For Further Study
"Who likes Rabbit, apart from his author?" Hermione Lee asks in The New Republic.
Sexist, dumb, lazy, illiterate (he spends the whole novel not finishing a book on American history), a terrible father … an inadequate husband, an unreliable lover, a tiresome lecher, a failing businessman, a cowardly patient, a typically "territorial" male: What kind of moral vantage point is this?
But, she writes, "What redeems Rabbit is that, inside his brutish exterior, he is tender, feminine, and empathetic."
Set in Brewer, Pennsylvania, a fictional counterpart of the real-life city of Reading, Rabbit, Run examines the experiences of a young man who is trapped in an unfulfilling life and his equally unfulfilling attempts to leave his family and find a new life. When the book was first published, it shocked many readers with its explicit descriptions of sexuality, and according to Robert Detweiler in John Updike, some reviewers even speculated that Updike wrote a scandalous novel on purpose to capture the attention of the reading public. However, Detweiler notes, in the ensuing decades, standards of what was appropriate and acceptable in novels have been greatly relaxed, and "it can now be appraised much more objectively in terms of its artistic qualities."
Since writing Rabbit, Run, Updike has written three other novels about Rabbit, at approximately ten-year intervals: Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Rabbit Angstrom has become Updike's most well-known character, and Rabbit, Run is his most recognized book title. He has won numerous awards and honors and is widely regarded as one of America's great novelists.
"I'm a publishing fool, so anything I did not publish must be pretty bad," John Updike told Michael Rogers in Library Journal, and indeed, Updike is widely regarded as one of America's most prolific novelists.
John Bemrose wrote in Maclean's, "For almost 40 years, Updike has catalogued the growing and aging pains of America's middle class with such tireless virtuosity and boyish effervescence that it sometimes seems he has drunk from the fountain of youth." Updike, who was born on March 18, 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, had what Bemrose called a "secure, slow-paced upbringing there." His father was a high school teacher who was bored and disenchanted with his work and had the urge to move on but never left his family. "There was a lot of complaining," Updike told Bemrose. "My father had an appetite for moving on. But it wasn't indulged to the point where he walked out and left me fatherless."
Updike currently lives in Beverly, Maryland, with his second wife, Martha; they were married in 1977, and Updike has four grown children from his first marriage. He spends three hours daily writing but does not usually use a word processor. "You can sneak into your imagination a little easier with pencil and paper," he told Bemrose.
"It was a friendlier time when I started out, certainly," Updike told Rogers. "Would my first novel, The Poorhouse Fair … even be published now, or would it get published by one of those gallant little university presses that's trying to fill the gap [in publishing and literature]? There is a relative lack of playfulness and experimentalism in the lists of the increasingly corporate publishers."
"Although a character like Rabbit Angstrom and I don't have the same sociological circumstances, a lot of my thoughts go into his brain," Updike told Rogers.
Updike has no thoughts of retiring. He told Rogers, "There's obviously a time when you should hang it up, but I don't feel I'm there yet. I still have things I'm trying to do, and I still get pleasure out of the challenge."
As Rabbit, Run opens, twenty-six-year-old former high school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is on his way home from his unfulfilling job as a demonstrator of a kitchen gadget, the MagiPeel vegetable peeler. He spots some kids playing basketball and joins their play, fantasizing about his lost glory days, then runs home to his tiny, squalid apartment. His wife, Janice, who is pregnant, is home watching television and drinking. She asks Rabbit to go get their car, pick up their son, Nelson, and get her some cigarettes. This string of errands weighs on Rabbit, who feels trapped and bored in his job, his marriage, and his life. He sees his son through the window of his inlaws' house and decides to leave him in their care. On impulse, he gets in the car and starts driving south, away from his old life.
Turning onto smaller and smaller roads, Rabbit gets lost, stopping for directions but receiving only enigmatic answers: one man tells him, "The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you get there." Eventually, demoralized, tired, and lonely, he turns around and finds his way back home. He does not want to go back to his wife and son, so he hides out with his former coach, Marty Tothero.
Tothero, who has a young girlfriend, arranges for her to bring a friend, Ruth, and the four of them go out to dinner. Rabbit goes home with Ruth, who is a part-time prostitute and impulsively decides to move in with her. He sneaks back to his own apartment to get his clothes. Although his wife is not there, the minister of Janice's parents' church, Jack Eccles, sees him and tries to convince him to return to his family. Although he does not succeed, he sets a date for Rabbit to meet him for golf the next week. Rabbit knows this is so that Eccles, and through him his wife's family, can keep tabs on him and perhaps persuade him to go home, but he agrees to show up.
Rabbit has quit his job for the MagiPeel company, and Eccles arranges for him to work as a gardener. Rabbit finds out that Ruth is pregnant, and Rabbit is the father of her child. Janice is angry at Rabbit for being irresponsible and dense. When Rabbit goes out with Ruth, they run into one of Ruth's former boyfriends, and Rabbit is filled with jealousy: he asks her to do everything for him, sexually, that she did for her other boyfriends, a demand she finds demeaning and humiliating.
That night, Eccles notifies Rabbit that Janice is in the hospital, giving birth to their baby. Rabbit runs out on Ruth and goes to the hospital where he is reunited with Janice. Back in their apartment, he and Nelson wait for Janice to come home from the hospital.
Rabbit begins working for Janice's father at his used-car lot, and Janice comes home with the baby. Rabbit goes to church but only because he has seen Eccles's wife who is pretty and who flirts with him, and he's interested in her. That night, Janice pushes him away, and he leaves, wandering around town and looking for Ruth. He still feels trapped, bored, and frustrated with life; none of these women are the answer.
When Rabbit abandons her again, Janice is hurt and depressed, and she starts drinking to dull the pain, drinking all night and all the next day. Her mother is coming to visit her, and she tries to give the new baby a bath before the visit, but she is so drunk that she unintentionally lets the baby drown in the bath.
Rabbit, horrified and guilt-stricken over his child's death, goes back to Janice, feeling that the death is his fault: if he had not left Janice, it would never have happened. At the baby's funeral, however, he begins to believe that the child is now in heaven. He is buoyed up by this thought, almost happy, but Janice doesn't share or understand his sense of peace and release. He tries to explain to her that he now understands that she, like the baby, is a victim, but no one else knows what he's talking about—including Janice. At the burial, he runs away from the graveyard, which is at the foot of a mountain, and flees into the forest that covers its slopes. He wanders, alienated and lost, and eventually returns to town and goes to Ruth.
As the novel ends, Rabbit is running again—this time, from Ruth, still feeling trapped, looking for a new life, a way out.
A twenty-six-year-old former high school basketball star, Rabbit is now unhappily married to Janice, who is pregnant. He has a young son, Nelson, and a boring and unfulfilling job selling kitchen gadgets for the Magipeel vegetable peeler company. He is restless and unhappy, unable to regain his former glory as a sports star, and he feels trapped by the mundane demands of being a husband and father. Rabbit leaves home, looking for something—he doesn't know what—that will show him there is meaning in life. He senses that there must be something greater and more meaningful than the world he lives in, but he doesn't know what that is.
