Many characters in Rabbit, Run say, do, and think harsh things. But a tone of sympathy, and even love pervades. And man are these folks judgmental. Like when Rabbit calls Janice stupid, or when he calls himself a criminal. The tough talking narrator, though it seems to call for a complete overhaul of social norms, also seems to suggest that we are all just people, and people make mistakes. When we are able to identify with flawed or disliked characters, we can sometimes gain real introspection, as well as a deeper understanding of those around us.
Family drama: Families. Drama. Check.
Horror or Gothic Fiction: Mysterious traps. Priests. Hallucinations. Fear. Dead babies. Check.
Literary Fiction: Fancy prose style. Neurotic. Check.
Quest: Somebody looking for something. Check.
Realism: True to life. Check.
Mystery: Mysterious crimes. Innocent victims. Trying to find the truth. Check.
Rabbit refers to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. This is where all those hours of Discovery Channel pay off, and where we can let our inner Bugs Bunny shine. Rabbit is almost as much bunny as he is man. Throw in some Peter Rabbit and a little Bunny Foo-foo, and we are ready to…Run. And Rabbit running is one thing we can count on in this tragic tale of the American Dream gone bad. He’s running to get out of a “trap” and at the same time, running after that perfect combination of veggies. Problem is, he’s not sure if he’s missing a veggie that will make the platter complete or which veggies are parts of the trap. All the suspects could be either part of the trap or part of the platter – most likely, both.
Enough salad speak; we are talking individuals, like his wife and his lover, his parents and his children, as well as institutions, like religion, marriage. We are also talking breaks with tradition, or alternative lifestyles. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Rabbit, Run is also about trying to be a grown up – but without being totally miserable because of all that responsibility that comes with it. We all want to know that trick, right? Maybe Rabbit, Run can give us a few pointers. So put on your sweat pants, then grab your tissues, and your copy of Rabbit, Run.
Well, folks, no surprise – in the end Rabbit runs. As usual, he’s not sure where he’s headed. Will he keep on running, or will he return to marry pregnant Ruth, like he promised? Will he move back in with Janice and Nelson, and the ghost of Rebecca June, or will he steal Lucy Eccles away from the Reverend Eccles? Will he start that new religion, like he dreamed he was supposed to? One thing the ending does make clear: Rabbit wants both what’s best for Nelson, and to stay out of traps. Whatever he does in the future will be an attempt to balance those two desires.
This is perhaps where Rabbit has changed the most. In his struggle to become and adult without sacrificing the fun of childhood, Rabbit looks to many figures of authority to guide him. But in the end, Nelson becomes the ultimate authority to Rabbit, and everything Rabbit chooses in the future will be first weighed against its potential impact on Nelson. The ending also reads, quite literally, like a sigh of relief. During the course of the novel, we begin to feel as trapped and claustrophobic as Rabbit is. In the end, at least for a moment, we can breathe the fresh air and feel the wind in our tails while we think about whether we too could be settling for mediocrity by sitting still, or risking everything when we make a move. Or whether we like our lives just fine and want to leave all that running around and searching for Rabbit.
Let’s look at the setting of Rabbit, Run from the top down. It goes: mountains, then virgin forest, then Mt. Judge (a suburb), then Brewer (a big city). So we have varying degrees of wilderness, and varying degrees of civilization. This is the perfect setting for one of major ideas the novel explores: civilization vs. wilderness. In addition to trying to find a compromise between being a grown-up and being a kid, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is trying to find a compromise between living in society and living in the wild.
This is even reflected in his name. Harry is a human, city name, and Rabbit is a wild animal, a roaming-free name. He wants to push wild to the extremes. When he first runs from his suburban life, he even feels trapped by the map and tears it up. Whenever he can’t handle all the people around him, he runs off and gets lost in the wood. Of course, he always comes right back out. He might have actually found a compromise though in the middle of the book – when he works in Mrs. Smith’s garden. He busses out there to the county every morning, and then back to the city love nest and Ruth in the evening.
