Two women, Mrs. Wilkins and Mrs. Straw, enter a restaurant known for fairly good food and decent entertainment. Mrs. Wilkins, playing hostess, is very particular about the kind of table they receive, but Mrs. Straw does not have any problems with the table given by the headwaiter. The table is towards the back of the restaurant, far from the stage.
They order food, and as the lights dim for the first pair of dancers, Mrs. Straw notices an extravagantly dressed young woman entering the restaurant with a man. The older women disapprove of her dress and also criticize the appearance of her companion.
Their food arrives, and as they eat, the women realize that the companion is a ventriloquist and the next act at the restaurant. His dummy is a hideous wooden replica of himself. As he performs, the women criticize his act, and though the audience laughs perfunctorily, the ventriloquist and the dummy are not particularly compelling.
After completing his act, the ventriloquist returns to his original table with the girl, where he orders more drinks. They couple begin to argue with one another, for the girl thinks that the ventriloquist has had too much to drink and should stop. The ventriloquist, as himself, is fairly agreeable, but his dummy is insulting and disrespectful of the girl and her opinions. The argument escalates until the dummy tells the ventriloquist to leave the girl back on the streets.
Horrified, Mrs. Wilkins stands up, slaps the dummy across the face, then leaves the restaurant with Mrs. Straw. Left behind, the girl straightens the dummy’s head.
This story contains elements of the unnatural, for the dummy is treated as an autonomous identity even though he is of course only an extension of the ventriloquist. The alcoholic ventriloquist uses the dummy as an alter ego, an outlet for the ugliness within himself. After his act is over, the dummy continues to be treated like a separate being. The ventriloquist uses him as a buffer in his argument with his female companion. While the ventriloquist pretends to be kind and understanding, he expresses his true negative feelings about the woman through the dummy's unkind words (essentially calling her a street girl). The dummy unnaturally takes a life of its own and becomes an independent character as perceived by the other characters.
The ventriloquist's female companion and Mrs. Wilkins are complicit in the ventriloquist's identity deception (using the dummy as an alter ego or foil) because they acknowledge the existence of the dummy and address him as another equal being. Offended by the dummy's insults to the woman, Mrs. Wilkins fails to acknowledge that the ventriloquist is the true speaker of these insults. Instead, she slaps the dummy and thus grants this inanimate object a lifelike and distinct character. Likewise, when the woman reaches out to straighten the dummy's head, this act demonstrates how the dummy is considered a real person who must be maintained safely, not simply an inanimate object unaware whether its head is crooked. These examples demonstrate that the ventriloquist's fragmentation of himself is acknowledged as part of reality by those surrounding him. At the same time, there is something humorous in the slap and the straightening of the head; the whole scene is absurd.
On the serious side, the dummy is a symbol of the brokenness of the self, a theme evident in other Jackson works. This brokenness may eventually lead to destruction (as in "The Tooth," "The Daemon Lover," or Haunting of Hill House). The ventriloquist is broken into two parts: his actual self, in which he pretends to be kind and agreeable to his female companion, and the dummy, through which he expresses his ugly feelings. This is similar to the short story "Charles," in which the young boy Laurie retains a "good side" for his parents at home and invents an alter ego, Charles, for the part of him that misbehaves in school. In Jackson's works, fragmentation of the self can make a character more susceptible to insanity, though "The Dummy" does not elaborate upon this potential. Instead, this story emphasizes how this fragmentation can initially occur through one's desire to separate oneself from one's inherent evil or negative character traits.
Again, "The Dummy" features no clear protagonist or antagonist (probably the women are the protagonists), though the ventriloquist and his dummy are probably described in the least savory terms: "small and ugly" (148). While the ventriloquist, his companion, and the dummy may not be described favorably, the reader is no more drawn to the characters of Mrs. Wilkins or Mrs. Straw. Mrs. Wilkins in particular is characterized as a querulous and judgmental woman, who cannot be satisfied with any of the restaurant's offerings, the environment, and so on. She is unhappy with their table at the restaurant, then dissatisfied with the evening's entertainment acts, disapproving of the female companion's dress, and so on. Jackson's characterizations make it difficult for the reader to sympathize with any of the characters in "The Dummy"; the protagonists are minor, petty anti-heroes.
The outward conflict in this story occurs between the ventriloquist and his companion, though the true conflict lies in Mrs. Wilkins's reaction to the dummy's intrusive and shockingly rude statements. The reader might assume that in reality, any person would recognize the dummy as an extension of the ventriloquist, and thus punish the ventriloquist for the dummy's words and actions. In this story, however, Mrs. Wilkins treats the dummy as a separate entity, an act which serves as a metaphor for her acknowledgment of the fragmentation of the self. By acknowledging this, the ventriloquist's separation of identity is not merely a joke or a fantasy, but becomes a reality. This is further reinforced by his companion's actions as she fixes the dummy's head after it is slapped.