Although Rabbit is a seeker, in a religious sense he is naïve. He has been raised Christian but only has a limited, Sunday-school awareness of what this means, in the sense that he knows some things are considered sinful, such as alcohol, gambling, and cigarettes. He is also aware that cheating on his wife and leaving his family are sinful, but this awareness does not stop him from doing so; his feeling that he needs to find himself takes precedence over these rules. "If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price," he says at one point. His spiritual shallowness is shown in one scene, in which he is lying in bed with his girlfriend Ruth, a prostitute, and he prays. As Rachael C. Burchard wrote in Yea Sayings, this prayer doesn't change his actions, but "it comforts and reassures him, allowing him to ignore responsibility."
Rabbit is also naïve about women; although he is twenty-six years old, he seems unable to see women as people who exist apart from his sexual desire for them. He seems incapable of seeing a woman, any woman, without having sexual fantasies about her, and he thinks all these women are equally interested in him, despite evidence to the contrary. His inability to contain his immature sexual impulses leads him to act irresponsibly and to hurt others. He is also constantly on the lookout for a new conquest and compares sexual relationships to his high school success in sports:
I once played a game real well. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate.
Rabbit's wife, who is pregnant with their second child in the beginning of this novel, is also bored and disillusioned but fills up the void in her life with alcohol and television. She simply wants Rabbit to behave like an ordinary husband and can't understand why he has the urge to run. In the morning, Updike writes,
She feels the workday approaching like an army of light, feels the dark ridged houses beneath her as potentially stirring, waking, opening like castles to send forth their men, and regrets that her own husband is unable to settle into the rhythm of which one more beat is about to sound. Why him? What was so precious about him?
Like Rabbit, Janice is not very articulate and is inclined to avoid problems rather than discuss them and make changes. After a nasty fight, in which she and Rabbit curse and demean each other, she goes into the kitchen and calls, "And honey pick up a pack of cigarettes, could you?" as if everything is normal. Of course it isn't, and she drinks to dull her emotional pain. At the end of the book, this avoidance has disastrous consequences when she gets very drunk and accidentally drowns her new baby.
Eccles is Janice's parents' clergyman, an Episcopal minister. Although he professes to be religious, he does not have any faith. He plays golf with his churchgoers so he can be a pal to them and hangs out at that corner soda shop with teenagers, again being a pal. His wife is aware of the self-serving nature of these actions, however, and she remarks that he does not particularly want to help the teenagers; he is merely titillated by the teenagers' questions about how far you can "go" on a date without being sinful. He is similarly chastised by another minister, Reverend Kruppenbach, who tells him, "[You are] a minister of God selling his message for a few scraps of gossip and a few games of golf."
Unlike Rabbit, who places his own search for meaning above conventional religious and moral rules, Eccles is more interested in getting people to follow the rules than in the meaning behind them. Eccles believes actions are more important than meaning and belief, and in fact does not seem to have much belief in anything. When Rabbit asks Eccles, "Remember that thing we used to talk about? The thing behind everything?" meaning the source of meaning in life, Eccles says, "Harry, you know I don't think that thing exists in the way you think it does."
Because Eccles is more interested in behavior than belief, he tries to get Rabbit to go back to his wife and get a respectable job. Similarly, he meddles in other people's lives, trying to get them to behave as society says they should, without reflecting on the meaning of their lives. As Donald J. Greiner wrote in John Updike's Novels, he is "more a social worker than a man of faith."
- Rabbit, Run was filmed by Warner Bros. in 1970 and starred James Caan as Rabbit.
This conflict between Eccles' lack of faith and the demand of his profession that he have faith is evident in Eccles' every move. Updike writes, "Ec-cles wrestles in the pulpit with the squeak in his voice. His eyebrows jiggle as if on fishhooks. It is an unpleasant and strained performance, contorted; somehow; he drives his car with an easier piety."
Lucy is Eccles' wife. She flirts with and teases Rabbit. Although she's a pastor's wife, she is not particularly religious and is more interested in the psychosexual theories of Sigmund Freud than in the church. She feels trapped and bored with the "nice" behavior enforced on her by the role of minister's wife and is immediately attracted to Rabbit and his similar rebellion against accepted behavior. She flirts with Rabbit and asks him to walk her home, but then when he approaches her, she is insulted and won't do anything with him.
Ruth is a no-nonsense kind of woman; she is realistic about her life. A part-time prostitute, she is protective of her own heart and is naturally suspicious of Rabbit's motives when he sleeps with her and almost instantly demands to be her husband, though he is still married to Janice. Secretly, she knows he will go back to his wife, but she is charmed by him. She is heavy, solidly built, and her solidity is comforting to Rabbit, who uses Ruth as a kind of anesthetic against the demands of life: "If he can just once more bury himself in her he knows he'll come up with his nerves all combed."
Tothero is Rabbit's old coach, a washed-up old man who lives in a shabby room above a men's club. When Rabbit first leaves Janice, he goes to Tothero, who takes him in, gets him to go out on a double date, and introduces him to Ruth Leonard. Updike writes of Tothero, "He looks like a big tired dwarf. He seems foreshortened; a balding big head and a massively checkered sports coat and then stubby legs in blue trousers that are too long …" Tothero is what Rabbit might become if he doesn't take care: a broken-down old man who was once a sports hero and still reminisces sadly about his former glory.
Topics for Further Study
- Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, rebels against his life. Read The Catcher in the Rye and write about how these two characters are similar and how they differ.
- In the late 1950s, when the book was written, the feminist movement had not yet occurred. All of the women in the book are wives or are otherwise dependent on men, with no careers or work of their own. How do you think the feminist movement affected relationships between women and men, and how do you think it might affect the relationships of the couples in Updike's book?
- When Rabbit goes on his road trip, he is surprised to find that all of America is not the same—that people can tell he is from somewhere else simply by looking at him. Do you think the different regions of America have become more similar to each other since the late 1950s, or are there still places that are very different from each other? In your own travels, what have you noticed that makes other people and places seem different from those where you live?
- Rabbit feels compelled to find a meaningful life, even if his search hurts others. Do you think this is right? Why or why not?
- Rabbit was a 'big man' in high school but has not done anything notable since then. Because athletic skill is dependent on physical factors that usually change with age, most athletes have to face the fact that at some point, they must enter a different career and find success in another area of life. For example, some athletes, such as young Olympic gymnasts, reach their peak in their early teens. After this, their athletic ability declines and they must find new careers or work in a different area of their sport. Research the life of a young athlete you admire and discuss how he or she dealt with this change, or how he or she plans to continue to be successful.
In John Updike, Susan Henning Uphauser wrote that "many critics have identified Rabbit's running as a religious quest, a search for meaning beyond the natural world." Of all the characters in the novel, he is the only one who senses that there is meaning hidden somewhere in life, that "somewhere behind all this … there's something that wants me to find it." In 1950s American society, which Uphauser characterized as "spiritually suffocating," of course, he cannot find this meaning. Thus, she wrote, "Updike conveys the confusion, meaninglessness, and uncertainty in American society today."
As Uphauser points out, Updike makes the image of the quest clear in each of the three sections of the book: in the first section, he and Ruth climb the mountain, which is called Mount Judge, hoping to find a truth at the top. They don't find anything, and Rabbit turns to Ruth as if she is the truth he seeks. In the second section, Rabbit goes to church but is again distracted by sexual desires when he sees the minister's wife, who flirts with him. In the third section, he climbs the mountain again but is frightened by the lonely, alienated feeling he experiences at the top, so he runs back to town and to Ruth.
