by John Updike
Tools of Characterization
Most of the names in Rabbit, Run are pretty significant. "Rabbit" is pretty obvious, and we know that name represents a significant part of his identity. Rabbit identifies with animals in general – he compliments Ruth by calling her a "good horse" and he admits that there is some "rat" in him when Ruth asks. Perhaps Janice’s last name, "Springer," even tells us something about Janice and Rabbit’s initial attraction, and about why they couldn’t get along. Both rabbits and runners "spring," making a springer and a rabbit the perfect match.
But what happens with the springer stays still and doesn’t spring, and when the rabbit’s sexual appetites chafe with her modesty and shame? Angst. Which brings us to Rabbit’s last name. Springers are light and free and angst-roms are heavy and weighted down by their own thoughts. Perhaps Rabbit’s angst put a damper on Janice’s spring? Or perhaps it was already dampened by her highly critical and demanding parents before she met him. And what about Mrs. Rebecca Springer, Janice’s mom? Janice married Rabbit in large part to get away from her, but then she goes and names the baby after her, thinking this will satisfy her mother and get her off her back. In the scene that ends with the death of Rebecca June, when she’s nursing the baby (before Janice’s mother calls her and upsets her and before Janice starts drinking), the baby having her mother’s name makes her feel like she’s nursing her mother instead, and will never be rid of her. She drowns the baby just after her mother calls. An argument could be made that, because of Janice’s identification of the baby with her mother, through their shared name, she kills the baby intentionally, thinking she’s killing her mother. Or something like that.
Eccles is also an interesting case, considering that Ecclesiastes is a book of the Old Testament, encouraging people to embrace the simple pleasures in life, which are gifts from God, even though the world in which we enjoy them is essentially meaningless. Eccles’ life is a struggle toward and against that idea. (Think of him sweating under his collar in church and then eating ice cream contentedly at the soda fountain.)
Like the other names, Ruth’s is ironic, paradoxical, and apt, all rolled into one. Ruth is another Old Testament book, and so Ruth being an atheist makes it a little ironic anyway, since the bible has lots to do with God. One of the major themes of the Book of Ruth is redemption and once we know this, her character comes more into focus. By the standards of the community both Rabbit and Ruth are sinners, but find redemption in each other’s arms. For a time at least, they love without judging. But, those ideas of sin keep cropping up, and once they revoke their acceptance of each other, their relationship suffers shocks. The end of the novel could be looked at similarly. Ruth wants Rabbit to redeem them both by marrying her. Raising their child can help redeem him from Rebecca June’s death, and marriage will transform their sin into legitimacy, thus redeeming it. But, it will still create another "sin" – divorcing his wife and abandoning his child. Ruth doesn’t really present the marriage in terms of redemption, but rather in terms of a threat. Perhaps this is why Rabbit runs away from her, seeking redemption elsewhere.
Speech and Dialogue
The characters in Rabbit, Run all pride themselves in having the gift of gab. As Eccles notices when he first meets him, that’s what makes Rabbit such a good salesman. We notice that that’s also what makes him such a hit with the ladies. Though Janice’s speech is repressed in the novel, when she talks to her dad on the phone it’s clear she prides herself in what she learned as a used car salesman’s daughter. Eccles has the gift, too, but loses it when he’s at the pulpit. Yet, he is able to exert tremendous influence over the events in the story. Tothero is also a sweet talker, even though much of what he says makes no sense. Ruth is so successful with men because she knows how to employ a combination of toughness and sweetness that makes men purr. Like when she call Rabbit a "big bunny" when she first meets him. This is where the novel waxes metafictional, questioning itself from within: the characters ask if they are manipulating and being manipulated through artful speech, and we must ask if the novel is doing this to us.
Thoughts and Opinions
This novel is heavy on thoughts and opinions which help reveal character. When Rabbit thinks about being afraid of an ethnic neighborhood, this tells us something not only about him, but, by our reaction, something about ourselves. The section from Janice’s point of view allows us a microscopic glimpse into her mind just before the tragedy. We keep coming back to these thoughts when attempting to ask the question Updike forces us to consider: who is to blame for the death of this child? Because Janice was the only suspect actually present at the scene of the crime, her character becomes vital to our considerations of her guilt or innocence. What the other characters said to and thought about Janice before the tragedy also becomes an important tool in examining their and her respective guilt and/or innocence in the matter.