Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by

Ray Lawler

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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: Act 3, Scene 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, Pearl stands in the living room dressed in black again, waiting sadly for a taxi. Olive enters the living room with a cup of tea and offers it to Pearl. Pearl tries to refuse, but finally sits down and accepts the kindness. She and Olive discuss when Pearl will get the rest of her things, and Olive asks Pearl if she notices anything different about the room. The room has been cleared and tidied of any decoration, including all the kewpie dolls. Pearl tells Olive she heard her cleaning late last night. Olive explains that she started trying just to clean up the broken vase, but couldn't seem to stop. She laughs and says that Emma always tells her that it's a sign that something is off when a person tries to move furniture alone.
Pearl's black dress once again symbolizes her active choice to look and act like the mature adult she is. The few weeks she spent at Emma's house were a few weeks that she got to pretend she was younger, and now that the spell is broken it's time to return to the real world. Olive's recitation of Emma's words suggests that Olive is still unaware that she's growing up. Cleaning up the childish decorations is a symbolic acceptance of adulthood, but Olive is too caught up in maintaining the façade that she can't see it.
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Pearl asks when Barney will be back. Olive answers that if she knows Barney, he's guaranteed to return before evening. Pearl suggests that Olive doesn't really know Barney. She says that the seventeen years Olive talks about don't prove anything, since nothing in this house is actually how Olive described it. Olive says, "Oh, Pearl," but Pearl continues. She says that Olive is blind to everything outside the house and outside of the layoff season. Olive insists she's blind to what she chooses. Pearl persists: she tells Olive to look at the undecorated room and see that it's not wonderful anymore, it's dreary and tired. She tells Olive that if she'd look at the layoff like an adult, she'd find the same thing.
Pearl underhandedly suggests that Roo, Barney, and Olive's blind loyalty to their traditions kept them from ever having to work to make them useful and fulfilling each year. Rather than asking questions about whether or not an activity is still exciting, they instead insisted on doing it anyway just because of tradition. As an outsider, Pearl understood immediately that none of the traditions were fulfilling anymore; they only kept doing them because of the idealized visions in their minds that she doesn't share.
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Olive approaches Pearl and says stonily that everything she ever said about Roo and Barney was the truth, every year until this one. She says that Pearl is the last person who should be complaining about this year. Pearl's eyes widen and she asks if Olive is blaming her for coming instead of Nancy. Olive affirms this, and Pearl says she's wasting her breath if Olive won't see the truth. Then Barney knocks on the front door. Olive goes to let him in, but Pearl blocks her way and says that Barney will try to convince her to stay. Olive steps around and lets Barney in.
Olive confirms that Nancy's marriage is to blame for the changes that took place this summer. If she hadn't left, the others would (probably) not have been faced with the impossible task of figuring out how to suddenly adapt when they'd spent the last 16 years actively refusing to do so. Olive essentially blames Nancy's mature decision for forcing the others to think critically and maturely, thereby shattering the carefully constructed layoff season illusions.
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Olive tells Barney that he's just in time to say goodbye to Pearl, and Barney replies that he thought Pearl might be on her way. Pearl and Barney greet each other quietly and Olive angrily excuses herself to the kitchen. Barney nudges Pearl's suitcase with his toe and asks her if she's planning on taking it somewhere. Pearl begins to say that her taxi is coming, but Barney cuts her off and says she needs to let him help, since the suitcase is too big for a woman to carry.
Barney's comment about the suitcase is a way for him to affirm and bolster his slipping sense of masculinity: even if he does struggle to perform sexually, he's still manly enough to lug around heavy suitcases. This also reinforces the idea that masculinity is a performance. Barney's masculinity isn't defined by the simple fact that he's male; it's defined by what he can do.
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Pearl asks Barney where he's been, but Barney insists that only a wife can ask that question. He turns to Pearl, looks her up and down, and tells her that her black dress is the most respectable dress of her wardrobe. He says that he doesn't mind her leaving, but asks if she has to look like she's going to a funeral. Pearl imperiously puts her gloves on and says that she knew he wouldn't be able to stand her being respectable again, but Barney insists that she was never not respectable. Angrily, Pearl shoots back that she was never trying to be a second Nancy.
