by John Updike
Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom
Twenty six year old Rabbit is six foot three, smart, talented, athletic, sexy, and has the gift of gab. He’s environmentally conscious, too – with the walking and running instead of driving (most of the time) and tending Mrs. Smith’s garden, his carbon footprint is pretty tiny. Yep. He’s kind of a free spirit. Which is part of why the old ball and chain is dragging him down. And we don’t mean the basketball he’s so fond of. We’re talking about Janice, his pregnant wife, and his son Nelson. Don’t get us wrong. He definitely loves the little guy, and perhaps even his wife, too. (Check out both Nelson's and Janice’s "Character Analysis.") It’s just that Rabbit is still a kid himself. Or, more precisely, like most of us – he’s trying to grow up and stay a kid. At least he wants to bring the best of his pre-adult life up into adulthood with him. Let’s look at a passage from the beginning of the novel, when he’s playing basketball with the kids:
You climb up through the little grades and then you get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him; worse, they’ve never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through out the county […] (1.7).
See. He’s sure happy to be out of high school, so why should he care what these kids think of him? Why does it matter that he’s just another grown up? It’s like his feeling of freedom is tied to his high school fame. We can look at two possible reasons for this before probing deeply into our hero’s psyche: 1) he wants to be a star, and 2) he needs direction.
Everybody Wants to Be a Star
Rabbit is a humanized version of that stereotype we’ve all heard of (or had first hand experience with) – the popular kid who “peaks” in high school, and spends adult life trying to find something to equal the high school experience. This has lots to do with the idea of fame, or stardom, if you prefer. What was the great part of Rabbit’s high school experience? Remember when Rabbit first meets Eccles, who starts trying to get him to go back to Janice? Eccles asks him, “You speak of this feeling of muddle. What do you think it’s like for other young couples? In what way do you think you’re exceptional?”Rabbit’s answer speaks directly to the phenomenon we’re talking about:
You don’t think there’s any answer to that but there really is. I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first rate at something, no matter what it was, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going was really second-rate (4.187).
Ouch. But maybe he’s right. Maybe he could have a better life with some one other than Janice. Ambition is wonderful, but it’s also possible that what with TV stars in his living room, hawking the latest appliance, and modeling the American Dream, there were some pretty unattainable ideas of being first rate floating around in Rabbit’s 1950s (just as there are today). That, combined with his yearning for his old stardom, might be keeping him from seeing his life a little less harshly. Interestingly though, by leaving Janice, Rabbit is actually experimenting with an alternative to the 1950s American Dream, namely, not staying with the person he married.
So, that’s one reason Rabbit cares what the kids think of him. If they know who he is, he’s famous. If he’s famous, he’s first rate, he’s living the American Dream. And, if they know who he is, and he’s famous, then he must also be an authority figure, or:
Will Somebody Please Tell Me What to Do?
What separates the kids from the adults? Authority, by golly. Rabbit had a taste of it in high school. Fame, even on that scale, makes you an instant authority figure. But he also feels he owes much of his high school fame to Tothero, and isn’t sure he can succeed without his old coach, who is gradually losing it. Just as Tothero is becoming less reliable, enter Eccles, a minister, (big time authority figure). Eccles is about Rabbit’s age though, and he really wants Rabbit and Janice back together. So Rabbit has a more complicated relationship than he had with Tothero. Like when Eccles and Rabbit are on their way to that first golf game, after Eccles “melts Rabbit’s caution,” when Rabbit wants to make friends. “The excitement of friendship, a competitive excitement […] makes him lift his hands and jiggle them as if thoughts were basketballs.” Competitive is the key word here. Notice that Rabbit is never in competition with Tothero. Think back to the is-a-team-all-boy-or-all coach? debate at the Chinese restaurant. Rabbit insists that it’s all coach. But with Eccles he plays a different game. If he can somehow be the authority figure in that relationship, then he’s headed somewhere. He wants both kids and grown-ups to respect him. Simple enough, right? Now we are ready to dig deeper. Let’s start with:
Did Rabbit Have Some Kind of Species Reassignment Surgery or What?
Yeah, we know it’s a metaphor. But we also know a metaphor is different than a simile. Harry is a rabbit, not like a rabbit. Updike doesn’t seem to be kidding. But it is confusing, for us, and for Rabbit. Think about the night he first runs away. When he’s about to turn onto the road that leads him to the highway that takes him back to Brewer and Mt. Judge, we get this: “The animal in him swells its protest that he is going west. His mind stubbornly resists.” Hmmm. It looks like the animal and the mind are fighting each other. But this line makes it more complicated: “[T]hough his instincts cry against it, when a broad road leads off to the left, though it’s unmarked, he takes it.” So are his instincts the same as “the animal in him” and therefore fighting his mind? Which has won out, or are there three different things at war here? Which of these – the mind, the animal, and the instinct – want him to go home and which want him to keep running?
