Rabbit is torn between the unknown and the familiar. His life with pregnant, alcoholic Janice and toddler Nelson seems like a trap. But when he hits the open road, it feels like a trap, too. So he chooses the familiar over the unknown. This scenario sets the novel up for everything that follows.
Actually, Rabbit compromises between the familiar and the unknown. He stays in the same area, but instead of the wife and kid, he lives "in sin" with Ruth, an ex-prostitute. That he’s doing it so close to home arguably creates more conflict than if he’d left altogether.
When Janice goes into labor, Rabbit decides to change his ways, walk the straight and narrow, like everybody says he should. But, unbeknownst to Rabbit, Ruth is knocked up, too, which sets us up for all kinds of complications. Now how can he "do the right thing" in the society in which he’s living? He can’t really be married to both women, and raise both sets of munchkins can he?
Everybody knows: church makes us horny. Or at least it does Rabbit. Unfortunately, this particular Sunday Janice is still too sore from giving birth to satisfy his urges. And she’s still pretty mad about the whole living with Ruth thing. So he makes her feel awful and then leaves. So she gets drunk, and well, you know, the worst thing happens. All the tension in the novel explodes. Instead of the climax Rabbit was looking for, he gets this. The baby’s death also sets off the guilt and blame fest that the novel becomes.
Oh the guilt. Oh the anger. The trap is closing in on Rabbit from all sides, and he’s really trying to want what everyone says he should want: to live with Janice forever, atoning for Rebecca June’s untimely death, which he really does think he caused, even though he wasn’t there. It’s pretty suspenseful because we both do and don’t want him to stay, because we wonder what will happen to Ruth.
With his daughter buried, Rabbit feels the pressure dissolve, and feels suddenly feels the need to let everybody at the funeral know that Janice, not him, is guilty. But then he feels really embarrassed. So he runs. First into the woods, and then downhill, into Brewer, to see Ruth, and towards the end of the novel.
And then he runs from Ruth, too, after she threatens to abort the baby if he doesn’t divorce Janice and marry her. But where does he go? It’s totally open-ended. The only clue we get is that Rabbit now considers Nelson the most important thing in his life. So will Rabbit come back, and if he does, will he stay with Janice, marry Ruth, or raise Nelson as a single dad? Take a guess, and then read Rabbit, Redux.