But, in a dream, he goes back to Mrs. Smith’s garden and finds it an empty field of gravel. Then a voice talking about flowers helps him understand the meaning of life and death. So he feels compelled to leave the field to start a new religion. Of course, when he wakes up it all fades away and he’s just confused. But the point is, the dream suggests that something in his subconscious thinks the compromise he’s looking for is outside of that field – maybe it’s just not wild enough for him, or maybe too wild.
The wilderness is also represented in the novel as a place to suffer and, through suffering, to grow. This comes up when Eccles gives a sermon about Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness with the Devil. Rabbit claims he’s not paying attention, but what does he do after he embarrasses himself so badly at his daughter’s funeral? He runs into the woods and gets lost. But he comes out again. Just like Jesus. By the end of the book he doesn’t seem to have found the compromise he’s looking for, or maybe running itself is the compromise. Either way, at the end of the novel, Rabbit is still running.
In addition to the broad geographic setting, Rabbit, Run gets down to the particulars of life, offering cramped apartments, love nests, hospitals, churches, urban and suburban streets, upper-middle class homes, and even goes into the characters’ beds, from time to time. These are where the novel earns its place in the Gothic genre. Gothic lit is big on spaces that are supposed to resemble the minds of the humans who live in them, and who aren’t happy with their lives. Think of Rabbit and Janice’s cluttered apartment. It looks just like his mind when he leaves. A mess. But when he cleans the place up and lives there with Nelson before Janice gets out of the hospital, he’s lonely, but his mind is clear. What about the Sunshine Athletic Club? It’s deteriorating. Just like Tothero. Rabbit feels free when he first wakes up there, but is his mind in a state of deterioration at that moment, too?
What about the bathtub that in which Rebecca drowns? How does that play in to our Gothic analysis of setting? Well, the bathtub is a classic Gothic case (why do you think so many horror movies feature them?). Gothic spaces aren’t just born Gothic. They are ordinary places where good stuff is supposed to happen, but something has gone terribly wrong. A bathtub is supposed to be the place we wash away the filth of our lives, in safety and (ideally) privacy. When that space turns Gothic like the bathtub in Rabbit, Run, then where do we go to get clean and safe? That question is part of what makes the Gothic so scary.
In case you were wondering, civilization vs. wilderness is actually fairly common in the Gothic. Think any version of the Dracula story. What happens when wild creatures wind up in civilization, or civilized creatures wind up in the wild? Well, hopefully something scary that tells us something about ourselves.
“The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”
– Pascal, Pensée 507
Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician and physicist who lived from 1623-1662. He was the inventor of the syringe! He was also a religious philosopher. The epigraph comes from his most famous work, The Penseés. A pensée is a thought, and the Penseés were a collection of Pascal's thoughts (found on scraps of paper after his death) defending the Christian religion, and exploring existential paradoxes like the ones we find in Rabbit, Run.
For example, the novel explores the notion that to feel good, we must also feel bad. And when we run away from one thing, we have to run toward something else. We all know this, but we all also want to know: Why? Why? Why? Paradoxes usually have that effect. Pascal also believed that confusion and suffering would provoke a turning away from the mundane world, toward God. In Rabbit, Run confusion and suffering make Rabbit turn away from the world, but whether it’s toward God or not is open to interpretation. Speaking of suffering, Pascal is said to have described marriage as “the lowest condition permitted to a Christian.” This takes on some irony when we look at Reverend Eccles’ obsession with marriage. Eccles seems to think that marriage is the highest condition, for, like, everyone in the world. But that doesn’t necessarily help explain our epigraph, which is another one of those existential paradoxes Pascal was so fond of.
Here’s one way to look at the epigraph: first, consider each of the three clauses in the epigraph as categories and then try to place everything that happens in the novel under at least one of them. See, it’s a comment on the weirdness of life in general. For example, is Rebecca June’s death a matter of Grace, or hardness or heart, or external circumstances? Probably a little of all three, like everything else that happens in the novel. Which is to say, life is complicated and it just gets more complicated if you think too hard about it. You get all murky in the head like Rabbit (or maybe he doesn’t think hard enough?).