Pearl's insistence that she isn't a second Nancy is ironic given that unlike the others, Nancy did finally decide to grow up, just like Pearl did. Though Nancy certainly enjoyed her extended youth, she and Pearl are more alike than Pearl wants to realize. Notably, Pearl won't accept this because the others speak only of an idealized version of a younger, less responsible Nancy.
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Barney looks confused and says that when it comes down to it, Pearl is leaving for the same reason Nancy did. He says that Nancy left to get married because she couldn't get what she wanted here. Sadly, Pearl asks Barney if he still thinks he's a prize. She admits that she came here foolishly intending to marry and after last night, when he wanted to take Vera to the races, she knows it won't work out. Barney sits and insists that an afternoon at the races isn't horrible, but Pearl insists she knows about all the shenanigans that go on at the races. She insists that Vera will grow up to be visibly respectable even when she's not wearing black. Barney gives in and says he's not going to stop Pearl from being a strict mother.
Pearl admits that she came into the layoff season with idealized visions, but her visions mapped out a path for her to achieve a greater degree of adulthood. This shows again the degree to which Pearl truly is adult in contrast with the wild immaturity of all the other characters. When Barney mentions why Nancy left, he shows that he understands that the layoff season wasn't going to be able to continue to be fulfilling forever. He finally accepts that Nancy changed, and for her, the layoff season had to change to accommodate that.
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Pearl begins to ask Barney a question, and a horn honks outside. Barney leans out the door and yells to the taxi driver that they'll be there momentarily before asking Pearl what she wants to know. She asks Barney to tell her the third thing a woman needs to have. Barney says it's too late, and that Pearl doesn't have it anyway. When she looks downcast, he says there was only one woman, Nancy, who had it—and she didn't have enough to make a relationship work. He picks up Pearl's suitcase as Olive enters.
The third quality could possibly be a sense of consistent, unwavering youthfulness—something that Nancy gave up when she married someone else. In Barney's mind, this quality is the one that would in turn allow him to never have to marry, as his partner would never be mature enough to ask for such a commitment. 
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Olive and Pearl say goodbye, and Pearl reminds Olive to tell their boss that she won't be in today. Pearl softly apologizes to Olive for not being the right type before she leaves for her taxi. Olive watches her go as Roo comes downstairs, realizes that Pearl is leaving, and notices that Barney is back. He looks the room over and remarks that the dolls are gone. Irritated, Olive says she took everything down to dust and the birds and butterflies fell apart in her hands. She says the dolls weren't broken, but she couldn't stand putting back up the few things that were in good repair.
Even if Olive's cleaning spree was only a subconscious acceptance of adulthood, her discovery that the decorations were in bad repair is proof that she cannot ignore adulthood anymore, or only engage with it subconsciously. Refusing to put the dolls back out supports this: because Olive is moving on from her youthfulness, the dolls are an uncomfortable reminder of the years she's spent behaving childishly.
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Roo offers to get Olive new decorations, but Olive refuses. When Roo reminds Olive that she always liked the decorations, she spits back that she likes lots of things she hasn't seen recently, like joking and laughing. She says if she can live without the laughter, she can live without decorations.
Here, Olive suggests that what truly matters is friendship and loyalty to her partner, though Olive's later choices will show that she doesn't actually buy into what she's suggesting.
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Roo insists that the fight with Barney had been brewing for some time and reminds Olive what Barney "did to him." Olive insists that Barney just got drunk and brought someone home who Roo doesn't like. Roo struggles to say that shaking hands with Johnnie was the hardest thing he's ever done, and his fingers felt like they'd been crushed after. Near tears, Olive asks why Roo didn't leave the conflict up north, since it seems to have little to do with the layoff season. Roo tries to say that it just all seemed to happen. Olive whirls away and comes face to face with Emma. She angrily accuses Emma of eavesdropping, and runs upstairs.
