Study Guide

Rabbit, Run Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

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.

The Mickey Mouse Club, The MagiPeel Peeler, The Used Car Lot, and Mrs. Smith’s Garden

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.

The Sun and the Moon

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.

The Trap

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.

The Scale

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.