Perhaps this next line will illuminate things. This is after he tears up the map in frustration and confusion: “At any rate, if he’d trusted his instinct, he’d be in South Carolina right now. He wishes he had a cigarette to help him decide what his instinct is. He decides to go to sleep in the car for a few hours.” OK, now it’s getting clear. We are supposed to feel as confused as he is. He can’t make sense of the map, is lost, and doesn’t know which way is up. And now he’s sleeping in the middle of the road. If the point of view was first person he would be an unreliable narrator and we would know to be careful. In this case the narrator is reliably reporting what’s going on in Rabbit’s sleep-deprived head. The final line before he turns home is, “Hopping onto the highway, he turns instinctively right, north.” Maybe his instincts changed their minds. But we still don’t know if his “instinct” and “the animal inside him” are the same thing, and neither does he. Maybe exploring the Rabbit metaphor a bit more will help us understand him better.
We’ve all grown up on bunnies: the Easter Bunny; the now controversial Br’er Rabbit; the immortal Peter Rabbit and his whole crew; The Velveteen Rabbit (who wanted to be real!); and of course, Bugs Bunny, who is a tough guy with the gift of gab, just like Rabbit. All of these were around before 1959, and so probably contributed at least a little to this character. One might argue that Harry’s identification with the rabbit is a childhood obsession that’s holding him back. But before we get all judgmental let’s take a very basic look at some generic bunny characteristics to see if Rabbit has anything in common with “real” rabbits:
1. Bunnies are vegetarians. Remember why Rabbit likes Chinese food? Because “it contains no disgusting proofs of slain animals […]; these ghosts have been minced and destroyed and painlessly merged with the shapes of mute vegetables, plump green bodies that invite his appetite’s innocent gusto. Candy” (2.157).
2. When scared, bunnies run and hide. If they can’t hide, they jump around trying to confuse their pursuers. That one’s not as dead-on. Rabbit’s behavior is confusing, but he doesn’t seem to be trying to confuse people . And he runs but doesn’t really hide. Except for that time in the woods after his daughter’s funeral. But he was under lots of stress.
3. Bunnies are sometimes solitary, but often come together in large groups. That sounds right. Rabbit is pretty social; he just needs his alone time.
4. Bunnies have sex with lots of girl bunnies. They don’t use protection and don’t stick around to raise the kids (though neither do the girl bunnies). We can see where this one’s going. When Rabbit and Ruth first make love, he not only refuses to wear protection himself, but doesn’t want Ruth to either. But this comparison isn’t fair. Bunnies don’t have access to protection. And Rabbit is trying not to abandon his kids. Bunnies don’t even think about it. On the other hand, he wants to have sex with multiple ladies, even as he tries to resist his urge, which is just like bunnies, if you take away the resisting part.
We can see from this little exercise that Updike is serious about the metaphor, and that thinking about it can help us understand the novel. But, it does have its limits. Still, there are two more characteristics that Rabbit and bunnies share, though we won’t look at them in terms of the metaphor:
Running and the Trap
Why does Rabbit run? We can take it back to his basic struggle, the novel’s basic struggle. How can he be a grownup without losing the best parts of himself? The physical running he does is a nice balance between the two. Running is the epitome of youth, in some ways. A good kid is one who runs and plays. By running everywhere he goes – to work, home, to pick up his son – Rabbit is using part of his child self in a responsible, adult way, conserving resources (like gas) and keeping himself healthy and fit.
But usually his reasons for running are more complicated than that. It has to do with a mysterious “trap” he senses all around him. Sometimes he runs (either physically or in a car) to get away from his responsibilities, or to get away from difficult situations, but usually due to a combination of factors. When he runs to Janice in the hospital he’s also running from Ruth, who is also pregnant (though he doesn’t know it), who also loves Rabbit, and who Rabbit seems to have a mostly happy life with. Many of his moves are like that. He’s both attracted and repelled by the things he runs to and from. This is partly because he knows what being a “first-rate” kid was all about, but not a “first-rate” adult, so every move he makes seems to draw the web around him tighter. Why does he run from Janice in the first place? “[H]e senses he is in a trap.” What happens when he’s driving away from her? “He doesn’t drive five miles before this road begins to feel like a part of the same trap.” And when he’s looking at the map, trying to figure out how to go south: “The names melt away and he sees the map whole, a net, all those red lines and blue lines and stars, a net he is somewhere caught in. He claws at it and tears it […].”
