start acting right, because he's not going to apologize and grovel. He suggests that he needs to have a drink with Roo, and says he'd like to have a good relationship with him. Barney insists that Johnnie and Roo actually have a lot in common.
For all the unsavory things Roo has said about Johnnie, Johnnie shows that he's actually a pretty levelheaded, understanding, and kind individual. In this way, he's far more mature than either Roo or Barney, despite being 15 years younger. When Barney suggests that Roo and Johnnie are similar, it shows that Barney relies on having a platonic male friendship with a particular kind of person.
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Suddenly, Barney lights up with an idea. He suggests that just the three of them—he, Roo, and Johnnie—go to the races tomorrow instead of going out in a big group. When Johnnie says that Roo won't talk in that situation, Barney suggests they take Pearl and Olive. When Johnnie notes the women's age, Barney assures him that they'll find someone younger to go with him. He hollers up the stairs for Pearl to come down and asks Johnnie if he'd be interested in going out with an eighteen-year-old girl. Johnnie is skeptical and asks if a southern girl will be silly.
Johnnie's comment about southern girls suggests that just as Pearl has definite ideas about cane cutters, cane cutters have similarly prejudiced ideas about women from certain areas. It's ironic, however, that Johnnie's preconceptions are directed at Pearl's daughter, someone who Pearl has led everyone to believe would never be describable as silly.
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When Pearl enters the living room, Barney reintroduces her to Johnnie. She steps past them to sit on the sofa and tells Barney that Olive has been telling her all about Johnnie. Barney asks if Olive mentioned that they were going to the races and tells her that the plan has changed, and they'd like to take her and Olive with them. Pearl is surprised, as she and Olive work on Saturday afternoons, and Barney nonchalantly tells her to take the day off. Pearl hesitantly agrees and says she used to like the races. Barney insists that it's settled and turns to Johnnie.
Barney's offhand request that Pearl and Olive take the day off shows how little he values the work the women do. Barney only values their work when he's in their bar drinking with them, not when it interferes with his plans. This supports the idea that Barney in particular needs women to consistently confirm and actively support his masculinity.
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Pearl asks if Johnnie will be going without a date. Barney begins to say that Johnnie is shy and particular with women. Johnnie tries to stop Barney, but Barney presses on and asks if Pearl's daughter would like to go with him. Barney cannot remember Vera's name, and Pearl is alarmed. She gets up and says that she couldn't allow Vera to go: she's only eighteen, and she wants Vera to be raised better. When Barney persists, Pearl stiffly says she doesn't want Vera getting into bad company.
Again, Johnnie shows that he's more adept at reading social cues than Barney is, an indicator of maturity (and, though Pearl would never admit it, a sign that not all cane cutters are drunken ladies' men). Despite Pearl's delicate phrasing, she does finally admit that she still takes a very low view of the layoff season and believes Barney and his ilk are crude and unworthy of her (or Vera's) time.
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Amazed, Barney reminds Pearl that she'd be there to supervise Vera. Johnnie tries to diffuse the situation, as Barney accuses Pearl of messing everything up. Pearl nearly cries, and Barney gets another idea for who to bring for Johnnie instead of Vera. He runs out onto the back verandah. Johnnie kindly tells Pearl that he won't insist on Vera coming. Pearl loses her composure completely and says that all cane cutters are "tarred with the same brush" as she runs upstairs.
Barney is accusing Pearl of more than messing up his race day plans; this is also an underhanded accusation that Pearl isn't Nancy. This shows that though Pearl is the one who suffers the brunt of Barney's pained disillusionment, Barney is truly angry with Nancy for forcing the friends to deal with these changes in the first place.
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Johnnie impatiently calls for Barney, who comes back into the living room dragging a surprised Bubba with him. Johnnie tries to tell Barney that Pearl is upset, but Barney tells him to forget about Pearl. He introduces Johnnie and Bubba, though Barney doesn't let Bubba talk. Bubba and Johnnie shake hands as Barney invites Bubba to the races with Johnnie tomorrow. Bubba is uncertain, but Barney insists she has nowhere else to go and Bubba finally agrees. Barney is thrilled at his planning victory, but Johnnie sourly says that not everything is settled. He firmly asks Barney to wait outside, and Barney reluctantly leaves the room.
Though Barney is behaving extremely selfishly through all of this, it's worth remembering that he's trying so hard to make the day at the races happen to save his relationship with Roo. This sheds light on the fact that Barney is undoubtedly suffering without his close friendship with Roo, and is willing to make his close friends very uncomfortable (as well as accept Bubba's adulthood, something he's been previously unwilling to do) to fix his relationship.
