He [Rabbit] catches it on the short bounce with a quickness which startles them. As they stare hush he sights squinting through blue clouds of weed smoke, a suddenly dark silhouette like a smokestack against the afternoon spring sky […]. (1.1)
Weed and cigarettes both on the first page! It’s not really obvious what the novel is getting at here. This is the only time we hear about pot, but it is spoken of casually, which doesn’t necessarily meet our idea of the late 1950s. Since it’s on the very first page, should we consider it significant? What do you make of it?
Things start anew; Rabbit plucks the pack of cigarettes from his bobbing shirt and pocket, and without breaking his stride, cans it in somebody’s open barrel. His upper lip nibbles back from his teeth in self-pleasure. (1.10)
This might seem like a no-brainer: quit cigarettes and start a new life. Rabbit, Run explores at this seemingly simple idea rather deeply. See what happens when you trace Rabbit’s relationship with cigarettes through the novel.
"I thought a drink might help the pain," [says Janice].
Janice is seven-months pregnant here, and apparently has been drinking throughout her pregnancy. And no one in the book knows this is bad for the baby’s health.
"The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you get there." Rabbit catches a whiff of whiskey. He says in a level way, "I don’t think so."[…] Rabbit pulls out, going straight. Everybody who tells you how to act has whiskey on their breath. (1.102-103)
This is in some ways foreshadowing, and in some ways Rabbit projecting his worries over Janice’s drinking onto the world. Everybody tells Rabbit what to do, whiskey breath or not. We can also note that the gas station attendant’s advice is moot for Rabbit – even when he knows where he’s going, he doesn’t – he’s always torn between at least two places.
"What sort of mess?" "I don’t know. My wife’s an alcoholic." "And have you tried to help her?" "Sure. How?" "Did you drink with her?" "No sir, never." […] "Perhaps you should have," Tothero offers, after a moment. "Perhaps if you had shared this pleasure with her, she could have controlled it." (1.145-1.151)
Just when we thought we were in the middle of a temperance narrative! Tothero’s provocative argument is worth considering, or is it?
"We didn’t win," Tothero repeats, and calls "Waiter." When the boy comes Tothero asks for another round of the same drinks. "No, not for me, thanks," Rabbit says. "I’m high enough on this as it is." (2.81-2.83)
In some ways, the novel thwarts male stereotypes. Who would've thought a six foot three, red-blooded American male would get tipsy off one daiquiri? It also thwarts the stereotype that only so-called promiscuous women like Margaret and Ruth can be alcoholics. In fact, Ruth, the novel’s most sexually free character, only drinks on two occasions in the novel.
"He asks her, "What do you want?" "A daiquiri." "You sure? You sure it won’t make you sick?" He’s noticed that, that she seems a little sick sometimes, and won’t eat, and sometimes eats the house down. (9.3-9.5)
Rabbit’s pride in noticing Ruth symptoms of pregnancy is both touching and ironic. Touching because he notices, ironic because he doesn’t get it. It is also a comment on the lack of sex, alcohol, and pregnancy education among 20-something Americans in the late fifties.
Eccles comes back in, looks him in the face and offers him a cigarette. The effect is somehow of a wafer of repentance and Rabbit accepts. (12.20)
What? Smoking in the maternity ward waiting room! Into what dark world have we fallen? This is the first smoke Rabbit’s had since the beginning of the story, two months ago. The "wafer of repentance" takes on ironic and tragic connotations on that Sunday we’ve talked about before.
"It’s all right now, now you’ll make better love to me." She giggles and tries to move in the bed. "No, I didn’t mean that, you’re a good lover you’ve given me a baby." "It seems to me you’re pretty sexy for somebody in your shape." (12.89-12.91)
Janice has literally just given birth, and is under the influence of a tranquilizer "Meprobamate." Rabbit is pleased by her sexiness, and it sets his mind up to think she’s ready for sex sooner than she is. We just keep coming back to education on this stuff.
"Forget it," he says. "She’ll conk out. Have a drink. There’s some old whiskey in the kitchen." "Say; what is this Have a drink routine of yours? I’ve been trying not to drink. All afternoon you’ve been smoking one cigarette after another and saying ‘Have a drink. Have a drink.’" (16.5-16.6)
Just one piece of evidence that suggests Rabbit associates intoxication with sexual inhibition, and he’s trying to use cigarettes to stave off his sexual hunger. Not a very sexy environment, not to speak of healthy: crying Rebecca, restless Nelson, horny Rabbit, postpartum Janice, June heat, cramped apartment, and full of smoke no less. Updike knows how to paint a recipe for disaster.
She gets out of bed and […] goes into the kitchen […] and sniffs the empty glass Harry made her drink whiskey out of. The smell is dark and raw and cozy and deep, and she thinks maybe a sip will cure her insomnia. (17.10)
Remove "whiskey" and insert desired self-destructive behavior. Updike is certainly fixed on booze, but he’s also interrogating how we deal with extremes of physical and emotional pain – that is, often in a counterproductive manner. It doesn’t help when we are as completely alone as Janice is. Who could she possibly call that would help her now?