by John Updike
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Water shows up repeatedly in Rabbit, Run and Updike really works it. When Rabbit first runs, he wants to go to the ocean. Here water takes on the classic meaning: rebirth. In Rabbit’s happy memory of waiting to leave Kroll’s department store with Janice (before they were married), they are bathed in green, underwater light. This is still rebirth – rebirth through union with another. But, as the novel progresses, water takes on more sinister connotations. When Ruth is swimming before they fight, Rabbit sees the chlorinated pool as the essence of cleanliness, but then we find out he associates being wet with being cold, and cold is something he doesn’t like. (Remember when he dreams about that scary block of ice with veins the first night he sleeps at Ruth’s?) Then they fight and Ruth cries, and water is a symbol of sadness. When Rabbit is waiting for Rebecca June to be born he feels like he’s being held underwater by chains made from his own sperm.
When Rebecca June drowns, the symbol of water has undergone a complete reversal: from rebirth and cleanliness to death and dirt. In the case of Eccles, water becomes a symbol of his ambivalence about his work. When he’s making all those awkward calls that day, he gets thirstier and thirstier. Even when somebody finally gives him some water, it doesn’t help. But when he goes to the soda fountain where he feels comfortable, we get the idea his thirst is quenched. There, stripped of the formality of his work, he really enjoys talking to teenagers about sex and Jesus. At the end of the novel, even though it’s summer, Rabbit says he needs to move on to the "next patch of snow." Maybe this suggests he’s gotten over his fear of being in the water, of being cold, and of the ice. Or that he feels strong enough to deal with the coldness in the world.