When Roo insists that things just happened, he's attempting to absolve himself of responsibility for anything that went wrong. It's important to remember that this is a trend; the group's strict adherence to their yearly traditions has allowed them to skirt the responsibility of figuring out how to manage and grow with their changing relationships. The fact that the conflict followed Roo south is testament to the fact that age isn't something that can be compartmentalized; it will fundamentally change who he is, wherever he is.
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Roo sits on the piano stool and Emma picks up Pearl's cup and saucer. Seeing how moody Roo looks, she tells him to not let Olive get him down. She confirms that she was indeed eavesdropping and on a day like this, she wouldn't miss it for the world. She sits down and seems pleased as she says that it's interesting to finally see everyone fighting, and she's only sad Nancy's not here to see it. She says that Nancy knew what was going on.
Finally, Emma uses her advanced age to step into the role of an all-knowing oracle of sorts. By implying that she (and Nancy) saw this conflict coming, she tells the reader/audience that age isn't something people can escape forever. It's inevitable, and refusing to adapt to one's advancing age has painful and even disastrous consequences.
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Roo says that Nancy got married, but Emma insists that Nancy purposefully got out while things were good. Emma says that she remembers everything. She recounts the very first Sunday when Nancy and Olive met Roo and Barney at the aquarium, and Nancy said that Roo and Barney were the only fish out of water. Emma says that she liked Nancy, and Roo says they all did.
Emma continues to construct Nancy as someone who was fully aware that the layoff season was something finite, and that the youthfulness that accompanied it was an act that she'd someday have to leave behind. The comment at the aquarium implies that Nancy knew Roo and Barney would struggle with these realizations.
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Suddenly, Roo asks Emma who's at fault for messing up the layoff season, him or Barney. Emma is astonished and asks him if he's kidding. She asks if he really thought the layoff seasons would last forever. Roo repeats his question and says it has to be somebody's fault, but Emma says that they're all just too old for it now. She tells Roo to look in the mirror, and when Roo resists, asks if the youthful Johnnie was a mirage. Roo insists that he's not old; Emma's old and Tony Moreno is old. At this, Roo turns to the mirror over the fireplace and studies his reflection, looking confused and concerned.
Though the notes and stage directions never give Tony Moreno's exact age, Roo's reaction here implies that Tony is likely within a few years of Roo himself. This shows that while Roo was able to understand that men his age can be considered old in some situations, he never made the leap that he could be considered old. Emma suggests that traditions simply cannot stay the same when people are constantly changing.
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Emma tells Roo he's not ancient yet, but he's not seventeen either, and she asks him to sit down. Roo, still confused, says that something went wrong and it was either his fault or Barney's. Emma concedes that Barney may have had more to do with the fight, but says that he's been slipping longer than Roo has. Roo quickly insists that one lousy cane season doesn't mean he's slipping, but Emma says it's just the first. She says that Roo will certainly still be able to earn a living, but he won't be the best anymore.
The conflict between Roo and Barney aside, Roo shows here that he still idealizes Barney and cannot conceive of the possibility that Barney might be “slipping.” The characters don't just idealize the traditions; they all idealize each other and fail to notice when the idealizations are no longer true.
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Emma asks Roo why he thinks Barney lied. Roo insists that lying is natural for Barney, but Emma says that Barney only started lying when women started brushing him off. She asks Roo to connect the dots that his own brush-off of Barney coincides with when Barney started lying about Roo. Annoyed, Emma says that both men were champions, but being champions would never last. She turns to leave, but Roo stops and says that she might be making sense. Emma says that if he and Barney had stopped to look, they would've seen this coming—like Nancy did.
By bringing up the concept of sight, Emma suggests in another way that the problems here are a matter of choosing to see the truth or not. She insists that it's not a horrible thing that Roo and Barney are no longer at the top of their games, and instead asks Roo to consider that this is just a natural consequence of aging. This idea will stick with Roo and carry over into his later conversation with Bubba.
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Roo asks about Olive. Emma says that Olive is a fool. She drags out the seventeenth doll from a cupboard and says that Olive was up in the middle of the night, hugging the doll and crying her eyes out: a grown woman crying over a baby doll. Emma tosses the doll on the table and goes upstairs to Olive. Roo miserably picks up the doll and fixes its skirts.