Updike does not present any answers to Rabbit's quest; readers don't have any sense that he will ever find what he's looking for or that he will solve his difficulties with women, with trust, with finding fulfillment and happiness and a home that doesn't strangle him. In this, Updike is extremely honest, since for many people, this is how life is. Many people feel bored, disillusioned, and trapped, and just as Rabbit is not comforted by traditional religious views (in the form of Jack Eccles), many Americans are similarly not comforted by traditional religion. Unlike older societies and those in which traditions are still strong, American society does not offer any absolute answers to those seeking meaning in their lives. Like Rabbit, many people wander from job to job, state to state, and relationship to relationship, in search of the same "something" that Rabbit seeks.
A Complicated Hero
Rabbit evokes conflicting feelings in most readers. Many readers are angered by Rabbit's desertion of his family, his philandering, and his sleazy attitude toward women: this is not what is expected from the hero of a book. On the other hand, some of Rabbit's other qualities are admirable. He wants his life to be meaningful, and will settle for nothing less. He is driven to seek a meaningful life, and resists the common life that everyone else in the book accepts unquestioningly. He questions his job, his marriage, his past, his choice of girlfriends, and sees his whole life, and other people's lives, as examples of hypocrisy. He refuses to settle, thinking "somewhere there was something better for him than listening to babies cry and cheating people in used-car lots." When Jack Eccles tells him to be a man, act "mature," and take care of his family, Rabbit is horrified, since to him, being "mature" is "the same as being dead." As Uphauser notes, "And indeed, maturity, settling 'into the nationwide rhythm' of meaningless and monotonous work, devotion to family, the acquisition of material objects, may imply spiritual death."
Like many readers, other characters in the novel deplore and admire these same qualities in Rabbit. Ruth hates how irresponsible he is but admires him because, she says, "in your stupid way you're still fighting," and Eccles wants Rabbit to go back to his family but admires his spiritual questioning, his odd faith in God, and his sense of a supernatural level of reality beyond the stale grind of daily life.
Updike's Emphasis on Sex and Sports
One aspect of the novel that offends many critics and readers is Updike's emphasis on sex. Rabbit sees every woman he meets in sexual terms, and he uses the exhilaration he feels in sex as an attempt to come closer to the meaningful, intense, spiritual side of life that he's seeking. However, his sexual experiences are all ultimately unfulfilling and don't lead him any closer to the "something" he wants to reach.
As an ex-star athlete, Rabbit sees his chosen sport of basketball in sexual terms: the two kinds of physical achievement are the same in his mind. Sports are like sex, sex is like sport, and all of them are allied to religion in his mind: his actions are an attempt to come in contact with something greater than the self.
Updike's Use of Metaphor
As Hermione Lee pointed out in the New Republic, in Updike's work, everything becomes a metaphor: every ordinary object and event can be seen as signifying something else, often a larger truth. "This is the most metaphorical writing in American fiction, except for Melville's," she wrote. Rabbit sees everything as meaningful but also as strange. Lee commented on Updike's comparisons of Rabbit's heart to many things: it's described as "a fist, an amphitheater, a drum, a galley slave, a ballplayer waiting for the whistle." In Updike, she noted, "no object, no creature, is too ordinary or too technical to be subjected to metaphor."
Updike's work is notable for its rich, precise, and accumulated detail of ordinary life. Lee quoted other reviewers, who loved Updike's "meticulous taxonomy" of "the material nature of the world," and admire his "saluting and memorializing American superabundance." Updike spends the same amount of energy on details of passing scenes that he does on crucial moments, so every moment in the book, no matter how small and fleeting, is extraordinarily vivid. For example, when Rabbit stops at a roadside cafe for coffee late at night, Updike writes,
Somehow, though he can't put his finger on the difference, he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men sitting in booths three to a girl, the girls with orange hair hanging like wiggly seaweed or loosely bound with gold barrettes like pirate treasure. At the counter middle-aged couples in overcoats bunch their faces forward into the straws of gray ice-cream sodas.
In another scene, Updike describes a street corner: "Tall two-petalled street-sign, the cleat-gouged trunk of the telephone pole holding its insulation against the sky, fire hydrants like a golden bush: a grove." This level of detail is continued throughout the book and combines with Updike's use of present tense to make the book as vivid and immediate as a movie. In addition, it gives readers a rich sense of life in middle-class America in the second half of the twentieth century. Anthony Quinton wrote in a Times (London) review that "what [the Rabbit books] amount to is a social and, so to speak, emotional history of the United States over the last twenty years or more."
Use of the Present Tense
Rabbit, Run, unlike many other novels, is written entirely in the present tense. Instead of presenting Rabbit's story as something that is over-and-done with, Updike uses present tense to give the story an immediate, "this-is-happening-now" quality, which has the effect of making readers feel they are right there in the action. For example, when he is driving south to get away from his home, Updike writes, "The road twists more and more wildly in its struggle to gain height and then without warning sheds its skin of asphalt and worms on in dirt. By now Rabbit knows this is not the road but he is afraid to stop the car to turn it around. He has left the last light of a house miles behind."
According to Alice and Kenneth Hamilton in The Elements of John Updike, the author deliberately chose this technique to give his prose a cinematic quality. They quote author Jane Howard, to whom Updike said,
I originally wrote Rabbit, Run in the present tense, in a sort of cinematic way. I thought of it as Rabbit, Run: A Movie. Novels are descended from the chronicles of what has long ago happened, but movies happen to you in the present, as you sit there.
In John Updike, Robert Detweiler wrote that Updike "composes the whole novel in the historical present to provide a precarious dramatic immediacy—a short-story technique that functions very well in this long narrative."
According to Erik Kielland-Lund in New Essays on Rabbit, Run, "John Updike has said that the book is a product of the fifties and not really in a conscious way about" the fifties. However, Kielland-Lund noted, the book aptly reflects the American world at that time, in often dazzling detail. Even when it was published, Kielland-Lund noted, the book was recognized as reflecting "characteristics of society at that time": individualism, immaturity, religiosity, and love of sports. Donald J. Greiner wrote in John Updike's Novels that, as Updike himself noted in the foreword to the Modern Library edition of the book, it was written in 1959, in the present tense. The time of its writing contained the time of its action. Thus, the songs Rabbit hears on the radio, the news he hears, and the styles he sees were typical of the late fifties. According to Greiner, Updike has also said, "My fiction about the daily doings of ordinary people has more history in it than the history books."
The 1950s were known as the age of conformity because of the widespread emphasis on behaving according to rather strict, and preferably unexamined, social mores. People were urged to go to church, to be patriotic, to work hard, and to raise families, without really questioning whether they truly wanted to do these things.
During the 1950s, family stability was highly valued. Divorce rates dropped and birth rates rose. Men and women were taught to see getting mar-ried and having a family as the ultimate attainment of respectability and adult status, a sort of happily-ever-after Cinderella story of domestic bliss, and they married younger than people do today: Rabbit, at twenty-six, remarks that he married relatively late. Men were expected to be the sole providers for their families, preferably through working in business, while their wives stayed at home taking care of children. For those who found that this dream was a nightmare, however, there was little opportunity for constructive escape.