The epigraph also sets us up to do the work the book requires of us: to try to find out why Rebecca June dies, and whose fault it is, and what it means. Can it become a motion of Grace, as Eccles suggests, deepening the bond between Rabbit and Janice? Maybe her death caused a softening of hearts, which set the motions of Grace spinning. Or maybe her death just made hearts harder. Maybe hard-heartedness caused her death in the first place. But Eccles wasn’t hard-hearted, right? At least in his mind, trying to get Rabbit and Janice back together was a motion of Grace. The repressive climate of Rabbit, Run’s 1959 sounds an awful lot like external circumstances. Keeping the three elements of the epigraph in mind while reading and thinking about this novel is sure to provide insight.
Sentences and paragraphs are precision instruments in Rabbit, Run. Each finely honed to reflect the mood and action of the scene, and/or what’s in a character’s head. Look at the first running scene. When he starts running the sentences are short and provide small chunks of information. The first paragraph is short. Then the next paragraph is longer and the sentences get longer as Rabbit gets warmed up. The sentence length tapers of again as he’s nearing his destination, and running out of breath. The style is fluid – it moves and breathes.
When nervous or excited, Updike’s characters tend to lose commas from their speech. And when exceptionally strained or dreaming, their thoughts are narrated in run on sentences and other grammatical errors – slips that reveal their inner states. Check out when Rabbit has his hallucinations on the golf course, or the scene when Janice is going off the edge.
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.
Rabbit watches the Mickey Mouse Club in hopes that MC Jimmie and his "mouseguitar" will teach him to be a better MagiPeel Peeler salesman. To Rabbit, both the Mickey Mouse Club, and the MagiPeel company are symbols of fraud, which he thinks needs to embrace to succeed financially. It’s not clear how he thinks The Mickey Mouse Club is defrauding its audience. The MagiPeel Peeler is easier. There are important nutrients in the skins of fruits and vegetables, but the peeler strips them away in the interest of "economy." Telling people that stripping away the peel will give them more nutrients is fraud.
He feels similarly about working Mr. Springer’s used car lot – where he has to defraud the customer to make a sale. When Janice’s father calls her when Rabbit doesn’t show up for work, she thinks she can sell her father the line that Rabbit hasn’t run out again by using the car lot talk she learned from him. Her father likewise relies on his salesmanship to deal with every problem – even Rebecca June’s death. He uses the fact that he owns a car lot to try to control Rabbit – he gives him a job, and keeps tabs on him that way. How does Mrs. Smith’s garden fit in? Isn’t that where Rabbit is finally happy with his job? Yes, but Mrs. Smith thinks her flowers are a waste of the field – as the peeler strips the vegetables of nutrients, the flowers strip the land of it’s potential to nourish the hungry, fraudulent in the beauty that Rabbit finds nourishing. He just can’t win.
In the opening lines of the Mrs. Smith’s garden chapter, the sun and the moon are used in a traditional manner, to represent natural harmony, a natural passage of time. Sounds simple enough, but Updike takes it further. The night before Becky’s funeral, Rabbit dreams he’s in an empty track field (like Mrs. Smith’s garden, but without the flowers), and the phrase "the cowslip swallows the elder" is broadcast from a disembodied voice, kind of like a sports announcer. In the dream he understands that the cowslip is the moon (death) and the elder it’s swallowing, or eclipsing, is the sun (life). He dreams that life and death are all part of a beautiful cycle, and that he must found a new religion to spread this word.
The elder and the cowslip are both flowers, so we can connect this back to Mrs. Smith’s garden, too. Since it’s suggested that the field has something to do with sports, we could connect this to Rabbit’s high school basketball career that he’s so nostalgic about. Since the field is empty and possibly represents two times in his life when he was happy with what he is doing, and since he’s told to leave the field to start a new religion, the dream could mean that he’s ready to let go of his attachment to things that only partially satisfy him, and to reach for a higher goal. When he wakes from the dream, it no longer makes sense. He lacks a way to apply it to his life. We don’t necessarily see fulfillment of the dream prophecy by the end of the novel, unless you consider his running off again "founding a new religion." But hey, maybe we can. Maybe he’s starting a religion of running. Or maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.
