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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Rabbit runs because he is afraid that sitting still will force him to embrace a life that he considers mediocre.
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.
Rebecca June’s death is Updike’s indictment of America in the 1950s – in the end everyone is guilty and everyone is to blame.