Some people, like Rabbit's wife Janice, found escape in alcohol and tranquilizers, which Kiel-land-Lund noted have been called the "American housewife's answer to what [Betty Friedan] calls 'the problem that has no name.'" Separated from the chance to engage in productive work, these women often suffered from low self-esteem and used tranquilizers and alcohol to get through the day.
During this decade, television became for the first time the dominant medium of communication and entertainment, and millions of Americans watched situation comedies, family shows, and game shows, such as the one Rabbit watches in Janice's hospital room:
The idea is all these women have tragedies they tell about and then get money according to how much applause there is, but by the time the M.C. gets done delivering commercials and kidding them about their grandchildren and their girlish hairdos there isn't much room for tragedy left.
Other popular television shows such as Leave It to Beaver and The Mickey Mouse Club showed wholesome families and youngsters who suffered only minor, amusing problems, furthering the view of the normal family as a father, a mother, and children, as well as the idea that divorce was uncommon and shameful.
In the 1950s an increasing number of Americans began attending college: this boom in enrollment was largely funded by the GI Bill, a government scholarship program that gave low-cost student loans to soldiers who had fought in World War II.
At that time, the feminist revolution was still a couple of decades away, and the contemporary attitudes toward women are reflected in the book. Women were supposed to be mothers, wives, or girlfriends; they were not considered to have much of an existence apart from men. The pinnacle of a girl's life was supposed to be the day she married, and other contributions of women to society were downplayed.
Compare & Contrast
- 1950s: In 1959, the average American yearly in come is $5,016.
Today: In 1999, the average yearly income is $53,350.
- 1950s: In 1959, there are 3,287 AM radio stations, 578 FM stations, and 509 television stations in the United States.
Today: In 1999, there are 4,782 AM radio stations, 5,745 FM radio stations, and 1,599 television stations in the United States.
- 1950s: In 1959, the cost of a new car averages $2,132.
Today: In 2000, the average cost of a new car is over $20,000.
- 1950s: In the 1950s, when fathers abandon their children, as Rabbit does in the case of both Janice and Ruth, it is difficult for the children's mothers to force them to pay child support, or even to prove that the children are the man's offspring.
Today: Legislation helps mothers force fathers to pay child support, and DNA testing can be used to prove that a man is the father of a child.
Because Updike is a realist, he shows the dark side of this dream: restriction always leads to some form of rebellion, and the fifties were no exception. Despite being an age of conformity, as Sanford Pinsker pointed out in New Essays on Rabbit, Run, "the 1950s were also anxious … jumpy, and filled with rebelliousness." Rabbit Angstrom personifies this rebelliousness as he struggles against the traps of family, work, and social expectation.
"The novels of John Updike have spawned a criticism remarkable in its contentiousness," Bernard A. Schopen wrote in Twentieth Century Literature. "His books have evoked critical outrage, bewilderment, condescension, commendation, and an enthusiasm approaching the fulsome. The same novel might be hailed as a major fictional achievement and dismissed as a self-indulgence or a failure." In John Updike, Susan Henning Uphauser wrote,
Rabbit, Run has elicited a spectrum of responses so varied that it is difficult to believe that critics are writing about the same novel. Many first reviewers admired Updike's style but repudiated the novel, emotionally offended. Recent criticism identifies Rabbit, Run as the most powerful of Updike's novels. Yet its ability to offend remains.
And in John Updike's Novels, Donald J. Greiner wrote that it "continues to upset the unprepared reader." It does so for several reasons: chief among these are its explicit sexuality and its moral ambiguity.
Many reviewers have been deeply offended by Updike's explicit descriptions of sexual scenes. Eliot Fremont-Smith wrote in the Village Voice,
It must have been the sexuality that so upset the respectable critics…. Their consternation had to do with what seemed a great divide between John Updike's exquisite command of prose … and the apparent no-good vulgar nothing he expended it on.
Alfred Chester, one of the earliest reviewers of Updike, wrote, "A God who has allowed a writer to lavish such craft upon these worthless tales is capable of anything," according to Sanford Pinsker in New Essays on Rabbit, Run.
In many cases, these critics seemed to be allowing their disgust with Updike's descriptions of sex to color their perception of his work as a whole. Robert Detweiler wrote in John Updike, "As frequently happens, the furor accompanying the depiction of sexual amorality increased the difficulty of judging the novel's artistic quality. Most of the reviews appeared to be impulsive reactions to the subject matter rather than measured assessments." However, even in today's more permissive atmosphere, the novel still offends some readers, largely because of Rabbit's (and, some reviewers believe, Updike's) obsession with sex.
Despite this, those who are not offended have found depth and meaning in the novel that escaped some earlier critics. Donald J. Greiner wrote in John Updike's Novels that in the decades since the book's publication, as the furor over sexual explicitness has subsided, it has become apparent that in the book Updike
… takes a common American experience—the graduation from high school of a star athlete who has no life to lead once the applause diminishes and the headlines fade—and turns it into a subtle expose of the frailty of the American dream…. It is now clear that he has written a saga of middle-class America in the second half of the twentieth century.
Because Updike does not offer a clear moral perspective in his books, some readers have asserted that Updike is unwilling or unable to deal with serious moral issues, that his books are self-indulgent rambling, and that he has nothing substantial to say. However, other critics see this ambiguity as a positive feature of the novel, contributing to its depth. As Erik Kiel-land-Lund noted in New Essays on Rabbit Run, "Updike's fiction consistently opens more doors than it closes and asks many more questions than there are simple answers to," and "Whether it is a question of freedom versus commitment, alienation versus belonging, faith versus skepticism, or egotism versus altruism, Updike manages to convey both the difficulty and the seriousness of the human condition."
Susan Henning Uphauser wrote that in her opinion these wildly differing but fervently held convictions about the worth—or worthlessness—of the novel prove its artistic success, since, she wrote, Updike intended to jar his readers, to make them feel as uncomfortable and ambivalent about their lives as Rabbit feels about his. "Faced with irreconcilable conflicts, our first response may be, like Rabbit's, to run," she wrote, and she noted that this response proved Updike's success in getting readers to identify with Rabbit's situation.
Use of Language
Whether they believe his work is moral or immoral, pointless or deeply meaningful, many of Updike's critics agree that he has great command of the English language. Rachael C. Burchard wrote in Yea Sayings that "His style is superb. His work is worth reading if for no reason other than to enjoy the piquant phrase, the lyric vision, the fluent rhetoric." In John Updike, Susan Henning Uphauser commented, "In the midst of diversity there are certain elements common to all Updike's writing. Most important, there is Updike's remarkable mastery of language."
However, like almost all commentary on Updike, this area is also controversial. In Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, John W. Aldridge wrote that Updike
… has none of the attributes we conventionally associate with major literary talent. He does not have an interesting mind. He does not possess remarkable narrative gifts or a distinguished style. In fact, one of the problems he poses for the critic is that one has real difficulty remembering his work long enough to think clearly about it.
Sanford Pinsker remarked in New Essays on Rabbit Run that those who dislike his work
… often count up the references to popular culture—from newspapers and magazines to radio and television—and conclude that he says far too much about far too little. One would be hard pressed to think of a subject, however inconsequential, which Updike's prose would tinge with purple.