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Johnnie turns to Bubba and awkwardly tells her that if she doesn't want to go to the races, she doesn't have to go. Bubba insists she'd like to go and she only seemed hesitant because she was surprised. She continues that Barney and Roo have never brought someone from up north to this house. Johnnie looks around and asks Bubba if she lives here. When she explains that she lives next door, Johnnie suggests that Barney asking her to the races is less proper, but Bubba assures him that she spends a lot of time with Roo and Barney.
Once again, Johnnie shows that he and Pearl have quite a bit in common: he's also concerned with the propriety of asking a young girl like Bubba or Vera to the races. Though Johnnie is a cane cutter, he's also behaving like the kind of decent, thoughtful man Pearl seems to desire. Bubba's desire to go to the races suggests that she sees this as an opportunity to experience for herself the joys of the layoff season she's spent her whole life watching: essentially, this is an opportunity for her to grow up.
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Johnnie begins to walk through the room and says he's spent a lot of time imagining this place, and it's developed a reputation among the boys up north with what Roo and Barney say about it. As Johnnie looks around, he says it looks like their tales were mostly lies. Bubba nervously says the house isn't big, but Johnnie insists that this place just doesn't look fun at all. When Bubba insists that Johnnie just doesn't understand, he asks her to tell him. She shakily says that it's the events that create the feeling here and it's not something she can just tell him about.
Having Johnnie experience the same kind of reaction to the house that Pearl did drives home that Barney and Roo's conception of the layoff season was a highly embellished, idealized version of the truth. Similarly, Bubba's discomfort at Johnnie's lack of understanding shows that she too idealizes the season and what goes on, but she gets at an important point: it's lived experience and the created memories that allow for the idealization in the first place.
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Johnnie motions to the kewpie dolls and asks what they're for. Bubba explains that Roo gives one to Olive every year, and Johnnie snorts and makes disparaging remarks about the dolls. Seeing Bubba's face, he asks if she's a relative, and then asks how he's hurt her feelings. She tells him that the dolls are meaningful to Olive and Roo, and says again that he wouldn't understand.
Johnnie's remarks about the dolls emphasize their childish nature, as they reinforce for Johnnie that his adult idols are living in a state of suspended immaturity and questionable reality, where baby dolls signify more than childishness.
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Johnnie sits and asks why everyone treats anything connected to Roo as though Johnnie won't understand it, or can't live up to the standard. Bubba sits and wonders if it's like the walking sticks. When Johnnie looks confused, she begins to explain that it's a running joke. He turns the conversation back to the races and asks Bubba if she'd truly like to go with him. When Bubba says she'd like to, he asks her to remind him of her name. Johnnie says that Roo and Barney are trying to keep Bubba "in the cradle" by calling her a nickname, and asks for her real name. Bubba smiles at him and says her name is Kathie. They smile warmly at each other, and then Johnnie yells for Barney so he can say goodbye.
Barney and Roo aren't just the gods of their own tales: Johnnie implies that the other men in the north also think of them as gods. However, now that Johnnie sees the reality of their so-called paradise, he realizes that all of that is just idealization, not reality. Johnnie also makes the connection that the idealization hinges on ignoring that everyone is getting older. Therefore, by asking Bubba for her real name, Johnnie asks Bubba to reject the layoff season’s idealization and instead create her own reality as an adult.
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Barney comes in from the verandah and calls for Roo. Johnnie asks Barney to tell Kathie the plan for tomorrow. Barney is confused for a moment until he follows Johnnie's gaze to Bubba. Roo appears, half shaved, and cursorily says goodbye to Johnnie. At Johnnie's prodding, Roo asks him to tell the boys to stay out of trouble. Everyone laughs and then Barney walks Johnnie out to the road.
Barney's confusion supports the idea that Bubba must also remain a child in order to maintain the idealized fantasy of the layoff season. It shows that he's never thought of her as an adult with a real, adult name, but will only treat her like an adult when it's convenient for him.
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Roo asks Bubba why she's here, and she explains that she met Johnnie. Olive enters, asks if Johnnie's gone, and greets Bubba. Roo seems angry and when Olive tries to say that meeting Johnnie wasn't so bad, Roo coldly says that Barney forced him to give in to Johnnie. Olive moves away from him and tells him to not make things worse, since Emma is upset and Pearl is crying.
Roo is so angry because he relied heavily on the idealized image of his masculinity to maintain his power and control over the boys in the north. Now that Johnnie has seen a dressed down version of Roo, maintaining that power is going to be harder—and Roo sees Barney as to blame for facilitating this shift.
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Roo asks why Pearl is crying, and Olive says she's not sure, but it's something about Barney asking her to allow Vera to go to the races. Bubba cuts in and says that Johnnie asked her to go, not Vera. Olive sighs and insists that Barney wouldn't try to take such a young girl to the races with only men. Bubba explains that it's not all men going tomorrow; it's her, Roo, Barney, Olive, Pearl, and Johnnie. Roo is incensed that Barney and Johnnie apparently worked out the plan before they even arrived to try to get him in the same room with Johnnie. He wipes his face, throws his towel at Olive, and yells out the door for Barney. Olive and Bubba try to call Roo back, but Roo tells them to go away as Barney drunkenly wanders back towards the door.