For all of Olive's subconscious signals that she's growing and maturing, Emma insists that Olive is resisting the hardest. Olive's meltdown over the doll is a heartbreakingly childish event, but Emma cannot muster sympathy when she sees that Olive is actively resisting maturity and change.
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Roo hears Bubba and Barney approaching. Barney tries to grab Bubba, but Bubba pulls free. Barney asks Bubba why she needs to talk to Olive, and Bubba looks hurt and confused as she explains that Olive will tell her whether it's true or not that the day at the races is canceled. Roo confirms that the races are indeed off. Barney says he told Johnnie last night that Bubba wouldn't be able to come. Bubba asks where Johnnie is staying, and says she'll go tell him herself that she can come. She threatens to wait outside the bar if Barney won't tell her. When Roo approaches her, she tells him he won't be able to talk her out of talking to Johnnie.
Roo and Barney are very much treating Bubba like a child by not allowing her agency in making the plans, and then not including her when the plans change. In the last twelve hours, however, Bubba has undergone a change herself: she now demands to be treated like an adult, and is even willing to do the “improper” and adult activity of going and finding Johnnie herself. This shows that Johnnie's words had an impact on Bubba, and showed her that she needs to mature in order to begin making her ideals her reality.
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Roo tells Bubba that she's certainly entitled to talk to Johnnie, but deserves to know why she was asked to the races in the first place. Barney says it's his fault and he was drunk, but Bubba insists that Johnnie asked her personally after sending Barney out. Roo tries to tell Bubba that Johnnie was drinking and likely doesn't even remember, and Barney asks if she'd like to make a fool of herself going down to see him.
The way that Barney and Roo tag team Bubba shows that their relationship isn't entirely finished; they can still come together to accomplish a common goal and protect someone close to them. As Barney accepts responsibility for being drunk, he also accepts that he's too old for such shenanigans.
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As he sits, Roo asks Bubba what's so important about going to the races. Bubba says emotionally that Johnnie asked her, and he asked to call her by her real name. She runs to Roo and says that even if Johnnie forgot, this is the closest she'll come to getting to experience for herself what she's witnessed for the last seventeen years. Barney tries to tell Bubba that Johnnie isn't like them, but Bubba says that Johnnie is more like Roo and Barney than any of the other men. Barney tries to disillusion Bubba, but Roo stops him and calls Bubba to him. He takes her hand and asks seriously if she's sure she knows what she's getting herself into. He asks if they've spoiled the layoff for her, but Bubba says that nothing else is as good as the layoff.
Unlike Roo and Barney, Johnnie gave Bubba a taste of what it's like to be treated like an adult by a masculine, attractive cane cutter. When she says that Johnnie is more like Roo and Barney than other men are, she insists that Roo and Barney are, as Emma said, past their prime: in his youth, Johnnie is the picture of cane-cutting masculinity that Bubba remembers from her childhood. This suggests also that Barney and Roo's attempts to continue playing that part were unsuccessful, as it disintegrated next to the real thing.
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When Roo asks if that's true even after last night, Bubba insists that what happened won't happen to her. Softly, Roo says that Bubba has outgrown them, and Bubba agrees. Roo asks Barney to tell Bubba where Johnnie is, and then tells Bubba to arrange to meet Johnnie somewhere and to tell him that Barney isn't talking sense so she doesn't make herself cheap. Barney scowls and grudgingly wishes Bubba the best. Bubba says that they don't have to worry about her, and Roo replies, "We know, Kathie." Bubba leaves, and Roo and Barney decide they'll beat up Johnnie if he's not good to her.
To some degree, Pearl's desire for decency has rubbed off on Roo. This shows that even if he idealizes his own youthful past, he also wants Bubba to do better and be better than those that came before her. By calling her Kathie, Roo tells Bubba that he finally sees and recognizes her as an adult and will endeavor to treat her that way. In accepting his own age, then, Roo also accepts Bubba's new sense of adulthood.