Readers Love It
Whatever the critics say, many readers love the book. In 1998, readers of Library Journal included Rabbit, Run in their list of their favorite books of the twentieth century, but it was not included on the more highly regarded Modern Library List of the twentieth century's greatest novels. "I did feel a little hurt," Updike told Library Journal interviewer Michael Rogers. "You like to be on lists as long as they exist."
Winters is a freelance writer and editor and has written for a wide variety of academic and educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the theme of the quest in John Updike's novel.
In The Elements of John Updike, Alice and Kenneth Hamilton wrote,
Updike directs us to those aspects of earth which can speak to us of heaven and show us how to relate ourselves qualitatively to it. He gives us … specific scenes set in one particular place at one particular time … concrete situations confronting us from day to day. And he lets us see that, behind the shifting surface of the experiences life brings us, there is one constant question which each of us must answer for himself: Does the universe, blindly ruled by chance, run downward into death; or does it follow the commands of a Living God whose Will for it is life?
Throughout the book, Rabbit looks for the answer to this question although he does not consciously think of it in religious terms. He is on a quest for meaning, and his story is in some ways the oldest story in the world: people have been telling tales of quests for thousands of years.
Dean Doner wrote in John Updike: A Collection of Critical Essays that the novel is successful because Rabbit is symbolic of us all, and his search for meaning and purpose in his life reflects a uniquely twentieth-century view of this search. The things Rabbit flees from are the things that oppress many people in modern society: Doner summed them up as
an economy which traps a man into mean, petty, lying hucksterism; tenement-apartment housing which traps a man and his family into close, airless, nerve-shattering 'togetherness'; unimaginative, dirty cities which offer no release for the spirit; the ugly voices of advertising and television.
The book is also different from many older quest stories because, traditionally, the person on a quest is a purer soul than Rabbit is. Rabbit has a rudimentary awareness of sin—he thinks of smoking, gambling, and drinking as sins, in a Sunday-school sort of way—but does not connect the facts that he's cheating on his wife and abandoning his child with the notion of sin. In his mind, his own search for self overrides the concept of sin: if he is truly being himself, everything's okay, and he even says, "If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price." This makes him a complex and often annoying character to the reader, who simultaneously admires Rabbit's insistence on finding himself and is disgusted by how Rabbit goes about doing so. In the classical quest, the hero is a "hero" in every sense of the term: someone who is admirable, or who is at least conscious of his or her own shortcomings.
The book begins with an actual, physical quest: Rabbit hops in his car and takes off, heading south, which to him is a kind of promised land of milk and honey:
He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with the stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health.
Significantly, he can't get there as easily as he imagined. The road turns. "But he is going east, the wrong direction, into unhealth, soot, and sting, a smothering hole where you can't move without killing somebody." Although he temporarily escapes this trap, for the rest of the book, Rabbit will not be able to do anything without hurting someone: his wife Janice, Ruth, himself, and, indirectly, his new baby.
Not realizing that the trap he's in is more spiritual than physical, he keeps on driving. He has no map, and when he gets one, it only confuses him. An old gas station attendant, who picks up on his confusion, tells him, "The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you're going before you go there." Of course, he has no idea exactly what he wants out of life, or even this road trip, and this advice only makes him aware of his confusion and angers him. He wanders, apparently almost in circles and ends up on a road that grows more and more narrow as it steeply climbs. "By now Rabbit knows this is not the road but he is afraid to stop the car to turn it around. He has left the last light of a house miles behind." The road ends in a lovers' lane, where everyone has someone except him. The map, far from being helpful, is now a trap: "a net, all those red lines and blue lines and stars, a net he is somewhere caught in." He rips up the map, is frightened when another car comes up behind him, and drives blindly off. He knows he must go back home and face his life, instead of running away from it, but he doesn't go home; he keeps on running from his family.
This sequence foreshadows the track of the whole novel; throughout the book, Rabbit encounters various people and then runs from them: his wife, Ruth, Eccles. He is looking for "something that wants him to find it," something beyond the physical reality of his life, the cluttered apartment, the "tightening net" of his empty marriage and meaningless job. As Rachael C. Burchard wrote in Yea Sayings, Rabbit's story is intended to show that people need "some undefined element which modern American culture—specifically twentieth-century Christianity, small Pennsylvania town version—has not provided." Rabbit's "misdirected and uncharted search" is symbolic of the inner search many people must undergo when they realize that modern culture does not satisfy their need for meaning, purpose, and connection.
Whenever Rabbit follows social customs, or does what others want him to do, he gets in trouble. He is the kind of man who should not have married when he did, should not have "settled down" and had a child before he was ready, but that was simply what everyone did. In fact, whenever Rabbit does what other people, or society, require from him, he only gets deeper in trouble; as Dean Doner wrote in "Rabbit Angstrom's Unseen World," "The road map—the way laid out for him by other people—always leads Rabbit further into the net" of confusion, staleness, and despair.
Rabbit, like characters in other Updike novels, is experiencing a midlife crisis—perhaps a little early, given that he is only in his mid-twenties, but it is at this point that people often examine their lives, reassess what they have done, and find it lacking; life is not fulfilling, and something must be done before it's too late. Updike is interested in middles: as he told Jane Howard in Life magazine,
There is a great deal to be said about almost anything. Everything can be as interesting as every other thing. An old milk carton is worth a rose…. The idea of a hero is aristocratic. Now either nobody is a hero or everyone is. I vote for everyone. My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class. I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.
In keeping with Updike's interest in ambiguity, there is no clear answer to Rabbit's search. Bernard Schopen wrote in Twentieth Century Literature that "Updike has said that the central theme of each of his novels is meant to be a moral dilemma, and that his books are intended as moral debates with the reader." However, Schopen also noted, Updike "believes there are no solutions" to the moral dilemmas he presents and "specifically rejects the notion that literature should inculcate moral principles or precepts." Updike creates a "morally ambiguous" world, in which the characters are complex and in which they cannot be easily divided into good and bad people.
In his encounters with others, Rabbit often seems on the verge of breaking through to finding some source of meaning, but ultimately, these things are shown to be empty. Chief among them are the church, in the person of the minister Jack Eccles, who, far from being inspiring, is if anything more shallow and morally flawed than Rabbit, who at least has belief in "something"—which the minister lacks.
Unlike many other quest stories in which the hero (or heroine) finds what he or she was looking for and is transformed, Updike's story has no clean ending. At the end of the book, Rabbit is still seeking, and the church has provided no answers. He runs from Ruth's demand that he marry her and out in the street "lifts his eyes to the church window. It is, because of church poverty or the late summer nights or just carelessness, unlit, a dark circle in a limestone facade." There is no light, or guidance, for him there.
There is light, however, "in the streetlights," a sign that the only real answer to his quest is to continue seeking. "He decides to walk around the block, to clear his head and pick his path." At least, although he's still seeking, he's finally beginning to follow the old gas station man's advice to "figure out where you're going before you go there." However, although he tries, he still doesn't really know what he's doing and walks blindly. Updike writes,
His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: run. Runs.
Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Rabbit, Run, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following review of Rabbit at Rest, Lee analyzes the character of Rabbit Angstrom as presented by Updike through the four "Rabbit" novels.
