Study Guide

Rabbit, Run Themes

By John Updike

  • Sex

    Rabbit, Run devotes much attention to sex, and sex’s sometime counterparts, reproduction and/or marriage. Delicate issues (really delicate in 1959, when the novel is set) like prostitution, male and female orgasms, alcoholism, adultery, oral sex, spousal rape, homosexuality (though only briefly and ambiguously), birth control, sex before marriage, single motherhood, divorce, and abortion are explored. Sex in Rabbit, Run can be tender and loving and mutual, or fraught with anxiety and confusion, and often somewhere in between. It can be a healing act, or a weapon. It can be loving, or utterly selfish. Rabbit, Run explores these delicate sexual issues against the repressive backdrop of America in 1959.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What do you think about the scene in Tothero’s room when Tothero watches Rabbit get undressed? Is Tothero gay or, like Rabbit says, just nostalgic for those locker room days? Do we have enough information to make a guess? Does Tothero’s sexual orientation matter to the book? Why or why not?
    2. Rabbit often thinks about his experiences with prostitutes in Texas. How do these memories inform the narrative? If these sections were cut from the novel, would this change how we think of Rabbit? Why or why not?
    3. Are any of the characters motivated to have sex, for reasons other than sexual pleasure? If so, what motivates them?
    4. Do you think Janet had an affair?
    5. In Chapter Seventeen, Rabbit tries to reach orgasm by “fit[ing] [his penis] lengthwise between her buttocks” (17.11). Janice stops him and he leaves. Would you consider his act attempted rape? Why or why not? His act hurts her stitches? Is it assault? Could she now, or in the 1950s have reported it as such?

    Chew on This

    Through the character of Ruth, Updike argues that the way men in the 1950s are taught to think about sex is harmful to both themselves and the women they encounter.

    Rabbit’s obsession with the female orgasm is motivated not by his interest in a woman’s pleasure, but by the belief that the female orgasm proves he is good in bed.

  • Fear

    Fear pervades Rabbit, Run, though the novel does provide moments of relief. The main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom thinks he’s caught in a contracting and expanding "trap," or "web," or "net." He runs to counteract the fear this trap produces, though he’s usually running, literally, in circles. Fear drives Rabbit to run, and to be still – to leave, but to always return. He’s afraid the trap he’s stuck in is the trap of mediocrity; he’s sure something better awaits him. So he runs. Yet, he has obligations to others, and he fears that abandoning them makes him a bad man. So he goes back and forth. And back and forth, until his final run at the end of the novel.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Several times in the novel, Rabbit expresses fear of Janice. Why is he afraid of her? Do we believe his stated reasons? What does or doesn’t make his reasons credible?
    2. Why does it make Rabbit afraid when he thinks of his Tothero living in The Sunshine Athletic Club? Is his fear for himself or for Tothero, or for somebody else entirely, or for some combination of people? How do we know?
    3. Tothero tells Rabbit that during (World War Two) the skin on his wife’s face suddenly began to resemble "the hides of a thousand lizards stitched together." He continues, "That sense of it being in pieces horrified me, Harry." What exactly is going on here? Rabbit meets Mrs. Tothero at the hospital, and finds her skin relatively normal. Does this moment inform other Tothero moments in the text? Which ones, and how does it work?

    Chew on This

    Rabbit, Run argues that the idea of marriage as a sacred institution breeds a culture of fear in 1950s America.

    Rabbit’s fear of his mother is the root cause of his selfish actions.

  • Religion

    Rabbit, Run is suffused with religious questioning. Much of the religious debate in the novel relates to variations of Christian philosophy, but Freudianism (treated something like a religion), atheism, and a brief appearance, or rather, disappearance of the Dalai Lama provide interesting contrasts. Some of these perspectives are pretty risky for the McCarthy-ist and Red Scare era 1959 that provides the backdrop for Rabbit, Run. The drowning death of a newborn baby challenges the religious beliefs of many of the characters, and even provokes her father to dream of founding a new religion, based on "the truth" about life and death. The end of the novel does not tell us if he fulfills the dream’s prophecy.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why does Rabbit go to church that Sunday?
    2. In the section from Eccles’s point of view we learn that he feels like a fraud mouthing ‘Our Father’ when his heart knows the real father he is trying to please, has been trying to please all his life, is "the God who smokes cigars." What is he talking about? Is there any other mention of smoking cigars in the novel? Can we connect this to any historical figure mentioned? Or is this just figurative language? If so, how might we interpret it?
    3. Does Rebecca June’s death pose a threat to Eccles’s faith?

    Chew on This

    Rabbit is constantly held up as a Christ figure in the novel. By doing this, Updike mocks the Christian idea of one man paying for the sins of an entire society.

  • Identity

    Rabbit, Run explores the ways in which individual needs and desires, responsibility, family, religion, pop culture, and The American Dream circa 1959 impact the identities of its characters. The tension between American pioneerism and American conformity results in an identity crisis for the novel’s main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom as he runs back and forth between them trying to escape an all pervasive "trap." The results can be both stunningly beautiful and utterly shattering. The open ending leaves it to our imagination (unless we read the sequel, Rabbit, Redux) as to what extent the characters’ identities are, or aren’t, changed by the drowning death of Rabbit’s newborn daughter.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Does Rabbit really think he’s the next Jesus, or is he just playing around?
    2. Does Ruth’s sexual experience factor in to her identity? If so, how?
    3. How might Nelson’s presence in the apartment at the time of Rebecca June’s death, and his knowledge of the circumstances of her death, impact his identity in the future? How do you feel about Rabbit and Nelson’s discussion of the tragedy?