Olive's comment about Vera is ironic, given that Vera is only a year or two younger than Olive was when the tradition of the layoff season began, which presumably included some outings to the races. This shows that Olive is entirely unable to conceptualize the relative ages and maturity levels of the other characters. She cannot accept her own age, and she's similarly unwilling to accept that Pearl, someone Olive's age, could have a child old enough to participate in these "adult" activities. This also reinforces how and why Olive continues to deny Bubba's adulthood.
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Olive warns Roo that he can argue, but not fight. Roo yells at her to get out, and Olive pulls Bubba away with her. Roo grabs Barney's collar and hauls him inside. Barney asks Roo to be gentle since he's drunk, but Roo furiously shoves Barney into the room. Barney admits he brought Johnnie for Roo's own good, but Roo won't let him speak more. He insists that Barney is trying to bring him down by letting Johnnie see him covered in paint. Barney insists that they've all been nearly naked together out in the cane fields, but Roo says that the cane fields aren't the same as a paint factory. Barney tries to turn away, but Roo insists they stay and talk.
Barney's immaturity comes through when he tries to use the natural consequences of his immature drinking spree (being sloppily drunk) to get out of having an honest, adult conversation. Again, though the conversation revolves around Johnnie's role in all of this, the true problem here is the erosion of the trust and friendship between Barney and Roo, and the aging of both men. Roo (selfishly and immaturely) refuses to see Barney's attempts to patch up the conflicts as actions taken in good faith.
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Barney turns back to Roo and accuses him of being jealous of Johnnie, and he says that the boys feel the same way. He says that Johnnie is going to be ganger next season, and Roo asks if Barney brought Johnnie here so that they could make up and Roo could resume his role as ganger. Roo begins lobbing accusations at Barney: of scheming and using Bubba as bait, of chasing after Johnnie, and of trying to get Johnnie to join them here for the layoff. He calls Barney a leech. Barney rushes Roo and they fight. Olive and Emma run in and try to separate the men as Bubba and Pearl look on. Olive finally screams and the men break apart. She helps Roo to a chair and threatens to make them sleep outside. Roo tells Olive that this is none of her business.
Roo's comment about Bubba shows that like Barney, he's unable or unwilling to think of Bubba as an adult who's certainly old enough to make her own decisions and agree to something like the invitation to the races. All of the accusations add up to a greater, unspoken accusation that Barney is trying to change the traditions in order to repair the friendship. The fact that Roo is hurt about this shows that the men prioritize these traditions even over true caring and friendship.
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Olive angrily asks if she's supposed to just sit and watch men their age fight over one bad season. When Roo insists it's not about the bad season, Barney tells Roo to "be a man" and admit the truth. He goads Roo, taunting him by saying he's not willing to admit the truth. Olive asks if Barney wants Roo to admit that Johnnie Dowd was the better man, and reminds Barney that Roo had a bad back. Barney laughs. Olive asks what's funny, and when Barney asks Roo to tell her, Roo rushes Barney, pulls his hands behind his back, and forces him to his knees. Gasping, Barney says that Roo never had a bad back. Roo says that Johnnie did a better job because he's a better man, and then Roo throws Barney to the floor.
When Roo finally admits the truth that he's just old, it successfully shatters the illusion of the entire layoff season. It makes it abundantly clear that everyone is far too old to keep pretending that they're in their early twenties. However, it's interesting to note that Barney's lie about Roo's back also suggested that Roo was aging. In turn, this shows that age has been the primary culprit all along, both in lies and in truth.
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Barney asks Roo if he really thought he would've told the women his secret, and Roo insists it's time the women knew they were dealing with losers. Roo continues and tells Barney to share how disappointing of a lover he's been recently. Roo mentions several women who have been seen laughing after a night with Barney, as Barney pleads with Roo to stop and says the women were lying. Finally, Roo says that Barney couldn't even hold Nancy. Barney curses at Roo. He grabs the nearest vase, which holds the seventeenth kewpie doll, and tries to throw it at Roo's head. Roo catches it and throws it to the floor, where it shatters. Olive sinks to the floor and grabs the doll, while Bubba runs out the back door.
When Barney continues to insist that he's still unshakably loyal to Roo, it again makes Barney's earlier actions seem like unsuccessful attempts to demonstrate his loyalty, rather than malicious jabs at Roo. Roo, however, is too self-conscious about his own age, and so instead of accepting Barney's intent, he turns to insulting the unfortunate consequences of Barney's age by insulting his inability to perform sexually. Like Roo, Barney constructed his identity around his ability to woo women and affirm his masculinity, just as Roo constructed his around being a ganger boss. This emasculates both men.
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