by John Updike
The picture we get of Janice is sketchy, because it’s mostly from Rabbit’s point of view. From the start, he admits that he “doesn’t know her that well,” even though she's his wife and the mother of his son, Nelson. Then he calls her “dumb.” The rest of the characters aren’t much more charitable or respectful in their views of her. Tothero at first calls Rabbit “hard-hearted” for calling Janice dumb. But then later, after Rabbit has napped, and Tothero has started drinking, and Rabbit really does want to talk about Janice, Tothero says, “Janice! Let’s not talk about little mutts like Janice Springer.” Eccles finds her “a pathetic shadow.”
Rabbit sometimes seems to really love her, though. He gets upset when his mom talks trash about her, and even dreams (as we see in his "Character Analysis") of not being able to protect Janice from his mom. He’s afraid of her coming home from the hospital after Rebecca June is born, but when she does come home, he’s in love again as we see in this passage:
Though in her ether trance she spoke of making love, she turns away from him in bed, and sleeps with a forbidding heaviness. He is too grateful, too proud of her, to disobey. He, in a way, this week, worships her (15.53).
Or is this love? Is he just grateful she and the baby didn’t die like he thought one of them would when he was in the hospital waiting room? The words disobey and worship are also problematic, but give us some inroads to meaningful discussion. Disobey implies that not much is stopping him from forcing himself on her. It also might make us think of the issues he has with his mom. Disobey is what a child does in response to a parent’s command. It’s a little different in grown-up relationships, which are supposed to be based on communication and mutual satisfaction. But what’s with this worship business? I know we worship our lovers, but the phrasing here could be…An Unreasonable Expectation Alert. What happens when she’s no longer worship-able (next week, according to the sentence), but just an ordinary flesh and blood girl? Well, as we see, it’s a huge disaster.
Can a look at 1959 tell us anything about Janice? Let’s try it and find out. Looks like 1959 rates pretty high on the Unreasonable Expectations-o-meter. Janice already has June Cleaver to live up to, but then, in 1959, Barbie comes on the scene. On top of that, 1959 is really feeling all those years of McCarthyism. Believe it or not, McCarthy and his followers, through that improved public health and sex education, were just so much more communist evil threatening to bring down America. Had Janice had better access to these very things, she might have had options for dealing with the pain of her life, other than drowning her sorrows in a bottle. She might have understood that alcohol was bad for her unborn child. She might have even chosen not to have kids, not to get married, or to get a divorce.
Speaking of which, divorce was a major no-no, too, and being a single mother: no, no, no, and no. Lucy Ricardo was pretty liberated, but try being a Rachel Green or a Phoebe Buffay in 1959. Perhaps this is why, in the section from Janice’s point of view, she can barely even talk about the affair she might have had while Rabbit was with Ruth:
That was just why she had to have some because [...] he didn’t think she dared have any after she let him run off that was the funny thing it was his bad deed yet she was supposed not to have any pride afterwards to be just a pot for his dirt. (17.5)
Of course, the passage doesn’t necessarily mean she had an affair. “Have some” could refer only to her pride and self-respect. Since sex is definitely mixed up in her thoughts right now, we thought we’d throw it out there. Regardless, Janice’s thoughts are compelling and show us a more human side of her than Rabbit presents. These aspects of Janice’s character are why she vies with Rabbit for the title of protagonist – for some readers, Janice is the main character.
Are we going to let her get off that easy? Lots of women in 1959 didn’t drown their babies in bathtubs – low self-esteem, insensitive partner, overbearing parents, and obnoxious mother-in-law notwithstanding. We know this. Janice is an extreme case, which is why she is so effective. The extremity of her character makes us question the innocence and guilt of all the characters (except probably Nelson), even though we see from her perspective that she is the one who physically kills the baby. If we can’t get past that, we might as well put the book down. The point is to interrogate Janice’s environment and the people in it.