Study Guide

Rabbit, Run Setting

By John Updike


March through June, 1959 in Brewer, Pennsylvania and its suburb, Mt. Judge.

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.