When Rabbit at Rest was recently published in Britain, John Updike made an appearance on television. Smiling urbanely in a solid tweed jacket, and looking like a priest disguised as a banker, he seemed to identify uncomplicatedly with Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom as a "good person"—"good enough for me to like him." In Rabbit, Run, we were told, he acted out Updike's unfulfilled desire to have been a six-foot-three basketball hero. In Rabbit Redux, he reflected Updike's own "conflicted" conservatism. In Rabbit is Rich, his own happiness. In Rabbit at Rest, his mixed feelings of being worn-out and ill-at-ease and yet still in love with his country.
An epitaph for Rabbit? "Here lies an American man." This neat formulation went unchallenged by his interviewer, but probably Updike's statements as a smiling public man should be distrusted. For what goes on in the Rabbit books is much stranger than he makes out. Rabbit is certainly solid and "real," a very thick fictional entity. Part of the joke of the name (more easily recognized, I suppose, in 1960, when people still read Sinclair Lewis) is its echo of Babbitt, whose idea of the ideal citizen ("At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old bus, and maybe cusses the carburetor, and shoots out home") is one of the epigrams for Rabbit is Rich, the smuggest book of the four. When Rabbit supports Nixon and Vietnam in Rabbit Redux, or hangs around the wifeswapping clubhouse types in Rabbit is Rich, he seems a stable enough piece of the American booboisie, a spokesman (though in a language he would never use himself) for the American dream: "America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God. Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules with chains, darkness strangles millions. Beneath her patient bombers, paradise is possible."
But Rabbit as ideal citizen has always been a problem. His years of glory as a 1940s high school basketball champion in Mt. Judge, a suburb of Brewer, Pennsylvania, are well past by the time the first book begins, when he is 26. Right from the start, then, he is looking back on lost virtue. What takes place inside his continuing present is mostly dismal, squalid, or banal. In Rabbit, Run, trapped by parents, parents-in-law, local minister, and his miserable small family, Rabbit runs out on his alcoholic wife, Janice, who accidentally drowns their baby while their small son Nelson looks on. Then Rabbit leaves his pregnant mistress Ruth (a lapsed hooker) and returns to Janice. Ten years on in Rabbit Redux, the book of the '60s, Janice goes off to have an affair, and Rabbit takes Jill and Skeeter, a rich lost hippy girl and her black revolutionary friend, into his house. Teenaged Nelson observes their sexual and political skirmishing. One night (while Rabbit is next door making love to the mother of Nelson's best friend) the house is burned down by racist neighbors, and Jill is killed. In the '70s Rabbit gets "rich" in his wife and mother-in-law's Toyota business. He buys gold, and he and Janice make love covered in Krugerrands, but out there in Carter's America the gasoline is running out and the hostage crisis is running on.
Now, in Rabbit at Rest, the greedy Rabbit of the Reagan years has become hugely overweight. On a quarrelsome family holiday in Florida, where he and Janice now have a condominium, he takes his granddaughter out sailing and has a heart attack and an operation—not a bypass, which terrifies him, but an angioplasty, to unclog his arteries from all "the old grease I've been eating." Meanwhile the wretched Nelson is stealing from the Toyota franchise to feed his cocaine habit and is beating up his wife, and Janice is becoming increasingly independent. (Rabbit "preferred her incompetent.") Nelson's secrets come out and she gets him to a rehabilitation center, from which he emerges talking in an "aggravating tranquilized nothing-can-touch-me tone." But Rabbit alone refuses to be cured of junk food and irresponsible desires, and out of the hospital he finds himself unexpectedly making love to his daughter-in-law. When she tells on him, he runs away to Florida, where, after a last pathetic attempt at a basketball game with a group of black kids, Rabbit has another, probably terminal, heart attack.
Rabbit reaches the climax of his career as "an American man" in Rabbit at Rest by playing Uncle Sam in his hometown July Fourth parade, his heart Babbittishly thumping at the feeling that "this is the happiest f—ing country the world has ever seen." Are we supposed to take this seriously? The episode has an uneasy tone, partly ironic (his goatee is coming unstuck with sweat, he is having to stay back from the lead car in the parade "so Uncle Sam doesn't look too associated with the police"), but also embarrassingly mawkish, as Rabbit's eyes burn at the strains of "God Bless America." Even here, Rabbit's Babbittry is not stable or comfortable: like the disastrous family barbecue he decides to have in Florida, "it sounds ideally American but had its shaky underside."
When Rabbit starts out, in Rabbit, Run, making the journey south that the older Rabbit finally completes, he stops at a wayside café and looks around at the other customers. They all seem to him to "amplify his strangeness." "He had thought, he had read, that from shore to shore all America was the same. He wonders, is it just these people I'm outside, or is it all America?" There are times when Updike wants to put him inside, to make the overweight ex-sports-champ car salesman a voice for the American dream, a paradigm for an American era. In Rabbit at Rest he seems to be doing this more, but it's equivocal.
The analogies between a Rabbit reduced by illness, who has lost domestic authority and is being pushed out of the Toyota business, and America under Bush ("we're kind of on the sidelines … doing nothing works for Bush, why not for him") are explicit enough to be acknowledged by the other characters, and by Rabbit himself. There's no doubt that Rabbit's compulsive junk snacking, Nelson's addiction, the ruin of the business, even granddaughter Judy's compulsive flicking between TV channels ("an impatient rage … a gluttony for images") are meant as figures for American waste and greed: "Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years under Reagan of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God."
This would just be dull, post-Reagan disapproval (sometimes it is a bit dull) if Rabbit weren't so oddly ambivalent. He is the emblem of the obnoxious age, but he is also outside it, minding about it, alienated by it. A lonely Rabbit. Nelson and Janice are more at home in America than Rabbit, and he distrusts the language they use. "Faux," he notices, seeing tourist signs on Route 27 for museums and antiques ("Old, old, they sell things as antiques now that aren't even as old as he is, another racket") is itself a false word: "False is what they mean." Rabbit spends a lot of time skeptically listening to (brilliantly travestied) "faux" languages, from Nelson's rehabilitated sermons on low self-esteem and Janice's women's group pieties, vindictively ridiculed ("all those patriarchal religions tried to make us feel guilty about menstruating"), to the health-speak of heart surgeons ("For my money, not to keep beating about the bush, the artery bypass is the sucker that does the job") and waitresses ("it's wonderful if you're going macrobiotic seriously and don't mind that slightly bitter taste, you know, that seaweed tends to have"). These languages are all about getting yourself cleaned up and becoming a better product. Unlike everyone else in the novel, the salesman Rabbit is losing faith in sales talk.
And in other American myths, too. Harry and Janice take their bored grandchildren on a tour of the Edison house in Florida (one of the novel's dazzling set pieces), but Harry doesn't buy the guide's sickly spiel about Edison as "the amazing great American." "It was all there in the technology, waiting to be picked up," says Harry. "All this talk about his love for mankind, I had to laugh!" Edison was just another greedy American consumer. Money is all anything is about. When they close Kroll's, the big downtown Brewer department store, "just because shoppers had stopped coming in," Rabbit understands that
the world was not solid and benign, it was a shabby set of temporary arrangements rigged up for the time being, all for the sake of the money. You just passed through, and they milked you for what you were worth…. If Kroll's could go, the courthouse could go, the banks could go. When the money stopped, they could close down God Himself.
