Summer of the Seventeenth Doll tells the story of four friends—Roo, Olive, Barney, and Nancy—whose summer tradition is changing. Roo and Barney, who work as sugarcane cutters in the bush seven months out of the year, spend their five non-working months (the "layoff season") with Olive and Nancy, engaging in all manner of youthful shenanigans. They've been observing this tradition for sixteen years, but the seventeenth year is different: Nancy has married another man so she can no longer participate, and a conflict in the cane fields leaves Roo unemployed and in need of a summer job. These unforeseen changes force all the characters to come face to face with the project of growing up, something that the deliberately youthful atmosphere of the layoff season has allowed them to put off until middle age. The characters' struggle to adapt to the basic facts of adulthood suggests that putting maturity off is not only foolish, it can have disastrous consequences.
During the seventeenth summer, Roo, Barney, and Olive work hard to maintain their sense of immature, youthful abandon in spite of the fact that they're all between the ages of 35 and 40. Barney and Olive in particular fully expect to spend the time drinking and going out on the town, as well as engaging in all the other youthful activities that occupied their time in years past. This is a conscious decision to live as though they're still in their early twenties, the age they were when the tradition began. However, their attempts to remain youthful are unconvincing and ultimately, unsuccessful. First, the stage directions offer a number of notes alluding to the physical signs of the characters' advancing age: Barney is going gray and has a potbelly, while the newcomer Pearl, who's the same age as Olive, dyes her hair. This suggests that even if the characters behave like they're twenty years younger, their bodies tell a different story about their age. The physical effects of aging are most noticeable in Roo, who gave up his job cutting cane because he couldn't keep up with Johnnie Dowd, a man 15 years his junior. Clearly Roo's body is aging, even if he refuses to mature emotionally.
Roo, Barney, and Olive are also disturbed by Nancy's decision to marry, a choice that symbolizes her acceptance of adulthood. The other characters see this as a threat to the preservation of their own artificial youthfulness. To fill the gap left by Nancy, Olive invites her coworker, the widow Pearl Cunningham, to take her place as Barney's romantic partner. Unlike Olive (and Nancy in years past), Pearl strives to look and act like a proper woman approaching 40. Further, Pearl doesn't find the traditional layoff season activities charming: she finds them immature and distasteful. While Pearl fully embraces adulthood, Olive intentionally cultivates her image to seem young. Like Nancy's decision to marry, this suggests that some aspects of aging (or youth) are conscious choices individuals can make. Though they try desperately and overwhelmingly to choose youth, on New Year's Eve the group bickers over what unfulfilling activity to do while Bubba, the young neighbor girl from next door, goes out dancing. Bubba, whose activities and actual age (22) mark her as young, makes clear that the older generation's attempt to stay youthful is failing.
The play ends with the characters still unsettled about their age, though acknowledging it slightly more. As Olive finally cleans the living room the night after Barney and Roo's fight, the disintegrating butterflies are a powerful reminder that Olive's youth is no longer with her. Further, when Olive puts her beloved kewpie dolls away—symbols of her own willful immaturity—it similarly represents Olive putting away her youth. This shows that, even though one can choose whether or not to mature, the process of aging is inevitable.
Youth, Maturity, and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Youth, Maturity, and Growing Up Quotes in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
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.
No, they're not. Someone's taking special care. Other times they've been pretty, but this one's beautiful. You can see.
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?
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.
H-how can I? All that's happened in a house makes a feeling—you can't tell anyone that. It's between people.
Bubba? Is that what they call you? Seems to me they're keeping you in the cradle, too. What's your real name?
I started off trying to fix up what they broke. After that, I couldn't seem to stop. Emma always sez tryin' to shift heavy furniture on your own's a sign you're crooked on the world. Wonder what spring cleanin' at two o'clock in the morning means?
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.
This is what I call interestin'. The lot of yez squabbling at last 'stead of all that playin' around went on other times. Only thing I'm sorry for is Nancy ain't here. She knew which way the wind was blowin', that one.
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?