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Barney tells Roo that he's leaving to pick grapes with the boys and Johnnie. He asks Roo if he's going to make a fuss about it, and Roo insists he doesn't care anymore. Barney is shocked, but says that it's probably for the best, since they can't seem to coexist anymore. He continues, saying that he'll go pick grapes and they'll meet back up in the north for a fresh start at the beginning of the cane season. Roo slowly says that he's not going north this year; he's staying here. He insists the cold won't be so bad and it's time he made a change, and tells a mystified Barney that he's had too much of a good thing. Barney asks if Roo's quitting because of Bubba, which Roo denies.
Both men think that the only way to handle the changes is to throw out everything and start mostly fresh, abandoning their traditions and their friendship in the process. By deciding to stay in the city, Roo also accepts that he's never again going to be the hyper-masculine ganger that he once was, which suggests that he's open to exploring different ways to perform masculinity. He realizes that though working in the city makes him seem less masculine than the cane cutters, it doesn't entirely deprive him of being a man.
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Roo and Barney hear an argument upstairs. Olive, dressed for work, comes down the stairs followed by Emma. Emma turns for the kitchen as Olive enters the living room. Olive remarks snidely that the men can be in the same room together, and Barney says that they were fixing the damage. Olive insists the only damage was a broken vase and old decorations. Roo tries to reprimand Olive, and Barney reminds her that it's not just Olive who's suffering after the fight. Olive asks Barney if he's upset after losing Pearl. The three speak over each other, Olive catches that someone is leaving on Monday, and then Roo firmly sends Barney upstairs to pack.
Olive continues to unsuccessfully pretend that her life wasn't actually upended last night, which shows that Emma was right: Olive's immature habit of avoiding conflict means that she's entirely unable to handle these new adult problems that demand her attention. She's also extremely selfish here, as her jab about Pearl suggests more that she's upset her plan didn't work than honestly concerned for Barney's emotional wellbeing.
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Olive asks Roo if it's time to settle up, and asks him to tell her what all the broken decorations and seventeen summers are worth in cash. Angry, Roo says that he's not leaving; only Barney is. He tells her it's horrible to talk about money that way. Olive replies that Roo's the sort to just leave money on the mantel. Roo collects himself and says they've never been that low and cheap, but Olive insists she feels low and cheap after what's happened this summer. She says that Pearl made her feel that way. Roo is disgusted at this, but Olive says that she couldn't stand Pearl walking around and looking at everything, but not seeing what Olive wanted her to see. She starts crying and says that she never lied to Pearl, but Pearl didn't see any of the things Olive told her about.
Olive cannot make the leap (like Bubba did) that happy, positive memories and feelings are what allowed Olive to idealize the layoff season in the first place. Those things aren't things she can share or explain to another person, so this now leaves Olive isolated and unmoored. This is also a very youthful view to take on the world, which in turn suggests that at least in terms of emotional maturity, Bubba surpassed Olive when she realized how idealization really happens.
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Roo tries to comfort Olive and suggests that Pearl might've seen some of the charm, but Olive won't be convinced. Roo says that they'll just forget Pearl ever came as Olive fishes out a hankie and blows her nose. Roo teases her kindly about how she looks when she cries, and Olive insists to Roo that the butterfly decorations did fall apart when she touched them, but she admits that she didn't put the kewpie dolls back out because she was angry. Roo softly tells Olive that it's silly to treat her as a woman when she's really just a young girl. He kisses her and asks if she has to go to work, but Olive insists she must.
Roo finally understands that Olive is extremely immature, petty, and selfish—it's entirely appropriate to think of her as a young girl, even though she's close to 40. However, Roo's kindness as he makes this realization shows that he still loves Olive and idealizes their relationship, her immaturity aside. He still believes their relationship is built on mutual affection and trust, and will certainly weather this storm just fine.
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Olive asks Roo if he and Barney could come down for the afternoon, but Roo explains that Barney is still going to the races with the boys that he'll later leave with. When Olive asks if Roo couldn't get Barney to stay, Roo replies that Barney wouldn't take a job in the city. Olive says she doesn't blame him, and Roo tenses. Olive hesitantly asks if Roo would like to go with the boys and says she wouldn't mind, and Roo asks if Olive is trying to get rid of him. She replies that it just doesn't seem right for the two men to not leave together.