God Himself another American artifact, and no one to trust, after all.
And so Updike has it both ways. Harry is Uncle Sam, but he's also Ishmael. He is all too American and he is alienatedly un-American. He fits in with that long line of Hs, from Huck to Holden to Humbert to Herzog, who carry the freight of American history but are outside of it, looking on. But there is a difference. Harry lacks charisma.
Who likes Rabbit, apart from his author? Sexist, dumb, lazy, illiterate (he spends the whole novel not finishing a book on American history), a terrible father (for Nelson he's "a big dead man on his chest"), an inadequate husband, an unreliable lover, a tiresome lecher, a failing businessman, a cowardly patient, a typically "territorial" male: What kind of moral vantage point is this? Here is Rabbit, for instance, shaking hands with a dying homosexual:
Squinting, Harry takes the offered hand in a brief shake and tries not to think of those little HIVs, intricate as tiny spaceships, slithering off onto his palm and up his wrist and arm into the sweat pores of his armpit and burrowing into his bloodstream there. He wipes his palm on the side of his jacket and hopes it looks like he's patting his pocket.
This awful joke brilliantly caricatures the lowest common denominator of reactions to AIDS, implicating readers who pride themselves on being too liberal and informed to think like this. There is even a kind of charm to the episode, in Harry's anxiety not to offend, and in the gap between what his mind and his hand are doing. The charm of Rabbit, such as it is, has to do with the distance between his feelings and his behavior, or with his own surprise at what he seems to be like:
Though his inner sense of himself is of an innocuous passive spirit, a steady small voice, that doesn't want to do any harm, get trapped anywhere, or ever die, there is this other self seen from the outside, a six-foot-three ex-athlete weighing at least two-thirty … a shameless consumer of gasoline, electricity, newspapers, hydrocarbons, carbohydrates. A boss, in a shiny suit.
What redeems Rabbit is that, inside his brutish exterior, he is tender, feminine, and empathetic, like Leopold Bloom, the more intelligent and complex character who inspired him. Lying in the hospital, he "thinks fondly of those dead bricklayers who bothered to vary their rows at the top of the three buildings across the street … these men of another century up on their scaffold." Sometimes, eating meat, he can even imagine how it felt to be that animal before it was killed, can apprehend "the stupid monotony of a cow's life" in the taste of beef. He is curious, inquiring, not bigoted—or at least his bigotry is benign, as in his Protestant envy of the chosen people: "Harry has this gentile prejudice that Jews do everything a little better than other people, something about all those generations crouched over the Talmud and watch-repair tables, they aren't as distracted as other persuasions, they don't expect to have as much fun." It must be a great religion, he thinks, "once you get past the circumcision."
This is affable and easy-going compared with that other long-running fictional American, Nathan Zuckerman, who is unable to make light of prejudice in Rabbit's way. They are opposites, of course: famous author vs. obscure salesman, relentlessly eloquent taboo-breaker vs. muddled consumer, thin Jew vs. fat Protestant. The nearest thing to a Roth character in the Rabbit books is Skeeter, who speaks with all the rage and the obsessive energy of a black Portnoy. Yet both Angstrom and Zuckerman are heart cases. In Rabbit, Run Harry's unforgiving mother has been taught at church that "men are all heart and women are all body," and Harry's heart, where "guilt and responsibility slide together like two substantial shadows," beats loudly through the book. Now it is clogged, vulnerable, a second self exposed. In The Counterlife, Nathan's (and/or his brother Henry's) hearts are their manhood; only a heart operation will renew their potency. Maybe this coincidental anxiety about heart disease is just an inevitable phase for middle-aged male American writers. But both, in their dramatically different fictional ways, are speaking about the difficulties of life as an American man. To "have a heart" is to be unmanly; and both feel acutely the dangers of being unmanned, whether by surgery, loss of libido, feminism, or oblivion.
Zuckerman, though, like Herzog or Humboldt, speaks his author's language, whereas Rabbit doesn't sound like Updike. This makes life easier for Updike, since people don't go around accusing him of losing his Toyota franchise or making love to his daughter-in-law. But it also adds to our sense of Rabbit's unmanly helplessness—he seems to be caught inside a language that is strange to him, but by which he is defined. It is a virtuoso operation, even to those readers who feel, inappropriately I think, that Rabbit is being socially condescended to by his author. But what is it for?
It's quite clear that Updike can write in any version of American he chooses. Why has he returned so often, in between novels of immense erudition and sophistication like Roger's Version, to this elaborate, even perverse match of dumb subject and lyrical, fastidious text? The voice of the Rabbit books, so unlike Rabbit's, is wise, mournful, elegiac, telling us wry truths: "Life is noise," or "Within a hospital you feel there is no other world," or "We grow more ins and outs with age." Rabbit as Everyman? That's easy enough. But the voice does something stranger still. Everything it looks at—and how much it looks at!—changes its shape as it gets put on the page. This is the most metaphorical prose writing in American fiction, except for Melville's.
And like Melville's, Updike's metaphors are born of that old American transcendentalist desire that the things of this world should stand for something, and not be mere junk. "And some certain significance lurks in all things," Melville's Ishmael hopes, "else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher." In the debate over belief in Roger's Version, the god-fearing computer scientist complains about the arguments of a skeptical Jewish bacteriologist: "This is all metaphor." "'What isn't?' Kriegman says. 'Like Plato says, shadows at the back of the cave.'"
Rabbit's Platonism makes us see everything as meaningful, but also as shadowy and strange. His heart, of course, has the star role as shape-shifter: it can be a fist, an amphitheater, a drum, a galley slave, a ballplayer waiting for the whistle. But the solid world outside is also undone by images of floating and drowning, so that Rabbit's tumble into the Gulf of Mexico, an incident itself rich with metaphor ("Air, light, water, silence all clash inside his head in a thunderous demonstration of mercilessness"), spills out into the rest of the book as a figure for his mortality: "His heart floats wounded in the sea of ebbing time."
No object, no creature, is too ordinary or too technical to be subjected to metaphor. Things used to being treated figuratively—birds, trees—get a new treatment, always cunningly connected to what Rabbit might observe: birds call "like the fluttering tinsel above a used car lot," a pink dogwood blooms "like those old photos of atomic bomb-test clouds in the days when we were still scared of the Russians." Even Harry's uncircumcised hard-on makes an American poem: "You can feel the foreskin sweetly tug back, like freezing cream lifting the paper cap on the old-time milk bottles."
What Do I Read Next?
- In Rabbit Redux (1971), Updike continues Rabbit's story, as Janice turns the tables and cheats on Rabbit.
- Rabbit is Rich (1981), by Updike, shows Rabbit making it big in the car sales business.
- In Updikes' Rabbit at Rest (1990), Rabbit faces getting old.
- In Philip Roths' Portnoys Complaint (1969), a Jewish man talks to his psychiatrist and provides a commentary on 1960s America.
- Lorrie Moores' Self-Help: Stories (1995) explores the pleasures and pains of modern relationships.
- Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman (1994) examines love and betrayal in a small town.