    Chew on This

    Harry uses his strong identification with the animal the rabbit to justify sex with multiple partners and his need to run away from difficult situations.

    Until Rabbit stops needing a "coach" figure in his life, he will continue to remain trapped in his identity as a high school basketball player.

  • Visions of America

    Rabbit, Run’s author, John Updike says that looking at 1950s America through the eyes of his main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom opened his eyes to the decade. The novel mostly focuses on February, March, and June of 1959 (though the rest of the decade is seen through memory), and on Brewer, Pennsylvania and its suburb, Mt. Judge. The view can be breathtaking in terms of natural beauty. The novel’s landscape is rich in mountains and virgin forests and lush gardens. It can also be cramped and suffocating when we find the characters where they live, and where TV characters show them what the American Dream is supposed to look like. Rabbit, Run’s vision of America asks us to interrogate our own visions of America by exploring America in 1959.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. In what ways, if any, are Rabbit, Run’s vision of America beautiful or ugly? Does he like anything he sees? If so, what? What doesn’t he like, and why?
    2. What, if anything, does the long list of every song, commercial, and news brief we get during Rabbit’s road trip tell us about America, 1959?
    3. Rabbit suggests that, to be successful in America, one must become a fraud. Does this hold water? Why or why not? He thinks this after watching the Mickey Mouse Club, which he thinks is a larger Disney fraud. Is there something about that specific episode that might have triggered his thought? What might that be?

    Chew on This

    By fictionalizing his vision of America in 1959 through the eyes of Rabbit, Updike demonstrates that insight is only gained with the ability to see through the eyes of others.

    A close look at Updike’s 1959 shows us not only how much America has changed, but also how much it has remained the same.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, is obsessed with alcohol and cigarettes. But unless you count delivery room anesthetics, drugs are only mentioned on the first page – some basketball playing kids are smoking weed – almost like Updike, writing about 1959, is predicting the ’60s and ’70s to come. Alcohol is mostly presented as a destructive force; whenever the characters get near it, disaster on small or large-scale results. Cigarettes too are presented as mostly destructive, contributing subtly and not so subtly to the smokers’ problems. Though at one moment a cigarette is seen as "a wafer of repentance." So go steal the keys to the liquor cabinet and – oh, you know Shmoop’s just kidding!

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. If Rabbit hadn’t tried to get Janice to drink that Sunday, would she still have started drinking after he left? Does the text give us any information that allows us to make an educated guess?
    2. What are we to think of Rabbit’s asking her repeatedly to take a drink that Sunday?
    3. Why does Janice drink?
    4. Had Rebecca June lived, what is the likelihood that she would have been neurologically or physically damaged by Janice’s drinking while pregnant? (This one will require a little research.)

    Chew on This

    Tothero is right. If Rabbit had been able to enjoy an occasional drink with Janice, their marriage would not be falling apart, and their child would not be dead.

  • Transience

    Rabbit, Run’s main character Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is in a perpetual state of transience. He’s always on the move, usually on foot, though he’s occasionally found in a motor vehicle. He only stops to sleep and mate, and occasionally, to grab a bite to eat. Why does he run so hard? Because he thinks something better than what he has is waiting for him. At the same time he’s afraid of deserting the people he cares about. He runs back and forth trying to find some kind of balance. Rabbit, Run challenges us to wonder if we are settling for mediocrity when sitting still, or risking everything when we make a move.

    Questions About Transience

    1. When Rabbit leaves Nelson at his parents’ home, and tries to skip town, how much, if at all, does his relationship with his mother contribute to his decision?
    2. Where, if anywhere, does Rabbit feel most at home in the book?
    3. Why does he feel so alienated in the parking lot of that dinner in West Virginia? Why does he later feel like that was the only steady place in the world?

    Chew on This

    Rabbit runs because he is afraid that sitting still will force him to embrace a life that he considers mediocre.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Rabbit, Run is a guilt and blame-fest. This starts at the beginning of the novel when the main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, runs away from his pregnant wife and his son. But when newborn Rebecca June Angstrom drowns in a bathtub, things get messy. Rabbit’s wife Janice admits she drowned the baby while drunk. Yet Rabbit is a prime suspect, especially to himself. He is a suspect precisely because he was not there when the baby died. All of the other characters in the novel are suspects too – everybody simultaneously feels guilty and wants to blame others. Even the novel’s setting, America of 1959, is a suspect.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Who is to blame for Rebecca June’s death? If Janice’s mother hadn’t called her, would Rebecca June still be alive?
    2. How might this novel have been different if Rabbit had been present in the apartment when Rebecca June dies?
    3. If everybody but Janice was on trial for killing the baby, what kind of charges would be brought? What would the jury's verdict be? Is there any real legal precedent by which someone other than Janice could be indicted?

    Chew on This

    Rebecca June’s death is Updike’s indictment of America in the 1950s – in the end everyone is guilty and everyone is to blame.