But just what is the trap? The above line suggests that the map itself is a trap. That to escape he’ll have to go off the map, to a place nobody had ever been, and nobody knows how to get to. In the hospital, waiting for Rebecca June to be born, the trap is all the sperm he’s ever released. So kids are part of the trap. And consequently sex (especially since he doesn’t like birth control). Obviously his life with Janice is part of it, too, and his life with Ruth. We can also take it back to the whole authority figure thing. Yep. He wants to be one. And this means doing right by both himself, and his family or families. It means being free and being responsible. But everything is all tangled up. What feels good for him feels bad for his family. Or so everybody tells him. His identification with religious leaders (authority figures, real grown-ups) is one way he tries to find the balance he’s looking for, even as he runs from them, trying to find his own path.
Is Rabbit the Dalai Lama? Is he a Saint? Is he Jesus?
We first hear about the Dalai Lama when Rabbit is listening to the radio on his road trip. That long section ends with the radio asking: “Where is the Dalai Lama?” As you probably know, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. The current one, since 1935, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama. He was just a little younger than Rabbit in 1959. But what was the Dalai Lama doing in 1959? Well, the same thing he’s doing now – trying to get autonomy for Tibet, from China, so the Tibetan Buddhists can practice their religion in peace. In 1959 that wasn’t working out much better than it is today. But what did he do in March of 1959 when Rabbit ran from Janice? He ran from Tibet to India to start a government in exile. Are we making too much of this? Maybe, but let’s look at what’s going on in Rabbit’s head when he’s in Tothero’s room getting dressed to go out with the ladies:
He feels freedom like oxygen everywhere around him. […]He [Rabbit] adjusts his necktie with infinite attention, as if the little lines of this juncture of the Windsor knot, the collar of Tothero’s shirt [that Rabbit borrowed], and the base of his own throat were the arms of a star that will, when he is finished, extend outward to the rim of the universe. He is the Dalai Lama (2.24).
What the heck? It might help us to know that the eight-fold path of Tibetan Buddhism is often represented as an eight-pointed star. Updike probably knew this, but Rabbit does not, which is just one of the reasons the metaphor doesn’t quite work. There’s not really any way to imagine the Windsor knot as an eight-pointed star. As much as we sympathize with Rabbit’s wanting to get out of a bad marriage, it’s just not on the same scale as freeing a people from religious oppression. But, this section does show that Rabbit looks to figures of authority to justify his actions. He really won’t settle for any “second-rate” authority figures. It goes back to his struggle between childhood and adulthood. In some ways he really does want full on sainthood (the ultimate in adulthood!) but still wants to have fun. When Rabbit is explaining to Eccles that he feels like “something […] wants [him] to find it,” Eccles replies, “Of course, all vagrants feel like they’re on a quest.” Rabbit rebuts, “Well, I guess that makes your friend Jesus look pretty foolish.” He takes this further as the novel progresses:
“Oh all the world loves you,” Ruth says suddenly. “What I wonder is why.”
“I’m loveable,” he says.
“I mean why the hell you? What’s so special about you?”
“I’m a saint,” he says. “I give people faith.” Eccles had told him this […] probably meaning it sarcastically. You never knew what Eccles was really meaning; you had to take what you wanted to. Rabbit took this to heart. He never would have thought of it himself. He doesn’t think that much about what he gives other people.
“You give me a pain,” Ruth says (8.11-8.14).
This is interesting. Maybe giving is a way Rabbit can tolerate adulthood. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to handle it when his gifts are rejected. (Like when Janice rejects his gift of love that awful Sunday after he goes to church.) Maybe this is one reason Ruth thinks that Rabbit’s identification with Jesus and his relationship with Eccles is dangerous for him, as we see here:
For the d--nedest thing about that minister was that, before, Rabbit at least had an idea he was acting wrong but now he’s got the idea he’s Jesus Christ out to save the world just by doing whatever comes into his head (8.24).
That’s pretty self explanatory, but is Ruth right? Could Rabbit’s identification with Jesus instead be helping him to find the way out of his trap, toward a happy, adult life? Well, it doesn’t seem like he’s thinking about it that deeply, really. When he goes to Eccles church that Sunday he seems pretty bored by Eccles’ sermon about Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness talking to the Devil, and that this is something we all need to do. In fact, “He scarcely listens at all.” The narrator tells us:
Harry has no taste for the dark, tangled, visceral aspect of Christianity, the going through quality of it, the passage into death and suffering that redeems and inverts these things. He lacks the mindful will to walk the straight line of a paradox (16.59).
In other words, Rabbit can’t follow the idea that wisdom and peace sometimes come as a result of suffering. Is this not some evil foreshadowing on Updike’s part? Though it’s still confusing, when Rabbit really starts to suffer, after Rebecca June’s death, the nature of his dreams and visions and maybe even why he runs from difficult situations seems to have changed. Let’s take a look at some examples:
What Happened to Rabbit on the Golf Course, and Is He Supposed to Start a New Religion, or What?