Updike is rightly admired for the dazzling thinginess of the Rabbit books. British readers of Rabbit at Rest especially love getting so much American stuff, and praise Updike most for "his meticulous taxonomy" of "the material nature of the world" and for his "everywhere saluting and memorializing American superabundance." Where Updike is dispraised by British critics, it's for doing too much American materialism, "pigging out" on it, just like Rabbit. But such a criticism misses the point. For Updike, as for Rabbit, there is no such thing as too much of what is called (in Roger's Version) "the irrepressible combinations of the real." Rabbit's last word, "Enough," is carefully preceded by "Maybe."
But whether it is too much or enough, Updike's America is surely there: Brewer and its suburb, Mt. Judge, are accepted as Pennsylvanian places historically surveyed from the 1940s to the 1990s. Neither reader nor author feels any embarrassment about identifying Brewer as Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Like William Carlos Williams's Paterson, Rabbit's Brewer is a real, recognizable place—and it keeps posing the question of whether there are no ideas but in things.
Still, how peculiar these metaphorladen, metamorphosing, cluttered landscapes are! Nobody can "do" the strangeness of American places better, not David Lynch or Sam Shepard or Nathanael West or Don DeLillo. Look at the lovingly horrified attention he gives to what for anyone else would be a nonspace, the corridor outside the Angstroms' door in "Valhalla Village," 59600 Pindo Palm Boulevard:
The corridor is floored in peach-colored carpet and smells of air freshener, to mask the mildew that comes into every closed space in Florida. A crew comes through three times a week vacuuming and the rug gets lathered and the walls worked once a month, and there are plastic bouquets in little things like basketball hoops next to every numbered door and a mirror across from the elevator plus a big runny-colored green and purple vase on a table shaped like a marble half-moon, but it is still not a space in which you want to linger.
Rabbit's final run through Southern poverty and north Florida theme parks to this out-of-season condo is a masterpiece of verisimilitude; but this is verisimilitude hovering on the borders of the surreal. When Rabbit turns the key into the empty apartment, "There are no cobwebs to brush against his face, no big brown hairy spiders scuttling away on the carpet." But even without tipping it over into American Gothic, this place, with its shell collection and its formica and its fake-bamboo desk and its dead TV screen, is scary enough: "a tight structure hammered together to hold a brimming amount of fear."
Florida is made for surreality, but even in solid old Brewer, Pennsylvania, there is something untrustworthy about the landscape. Updike has Rabbit drive through his "boyhood city" over and over again, minutely noting the changes from industrial energy to postindustrial decay and renewal: mills turned into factories, railroads into garbage dumps, music stores into running-shoe emporiums, churches into community centers, hotels into Motor Inns. Defunct movie houses and retitled restaurants haunt Rabbit's wary vision of the present: "Johnny Frye's Chophouse was the original name for this restaurant on Weiser Square, which became the Cafe Barcelona in the Seventies and then the Crepe House later in the decade and now has changed hands again and calls itself Salad Binge." And in the course of this poetry of naming, appearances come adrift.
So Rabbit's memory, which cuts a deep, narrow slice into the American past, fuses with the narrative's metaphors to make an elegy for our world. Even the tastelessly caricatured Japanese Toyota representative, who has come to pass stern judgment on the Angstroms' American mismanagement of the franchise ("Too much disorder. Too much dogs—t."), ends up sounding like Tasso, in a transformation only Updike could bring about: "'Things change,' says Mr. Shimerda. 'Is world's sad secret'" Il mondo invecchia, E invecchiando intristisce.
If everything is flux, what becomes of our selves? Rabbit's sensuality, materialism, greed, and fear—his ordinariness—have been necessary to Updike because they embody so powerfully his discussion of the soul's relation to the body. Because Rabbit is so fleshy and gross, so tender and frightened, he brings home the human condition. In Rogers's Version, whose debate on science and belief could be read as a chilling scholastic commentary on the Gospels according to Rabbit, Roger considers the heresy of Tertullian, who believes "that the flesh cannot be dispensed with by the soul," and will be resurrected. An Angstromian version of his proposition would read: "Dear Flesh: Do come to the party. Signed, your pal, the Soul." Roger can see the attraction:
In our bodily afterlife, are we to know again ulcers and wounds and fevers and gout and the wish for death?… And yet, my goodness, pile on the cavils as you will, old hypothetical heretic or pagan, we do want to live forever, much as we are, perhaps with some of the plumbing removed, but not even that would be strictly necessary, if the alternative is being nothing, being nonexistent specks of yearning in the bottomless belly of nihil.
Under surgery, Rabbit is queasily aware of the peculiar relationship between the self, the soul, "the me that talks inside him all the time," and "this pond of bodily fluids and their slippery conduits." Where does the "me" that talks go, if it is separated from its home of flesh? Rabbit has a terrible fear of falling into the void. The Lockerbie disaster preoccupies his imagination, very much as space travel did in Rabbit Redux. The dread of the unsleeping universe is picked up from that novel; in Rabbit Redux he thinks: "The universe is unsleeping, neither ants nor stars sleep, to die will be to be forever wide awake." Here, again: "Stars do not sleep, but above the housetops and tree crowns shine in a cold arching dusty sprinkle. Why do we sleep? What do we rejoin?"
Rabbit resents the little space he has to occupy, penned round within the limits of his life. But he hunkers down into it too, like a creature in his burrow. Outside is what met the passengers on the plane over Lockerbie. "It is truly there under him, vast as a planet at night, gigantic and totally his. His death. The burning intensifies in his sore throat and he feels all but suffocated by terror." His fear is our fear; Updike makes us know it.
Source: Hermione Lee, "The Trouble with Harry," in New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 26, December 24, 1990, pp. 34-37.
Aldridge, John W., Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966.
Bemrose, John, "Culture of Speed," in Macleans, February 26, 1996, p. 70.
Burchard, Rachael C., Yea Sayings, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Detweiler, Robert, John Updike, Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Doner, Dean, "Rabbit Angstrom's Unseen World," in New World Writing 20, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1962, pp. 63-75.
Fremont-Smith, Eliot, Review, in Village Voice, September 30, 1981.
Greiner, Donald J., John Updike's Novels, Ohio University Press, 1984.
Hamilton, Alice, and Kenneth Hamilton, The Elements of John Updike, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Howard, Jane, Interview, in Life, November 4, 1966.
Kielland-Lund, Erik, "The Americanness of Rabbit, Run: A Transatlantic View," in New Essays on "Rabbit Run," edited by Sidney Trachtenburg, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 77-93.
Lee, Hermione, "The Trouble with Harry," in New Republic, December 24, 1990, pp. 34-37.
Pinsker, Sanford, "Restlessness in the 1950s: What Made Rabbit Run?" in New Essays on "Rabbit Run," edited by Sidney Trachtenburg, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 53-75.
Quinton, Anthony, Review, in Times (London), January 14, 1982.
Rogers, Michael, "The Gospel of the Book: 'LJ' Talks to John Updike," Interview, in Library Journal, February 15, 1999, p. 114.
Schopen, Bernard A., "Faith, Morality, and the Novels of John Updike," in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1978, pp. 523-35.
Uphauser, Susan Henning, John Updike, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980.
Plath, James, ed., Conversations with John Updike, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson), 1994.
Plath presents a collection of interviews with Updike.
Thorburn, David, and Howard Eiland, eds., John Updike: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1979.
This text provides critical essays that examine John Updike's work from a variety of viewpoints.