Study Guide

Ruth Leonard in Rabbit, Run

By John Updike

Ruth Leonard

Ruth, an ex-prostitute, a sexually experienced woman, and an atheist, provides alternative viewpoints on sex and religion to those of the other characters in the novel. She is the only character that brings up birth control, and she wishes people didn’t make such a big deal about the difference between men and women. She is also Rabbit’s lover and perhaps the one person who really understands him, at least when they are first together. She also has an excellent sense of humor, and knows how to turn a difficult moment in their relationship into something hilarious. Remember when Rabbit asked her if she was “really a hooer”? Rabbit gets a big kick out of it when during “The Inn of The Sixth Happiness every time Ingrid Bergman’s face appeared on the screen [Ruth] leaned over to Rabbit and asked him in a whisper, ‘Is she a real hooer?’” That’s the kind of things that suggests maybe Rabbit is cut out for a long-term relationship, just not with Janice. For a while it seems that life with Ruth is the way for Rabbit to be an adult, but still feel free and happy. But, this all changes when Janice is in labor and he leaves Ruth, after essentially making her give him a blow job to “prove” she belongs to him after he finds out she slept with Ronnie Harrison. Part of why things change between them even before that is because she too is pregnant, though Rabbit doesn’t know it when he leaves her.

When Ruth gets pregnant with Rabbit’s baby, she really starts to change, or, rather, possible incompatibilities between her and Rabbit start to come into her mind. She’s a staunch atheist and Rabbit’s belief rubs her the wrong way. She starts to see Rabbit as a follower, instead of a free thinker like herself. And she is deeply, deeply hurt when he leaves her.

When he comes back to her see her after Rebecca June’s funeral, she seems an angry bitter woman. When Rabbit says, “Look, I’m happy you’re pregnant,” she says, “It’s too f***ing late to be happy,” which makes him afraid she had an abortion. This was it seems, her intended effect. Ruth doesn’t seem so freethinking anymore. She gets rather vicious, really. Note her marriage proposal: “If you can’t work it out [meaning divorce Janice and get a job], I’m dead to you. I’m dead to you and this baby of yours is dead too.”

Not very romantic. The threat of another dead baby, and maybe even a threat of suicide. The ultimatum seems cruel and manipulative, especially on the heels of Rebecca June’s funeral, which she does know about, because Eccles called her and told her right before Rabbit got there.

Oh, and there’s another couple of problems. Like Lucy Eccles, Ruth blames him for the baby’s death, partly because she feels guilty about it, too. She never really forgave him for leaving Janice in the first place, partly because if he could do it to Janice, he could do it to Ruth, too. Unless she gets over all that, they don’t have much of a chance.

On Rabbit’s end, he’ll not only have to get over her being a "hooer," and her laying Ronnie Harrison, but also the way she got him to marry her. Do we think he won’t notice that she trapped him?

Like Janice, Ruth is a victim of her environment. Think being a single mother is rough now? Try being one in 1959. It was probably worse than being a divorcee, at least in the world of Rabbit, Run. Ruth was under serious pressure. Perhaps she weakened under the pressure of motherhood, and nonconformity seemed no longer worth the risk. Her past sexual history wasn’t, and probably still isn’t, compatible with the image of a good mother. We're pretty sure her being an atheist wasn’t going to help matters either.

So, in addition to being a presenter of alternatives, and an example of a risk taker, Ruth, like Janice is important to the vision Updike presents of what a fun time 1959 was to be a woman. She is also important to examining Rabbit’s running back and forth between fun loving kid and mature, responsible grownup.