For the past sixteen years, Barney, Roo, Olive, and Nancy have idealized the layoff season, the five months of each year that they spend lounging, drinking, going out, and having sex. They value this time beyond measure and without any sense that their lifestyle is shallow, immature, or possibly damaging in the long run. During the seventeenth summer of the layoff, however, Nancy doesn't participate because she recently married another man. To replace her, Olive invites her coworker, Pearl. Later in the summer, Roo and Barney's young coworker (and Roo's rival) Johnnie Dowd joins them for an evening, and the outside perspectives of Pearl and Johnnie make the group of friends realize that their idealized summers look very different, and much less fantastical, through the eyes of others.
Barney, Roo, and Olive idealize every aspect of the layoff season, from the drinking and the outings to the house where they stay. They describe with joy the trinkets that Barney and Roo have brought back from the north throughout the years and recount the parties they attended with obvious nostalgia. These three literally see the last sixteen years as perfect. However, Nancy's marriage hits Barney, Roo, and Olive very hard. As they think of their summers as "heaven" and "a time to live," they struggle to understand why Nancy would voluntarily choose to give them up. Nancy's marriage is therefore the group's first hint that the layoff season might not be as idyllic as they imagined.
Instead of allowing the summers of the past to remain in the past and creating a new summer routine that better fits their adult lives, Olive decides to replace Nancy to save their dying ritual. Though Olive realizes that things cannot be exactly the same without Nancy, she foolishly believes that Pearl will integrate seamlessly into the group's immature hijinks. Pearl, however, finds the entire arrangement indecent. She finds Emma's house, where the group stays, shabby; she thinks the traditional trips are boring; and she's entirely unimpressed by the legends and stories of years past. Pearl is also very vocal about all of this, which distresses Olive to no end—Pearl's comments challenge Olive's belief in the idyllic past. Olive's touchiness about the subject suggests that she's aware that the illusion is tenuous.
It's logical that Pearl, a widow with a nearly-adult child, would find the layoff season traditions immature, but it's telling that when Roo's adversary, 25-year-old Johnnie, visits, he's similarly disillusioned by what he sees. Johnnie tells Bubba that from the stories Roo and Barney told about their layoff season shenanigans, he expected to find something much grander than a shabby house filled with kewpie dolls. This suggests that even though Johnnie is a young man, he recognizes the absurdity of the middle-aged adults' youthful lifestyle. Their layoff season isn't idyllic in his eyes; it's sad and reinforces how out of touch with reality Roo and Barney are. In addition to objecting to the group's immature idealization of the layoff season, both Pearl and Johnnie also find it absurd that Olive, Roo, and Barney cannot acknowledge the reality that Bubba, a young neighbor who has witnessed the layoff season for all seventeen years, is no longer a child. Though Bubba looks and acts like the 22-year-old young woman that she is, her older companions continue to treat her as though she's still the young child they remember from years past. For them, it's essential that Bubba remain a child in their eyes because it allows them to imagine that nobody is aging and maintain the illusion of their idyllic past.
While the fight between Barney and Roo impresses upon them the undeniable and painful fact that the ideal they once strove for is no longer sustainable, their final conversation with Bubba makes them realize that they must pass the torch on to the younger generation. Bubba insists to them that she does still view the layoff seasons of the past as an ideal, and further, that she wants to recreate that ideal for herself as an adult. This shows that though the practice of sacrificing reality for a falsely idyllic lifestyle is over for the older generation, those of Bubba's generation will use what they witnessed as children (and still believe to be desirable) to imagine and map out their own futures. Though Bubba also witnessed the fights, discontent, and other ill effects of continuing the idealization for too long, she insists that sort of thing won't happen to her. Roo and Barney can only hope that by bearing witness to the consequences of their own prolonged idealization, Bubba—and the reader or audience—will be able to escape some of the pain they experienced as a result of refusing to accept reality.
Idealization vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Idealization vs. Reality Quotes in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
That's what the lay-off is. Not just playing around and spending a lot of money, but a time for livin'. You think I haven't sized that up against what other women have? I laugh at them every time they try to tell me. Even waiting for Roo to get back is more exciting than anything they've got.
All round would be the regulars—soft city blokes...and then in would come Roo and Barney. They wouldn't say anything...there'd just be the two of them walkin' in, then a kind of wait for a second or two, and quiet. After that, without a word, the regulars'd stand side to let 'em through, just as if they was a—a coupla kings. She always reckoned they made the rest of the mob look like a bunch of skinned rabbits.
Not as good as Roo when he's fit, mind yer, but he could run rings round the best of us. And this time he even made Roo look like a has-been. I never seen Roo git so mad, in no time at all he made it like a running fight between 'em, tryin' to git the better of this kid.
Olive: You didn't go with him?
Olive: Why not?
Barney: I dunno. It was all messed up. You know what Roo's always been to me, a sort of little tin god. I've never seen him in the wrong before.
No, they're not. Someone's taking special care. Other times they've been pretty, but this one's beautiful. You can see.
Gettin' a bit crowded, maybe you should start upstairs.
It's going to be just the same, isn't it? I mean, you'll still be going to Selby at Christmas time, and—and all the rest. You won't alter anything?
Y'know, it's a funny thing. All the wimmen I've ever knocked around with, there's never been one of them ever knitted anything for me. Now, why d'yer reckon that is?
The way you went on about everythin'—sounded just as if when they arrived, the whole town was gunna go up like a balloon.
...We come down here for the lay-off, five months of the year, December to April. That leaves another seven months still hangin'—what d'yer reckon Olive does in that time? Knocks around with other blokes, goes out on the loose every week? No, she doesn't, she just waits for us to come back again—coz she thinks our five months is worth all the rest of the year put together!
Oh, of course I've never been here, it's just the reputation that's been built up among the boys. I reckon you could say it's almost famous, up north.
All right. But the least you can do is to see what you've got as it really is. Take a look at this place now you've pulled down the decorations—what's so wonderful about it? Nothing! It's just an ordinary little room that's a hell of a lot the worse for the wear. And if you'd only come out of your day dream long enough to take a grown up look at the lay off, that's what you'd find with the rest of it.
You and Barney are two of a pair. Only the time he spent chasin' wimmin, you put in being top dog! Both of you champions! Well, that's all very fine and a lot of fun while it lasts, but last is one thing it just don't do. There's a time for sowing and a time for reaping—and reapin' is what you're doing now.
He might have been drinking, and this morning he might have forgotten like you said, but this is the only chance I've ever had of comin' close to—I dunno—whatever it is I've been watchin' all these years. You think I'd give that up?
And it's more than looking—it's havin' another woman walking around knowin' your inside and sorry for you 'coz she thinks you've never been within cooee of the real thing. That's what hurts. It was all true, everythin' I told her was true, an'—and she didn't see any of it.