For Rabbit, anything can symbolize a trap – a road, a map, sperm, a job, an invitation, his apartment. Sometimes the trap is symbolized by something vague he smells in the air. For the readers the trap is a symbol of both Rabbit’s paranoia, and his very real fear that he and Janice are not good for each other. In the beginning of the novel Nelson is part of the trap, but by the end this has changed and Nelson becomes an authority and a source of purpose for Rabbit.
At the end of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit decides that, because Ruth and Janice both have parents that can help her, he can absolve himself of responsibility for them. But Nelson is another matter. Nelson has become the tool by which Rabbit can weigh all his other actions. If Nelson is doing ok, then Rabbit must be doing the right thing. Regardless of what he does, how his actions might affect Nelson will be a major consideration in the future.
Most of Rabbit, Run is told from the perspective of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, though occasionally the narrator will slip into other characters’ heads. At the beginning of the novel, we see Rabbit through the eyes of some young men playing basketball. In one section, we see Ruth through Rabbit’s eyes, and then Rabbit through Ruth’s eyes. The novel’s most harrowing section is narrated from Janice’s perspective. We also gain insight from peering into the minds of Jack and Lucy Eccles. Is this just a half-baked attempt at narrative democracy? A deeper look suggests otherwise.
When the narrative shifts to the perspective of Eccles, we get vital information that would be clumsy to convey through Rabbit. How could Rabbit ever tell us what transpired in the crucial conversation between Eccles and Kruppenbach? When we look at Janice’s horrific scene, Updike’s solutions to narrative dilemmas are genius. The whole story hinges on Rabbit not being present when Rebecca dies. From there on out it plays like an existential murder mystery/courtroom drama. Everybody is on trial for Rebecca June’s murder, most of all Rabbit, because the novel is mostly from his perspective.
Ruth and Lucy’s sections are compelling. Both are atheists. Both are open-minded about sex. Ruth is Rabbit’s live lover. Lucy is his dream lover. What a contrast to the highly the restrictive standards held by the other characters.
One more thing: Why are Ruth and Rabbit the only characters to share a chapter? Is sharing a chapter in an Updike book a special literary honor?
At the start of the novel our hero is a total mess. His life in the suburbs is driving him crazy – you know, the drunk, pregnant, always leaving the kid at your mother’s, wife, and the job hawking degrading kitchen devices at the five and dime kind of crazy. To make matters worse, it’s the start of the weekend and nothing but chores, no fun in sight – it’s all a big fat trap. Booker calls Rabbit’s mindset a "restricted consciousness," and having one will get you plunged "into a strange world," or, in this case, the nearest city. Rabbit gets plunged by taking what was meant to be a permanent road trip. But, because of his limited consciousness perhaps, he thinks every road he turns down is part of the same trap he left. So he comes back. And meets Ruth, an ex-"hooer," who shares her love nest, er, strange world, with him.
Life is sweet and easy with Ruth, and the sex is really good. And Rabbit has the perfect job, tending the flowers in Mrs. Smith’s garden. Booker would say he’s totally exhilarated, but that he doesn’t "really feel at home." We don’t know about that. Did we say the sex was good? And Rabbit is so in his element playing in the dirt and planting stuff and burning dead leaves from last fall, and all that other gardening jive.
Did we speak to soon? Maybe so. Rabbit’s starting to get a little uncomfortable. Booker would say that a creepy "shadow" is dogging him, and freaking him out. Rabbit actually has a bunch of shadows now, and two of them look an awful lot like fetuses. Ruth is pregnant, but instead of telling him, she gives him a hard time about leaving Janice. So when Eccles calls and says Janice is about to hatch, Rabbit runs all the way to St. Joseph’s Hospital, the shadow at his heels. And then yay!, the delivery is a success! Rebecca June is born, and Janice is fine. So why don’t those pesky shadows just get off his back?