Olive's support for Barney's decision suggests that she still holds a very particular view of what makes a real man (that is, he doesn't work in the city). In turn, this begins to chip away at Roo's belief that his relationship with Olive is solid. Further, Olive shows that she cares more about upholding tradition than about her actual relationship when she asks Roo if he wants to go.
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Roo tells Olive that he's staying here with her. She stares at him and asks how he'll meet up with Barney for the start of the season, and Roo insists that Barney will be fine without him, since he has Johnnie now. He says that he's not going back ever again, and takes Olive in his arms. She's stiff and looks bewildered. Roo tenderly tells Olive that he wants to marry her, seventeen years too late. Olive freezes in horror for a moment before almost screaming "No!" at Roo. Roo is appalled at her reaction and asks her what's wrong, and she says that he has to go back. Olive continues screaming and asks Roo if he really thinks she'll let this end in marriage and the paint factory.
Rather than accept the changes and grow up, Olive goes backwards: her tantrum is a spectacularly childish one, thrown because she isn't getting what she wants. Because Roo believed that Olive cared more for him than she did for traditions, he never expected her to reject his offer. Essentially, he discovers that Olive prizes tradition (including the maintenance of Roo's masculinity in the cane fields) over caring love and happiness, simply because that kind of love isn't "exciting."
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Roo grabs Olive and shouts at her that she first told him that he made her look bad, and now she won't marry him. Olive breaks away and then runs back to Roo, pummeling his chest and yelling at him to give her back what he's taken. Roo grabs her wrists and tells her it's all gone, and then throws her away from him. Olive falls to the floor and sobs that she'll kill Roo before she lets him take it. Roo tells her to go ahead and kill him. He gets on the floor with her, hits it, and says that they're going to be here for the rest of their lives. Olive doubles over crying.
Roo hasn't "taken" anything but Olive's ability to ignore the truth that things have changed. His proposal of marriage is one that carries weight and means that there's no going back: either she says yes and things change, or she says no and things change anyway. In recognizing this, Olive shows that she does understand that maturity has come for her, but by continuing to throw her tantrum, she also continues to resist.
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Emma and Barney run in, asking about the commotion. Olive won't tell Emma what's going on. She gets up and walks to the door as though she's drunk, sobbing and gagging. She looks at Roo one last time before grabbing her bag, steadying herself, and wandering away. The others watch her for a minute and then Emma turns to the men. She tells them to leave Olive alone and never come back: the layoffs are over for everyone. Emma suddenly seems older as she leaves for the kitchen.
When Olive leaves, she tells Roo that she values her memories and their traditions over the real, grownup person Roo has become over the last several months. Emma then assumes the role of Olive's protective mother, reinforcing her loyalty to her daughter, which remains despite the end of the traditions.
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Barney quietly turns to Roo and says that the other boys, Johnnie included, can go to hell: the two of them can make a fresh start anywhere. He suggests several places they can go and tries to turn Roo's gaze away from the seventeenth doll, which sits on the piano. Roo, breathing heavily, picks up the doll. Barney continues throwing out suggestions but backs away from Roo. Roo begins to beat the doll against the piano until it's shattered and its clothes are shredded. He drops it, and a single scrap of silk clings to his fingers. Roo sways for a minute and drops to the piano stool. Barney puts his hand on Roo's shoulder and encourages him to get up. Roo stands and looks at the silk before finally letting it fall. He locks eyes with Barney, and they silently acknowledge what they've lost. They leave the house.
When Barney and Roo lose their opportunities to choose any other avenue, they reaffirm their friendship. In doing so, Barney and Roo show that platonic male friendship like theirs is stronger than their traditions, and will outlast their traditions as well. When Roo beats the doll, he damages a token that Olive might use to remember the layoff seasons and turns it into something ugly and violent—which is exactly what the seventeenth layoff season has been. In destroying the doll, he also destroys the magic.
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