by John Updike
We learn from Rabbit at the beginning of the novel that Rabbit finds Tothero a powerful figure in his life, second only to his mother. He credits Tothero with his success in basketball. Where Eccles’s main purpose in life is helping Rabbit, Tothero has his own problems. Eccles and Tothero almost seem like polar opposites. Eccles is a pillar of the community, and Tothero lost his job coaching due to an unidentified "scandal." Eccles is married to the lovely Lucy. Tothero is married, too, but thinks the skin on his wife’s face "looks like the hides of a thousand lizards stitched together. Stitched together clumsily." Eccles lives in an airy rectory. Tothero lives at the Sunshine Athletic Association, a pretty seedy joint. Eccles is definitive in his advice to Rabbit: go back to Janice. Tothero tells Rabbit both to go back to Janice, and to be free and love all the ladies. Eccles thinks Rebecca’s death is an inexplicable tragedy that further unites Janice and Rabbit. Tothero doesn’t know they ever got back together in the first place, and thinks the baby dies because Rabbit failed to go back to her.
Yet, they are both authority figures for Rabbit and impact his struggle between childhood and adulthood. Both men also share Rabbit’s gift for gab, and he has some pretty awesome lines, like, "I have an acquaintance, […] a lady-love perhaps, whom I stand to a meal once in a blue moon. But it’s nothing more than that, little more than that. Harry, you’re so innocent." And both Eccles and Tothero are of ambiguous sexual orientation, it only comes up once in the novel for each man. We looked at Eccles’s moment in his "Character Analysis." Now here’s Tothero’s:
Tothero waits and Rabbit waits and then realizes Tothero wants to see him undress and undresses, sliding into the rumpled lukewarm bed in his T-shirt and jockey shorts. […] The old man’s standing there was disturbing but Rabbit is sure that’s not his problem. Tothero was always known as a lech but never a queer. Why watch? Suddenly Rabbit knows. It takes Tothero back in time. Because of all the times he stood in the locker rooms watching the boys change clothes. Solving this problem relaxes Rabbit’s muscles (1.167).
This is an example of what some critics refer to as dead end foreshadowing, which means exactly what it sounds like – it seems like foreshadowing but really leads nowhere. Though perhaps you have a different view.
Tothero is crucially important to the novel in other ways. For example, he represents what Rabbit doesn’t want to become. Rabbit even tries to stop thinking about him because he reminds him "of death." Before we even meet Tothero we learn that, "The thought of the old man crouching [in The Sunshine Athletic Cub] frightens [Rabbit]." Why? Tothero is that kid that never grew up. As he deteriorates in the novel, his status as authority figure is completely reversed, and he becomes a model of what Rabbit could become if he’s not careful.