The horniness shadow is what’s in hot pursuit of Rabbit now. If he doesn’t sleep with Janice pronto, he might go blind, or even insane. But Janice is in no mood for nookie. These factors converge to create a double nightmare. Baby Becky cries for hours and Rabbit tries to keep his "shadow" under control by sucking on cigarettes, and staying really close to Janice. Finally the kid sleeps and Rabbit just can’t believe it when Janice is like: satisfaction denied! So he splits. Upset, Janice gets drunk and accidentally drowns the baby.
To make Rabbit a classic Bookerian hero for this last part, we have to see his life in the novel as set in two worlds: the world of running, and the world of sticking around. The world he really falls out of, at first, is the running one (the book starts with him running). He falls into the sticking around world of life with Janice and then life with Ruth and then back to Janice. Then he falls out of the sticking around one and back into the running one at the end of the book. Booker asks if Rabbit "learned or gained anything from his experience." We say yes, though just how deep his connection is with his son Nelson is the only thing we know for sure he’s learned.
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.
Rabbit Angstrom runs off, leaving behind his pregnant, alcoholic wife Janice, and his son Nelson. After driving all night, something makes him turn the car around. But, he doesn’t go back to his family. Instead he shacks up with Ruth, an ex-prostitute, for two months – just until Janice goes into labor. Problem is, though he doesn’t know it, Ruth is pregnant, too.
Rebecca June is born and they all move back into the apartment. Everything is basically okay, until…Rabbit goes to church one Sunday and gets all horny from flirting with Lucy Eccles, wife of Jack Eccles, Rabbit’s friend and the church pastor. Rabbit comes home from church wanting to get cozy with Janice, even though she’s not supposed to have sex for six weeks. He pesters her all day, trying to get her to have a drink. The baby finally stops crying and Rabbit finally gets Janice to have a drink. They go to bed and he makes his move, which she rejects. So he gets mad and takes off. Meanwhile, Janice gets very drunk and, while trying to give the baby a bath, accidentally drowns her.
Rabbit spends the night in a motel and tries to see Ruth but doesn’t. He calls Eccles and finds out the baby is dead. He comes back, full off guilt and hoping to make things right, trying not to blame Janice. Unfortunately, at the end of the funeral service, he loudly accuses Janice of killing the baby and proclaims his innocence. Then he runs off and gets lost in the woods. After he finds his way out of the woods, he visits Ruth, learns she is pregnant, and agrees to divorce Janice and marry Ruth. But when he goes out for snacks, yep, he runs…
Hilaire Belloc (5.75)
G.K. Chesterton (5.130)
Reader’s Digest (12.16)
Saturday Evening Post (12.20)
Woman’s Day (14.1)
The Dalai Lama (2.23)
Errol Flynn (1.17)
The Mickey Mouse Club (1.23, 1.28)
Bell, Book, and Candle (5.2-3)
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (5.2-3)
The Shaggy Dog (5.2-3)
Ingrid Bergman (5.2-3)
Robert Donat (5.2-3)
Audrey Hepburn (17.8)
Some Like it Hot (8.1)
Might Mouse (15.53)
"Without a Song" (1.73)
"Secret Love" (1.74)
"Autumn Leaves (1.74)
"Rocksville, P-A" (2.53)
"No Other Arms, No Other Lips"
Connie Francis, "If I Didn’t Care"
"I Ran All the Way Home Just to Say I’m Sorry"
Mel Torme, "That Old Feeling"
"The Italian Cowboy Song"
Duane Eddy, "Yep"
"The Happy Organ"
"Turn Me Loose"
"A Picture No Artist Could Paint"
Dody Stevens, "Pink Shoe Laces"
Henry Mancini, "Fall Out"
"Everybody Likes to Cha, Cha, Cha
"The Beat of My Heart"
Rayco Clear Plastic Seat Covers
Radio Controlled Garage Door Operators
Big Screen Westinghouse TV Set
Tame Cream Rinse
Schuykill Life Insurance
New Formula Barbasol Presto-Lather
Wool-Tex All-Wool Suits
Lord’s Grace Table Napkins
Speed Shine Wax
The Dalai Lama