by John Updike
Analysis: What’s Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
“The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”
– Pascal, Pensée 507
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and physicist who lived from 1623-1662. He was the inventor of the syringe! He was also a religious philosopher. The epigraph comes from his most famous work, The Penseés. A pensée is a thought, and the Penseés were a collection of Pascal's thoughts (found on scraps of paper after his death) defending the Christian religion, and exploring existential paradoxes like the ones we find in Rabbit, Run.
For example, the novel explores the notion that to feel good, we must also feel bad. And when we run away from one thing, we have to run toward something else. We all know this, but we all also want to know: Why? Why? Why? Paradoxes usually have that effect. Pascal also believed that confusion and suffering would provoke a turning away from the mundane world, toward God. In Rabbit, Run confusion and suffering make Rabbit turn away from the world, but whether it’s toward God or not is open to interpretation. Speaking of suffering, Pascal is said to have described marriage as “the lowest condition permitted to a Christian.” This takes on some irony when we look at Reverend Eccles’ obsession with marriage. Eccles seems to think that marriage is the highest condition, for, like, everyone in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily help explain our epigraph, which is another one of those existential paradoxes Pascal was so fond of.
Here’s one way to look at the epigraph: first, consider each of the three clauses in the epigraph as categories and then try to place everything that happens in the novel under at least one of them. See, it’s a comment on the weirdness of life in general. For example, is Rebecca June’s death a matter of Grace, or hardness or heart, or external circumstances? Probably a little of all three, like everything else that happens in the novel. Which is to say, life is complicated and it just gets more complicated if you think too hard about it. You get all murky in the head like Rabbit (or maybe he doesn’t think hard enough?).
The epigraph also sets us up to do the work the book requires of us: to try to find out why Rebecca June dies, and whose fault it is, and what it means. Can it become a motion of Grace, as Eccles suggests, deepening the bond between Rabbit and Janice? Maybe her death caused a softening of hearts, which set the motions of Grace spinning. Or maybe her death just made hearts harder. Maybe hard-heartedness caused her death in the first place. But Eccles wasn’t hard-hearted, right? At least in his mind, trying to get Rabbit and Janice back together was a motion of Grace. The repressive climate of Rabbit, Run’s 1959 sounds an awful lot like external circumstances. Keeping the three elements of the epigraph in mind while reading and thinking about this novel is sure to provide insight.