Study Guide

Rabbit, Run Religion

By John Updike


Janice and Rabbit become unnaturally still; both are Christians. God’s name makes them feel guilty. (1.29)

Pondering these sentences leaves us confused. Is guilt a positive and necessary human emotion? Whether it is or isn’t, what happens when you connect it to God?

Amish overwork their animal, he knew. Fanatics. Hump their women standing up, out in the fields, wearing clothes, just hoist black skirts and there it was, nothing underneath. No underpants. Manure worshipers. (1.103)

Rather than make us despise the Amish, does this paragraph provide a key to Rabbit’s later feeling of alienation at the diner in West Virginia?

"Hey, why don’t you get some clothes on instead of just lying there giving me [Ruth] the word."
This, and her turning, hair swirling, to say it, stir him. "Come here," he asks. The idea of making it while the churches are full excites him.
"No," Ruth says. She is really a little sore. His believing in God grates against her. (4.28-30)

Ruth just chose Rabbit over God. And he finds that hot. And this makes her spurn the pleasure of this world.

Eccles’ handshake, eager and practiced and hard, seems to symbolize for him an embrace. For an instant Rabbit fears he will never let go. He feels caught, foresees explanations, embarrassments, prayers, reconciliation’s rising up in dank walls; his skin prickles in desperation. He senses tenacity in his captor. (4.118)

It’s interesting to think about what would have happened if Rabbit had run here, away from Eccles. It probably wouldn’t have made a good book though. We put this under religion because it has both Eccles on Sunday, and the word "prayer."

"I [Eccles] don’t think even the blackest atheist has any idea of what real separation will be. Outer darkness. We live in what you might call" – he looks at Harry and laughs – " inner darkness." (5.36)

Well, aren’t we all existential and sophisticated? But it’s sure an interesting perspective on hell. Ideas like hell on earth and the hell of the mind don’t apply to the hell that comes when we die if we aren’t careful. Or rather, just how much hell you are in depends on how far away you are from God. Very Gothic.

"Do you think," Kruppenbach at last interrupts, "do you think this your job, to meddle in these people’s lives?" (9.6)

This takes on deeper significance for Eccles after Rebecca June dies.

"You [Eccles] have no seriousness. Don’t you believe in damnation? Don’t you know, when you put that collar on, what you risked?" [said Kruppenbach] (8.144)

Ol’ Kruppenbach knows how to find a sore spot. Eccles already feels like a criminal and fraud in his collar.

She [Lucy Eccles] hates them, all those clinging quaint quavering widows and Young People for Christ – the one good thing if the Russians take over is they’ll make religion go extinct. It should have gone extinct a hundred years ago. Maybe it shouldn’t have. Maybe our weakness needs it […] (10.2)

An atheist and a communist. What an odd combination.

He feels them all, the heads are still around him as tombstones, he feels them all one, all one with the grass, with the hothouse flowers, all, the undertaker’s men, the unseen caretaker who has halted his mower, all gathered into one here to give his unbaptized baby force to leap to heaven. (20.17)

Even the Mystery Science Theater guys would tear up at this one. The beauty of Updike’s image is breathtaking. This is a moment that makes us love Rabbit and see the power of his mind, heaven or no heaven.

Afraid, really afraid, he remembers what once consoled him by seeming to make a hole where he looked through into underlying brightness, and lifts his eyes to the church window.

And then he runs. But he will probably be back.