by John Updike
Although Nelson, Rabbit and Janice's son, is only a toddler in the novel, he's a driving force behind Rabbit’s movement. As we see in Rabbit’s "Character Analysis," he looks to a variety of authority figures in his struggle to find a compromise between childhood and adulthood that he can live with. But in the end, Nelson becomes the only real authority figure in his life. Whatever is going on with Nelson will become a measure of Rabbit’s worth as a person (at least in his mind at the end of the book).
After all, Nelson is him 24 years ago. What is it again that makes Rabbit run away in the first place? Peeping in the window and seeing Nelson in what’s probably his old highchair, being fed by his mommy, that’s what – or one of the whats anyway. First it makes him jealous. Then it makes him feel inferior. Then it makes him run. Check it out:
First: He sees himself sitting in a high chair, and a quick odd jealousy comes and passes.
Then: Pop and Mim [his sister] smile and make remarks but Mom, mouth set, comes in grimly with her spoon. Harry’s boy is being fed, this home is happier than his, he glides a pace backward over the cement and rewalks the silent strip of grass.
Hmmm. Very interesting. The jealousy part is pretty clear. Totally natural. But, what’s this business about his mom coming in grimly with her spoon? She was smiling a minute ago. Yikes. OK, let’s break this down. Remember, Rabbit wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing his mom tonight, anyway. He knows her well enough to know that, the later it gets, the more trash she’s going to talk when he gets there. I mean, why the heck is he peeking in the window anyway, if he fully expects to pick up Nelson, and to do so as quickly as possible? The thought of having to go through his mother to get to the kid contributes to whatever thought he already had of skipping town.
Nelson and Rabbit also bring out the good in one another, and are actually able to communicate pretty openly about the tragic events of their lives. They speak frankly about both Rabbit’s having left, and about Rebecca June’s death. When Nelson and Rabbit move back into the apartment together and are waiting for Janice to get out of the hospital, Rabbit and Nelson have fun and live a pretty peaceful life. But Rabbit is still somewhat resentful of what Nelson means to him:
He feels the truth: the thing that has left his life has left it irrevocably; no search would recover it. No flight would reach it. The fullness ends when we give Nature her ransom, when we make children for her. Then she is through with us, and we become, inside and outside, junk. Flower stalks (16.32).
So grim! Rabbit seems far away from learning how to have fun and be a parent, how to be a good father and not be stuck in a trap. But we also have to admit that Rabbit’s feelings at the end of the book still carry some of the same grim tone:
Ruth and Janice both have parents: on this excuse he dissolves them both. Nelson remains: a hardness he must carry with him. On this small fulcrum he tries to balance the rest, weighing opposites against each other (20.93).
Still there has been change toward a more positive outlook on parenting. Nelson is no longer the cause of Rabbit turning into a piece of walking junk, but rather that by which everything else in Rabbit’s life is measured. Nelson is Rabbit’s ultimate authority figure.
But before we leave Nelson, we should comment on another thing that makes him important to the novel: how a character treats Nelson at any given moment directly impacts how we feel about that character. Janice becomes a little easier to dislike when she slaps him, and Rabbit becomes a little easier to love when he helps Nelson over his fear of the playground swing. It even holds true for the characters in the book; Rabbit likes Janice’s mother because Nelson likes her. Nelson is a good example of how a character without many lines can make a major impact on a story.