Because Rabbit seems so goofy, we sometimes forget that he’s one cerebral cat – er, bunny, that is – always thinking and coming up with weird images in his brain. And isn’t it weird what happens to him on the golf course? He’s not doing any drugs, but he has this crazy hallucination, which he calls “a nightmare.” As best we can gather, he thinks his golf clubs are Janice and Ruth. He thinks he’s the ball. And he thinks the “bush” (the ball gets hit into is his mother. This is more of that fear of adulthood coming out, and fear of the trap. Lucy Eccles could do a great Freudian analysis of this. His golf clubs, good old phallic symbols, represent his masculinity, which has been taken over by these females, who turn him into a little ball that has no choice but to run back to mommy. But he doesn’t want that either – he admits to being afraid of his mother many times. The point is this hallucination expresses anxiety about the women in his life.
This is similar in theme to the dream he has when he first spends the night at Ruth’s. A girl has opened a door that exposes a weird, living block of ice that has veins and everything. His mother tells him to close the door. He blames the girl for opening it, and his mother backs him up, telling off the girl, who Rabbit then realizes is his sister, and tries to defend. His sister morphs into young Janice, crying. Rabbit tries to explain that his mother is using her to get to him. But Janice keeps bawling “and to his horror, her face begins to slide, the skin to slip slowly from the bone, but there is no more bone, just more melting stuff underneath […].” Yikes and Ew! More anxiety about the women in his life.
The dream he has after Rebecca June’s death is quite different. Early in the morning, on the day of Becky’s funeral, Rabbit dreams the phrase “the cowslip swallows the elder.” In the dream he understands that the cowslip is the moon (death) and the elder it’s swallowing, or eclipsing, is the sun (life). He dreams that life and death are all part of a beautiful cycle, and that “he must go forth from this field and found a new religion” to spread this word. This is also connected to Mrs. Smith’s garden for several reasons. 1) The section describing the garden begins with the sentence, “Sun and moon, sun and moon, so time goes.” 2) The cowslip and the elder are both kinds of flowers. 3) The dream is set in a field (albeit an empty gravel one) that Rabbit must go forth from. Now let’s try to put it together and examine Rabbit’s subconscious.
When Rabbit worked in Mrs. Smith’s garden he felt fulfilled, like he had a purpose. He wants to feel that sense of fulfillment again, so he kind of returns to Mrs. Smith’s garden in the dream, but finds it empty. Yet, only by looking at the field empty does he understand that it was so important to him before because it held the keys to the meaning of life. (We already know about Rabbit’s strong connection with nature, so it makes sense.) Now that the meaning of life has been unlocked for him, he achieves an even deeper satisfaction than mere gardening and wants to share this with the world. This dream could also represent a very understandable desire to somehow give meaning to Rebecca June’s death, meaning which will make his suffering, and that of those around him, bearable. It’s also a fulfillment of his identification with authority figures. If he knows the meaning of life and death, he no longer needs them. He is the authority figure. He is a grownup with a real mission that makes adulthood worthwhile.
But when he wakes up, he’s still in the same mess. Though his dreams reflect that through suffering he is becoming a deeper human being, he still feels trapped. The dream didn’t give him any practical advice – the hows, whens, and wheres of starting a religion.
So, does seeing this side of Rabbit make it more shocking when he runs away from the funeral to the woods after loudly blaming Janice for the baby’s death, and proclaiming his own innocence? Yes, and no, right? Not good behavior for a guy who’s supposed to be founding a religion. But maybe that’s why he’s so embarrassed after he blames Janice. Does he run to the woods in part because of Eccles’ sermon about Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness conversing with the devil? It seems likely. He isn’t quite ready to be an authority figure in his own, as his behavior at the funeral indicates. So he follows Eccles and Jesus by going into the wilderness, even though he probably doesn’t know that’s why he does it.
Does he learn anything from his experience in the woods, though? The ending shows Rabbit running again, and is very open ended. We have no clear indication as to whether he will keep on moving, or choose one of the women, or what. But one thing is crystal clear. Nelson has taken on huge importance for him. No longer “the kid and his shrill needs,” Nelson has become “a hardness he must carry with him. On this small fulcrum he tries to balance the rest, weighing opposites against each other.” In a way, Nelson has become Rabbit’s ultimate authority figure, and considering his needs are a way Rabbit can become an adult. We don’t know if what he does next will be good for Nelson, but the fact that he’s trying, with that single thought in the forefront of his mind, suggests that he’s made some progress at least in solving his dilemma.