Updike is best known as a novelist of manners. The clarity and precision of his style create the illusion of real characters in a plausible setting. Updike is true to form in Rabbit Redux, but he adds another element of craft that is more experimental and original. The novel is united by several references to the flight and landing of Apollo 11. Each chapter begins with a quotation from men in orbit around the earth or the moon. The exploration of space thus becomes a controlling metaphor to describe the way Harry Angstrom is subject to the voids and craters of his experience. The young girl who moves into his house is identified as a "moon child," and Harry learns from her much about the love and madness so long associated with the moon. Updike's experiment with references to space travel and its related metaphors adds a new dimension to his achievement of social realism.
Updike also finds a new way to project the interior monologue of his main character. Harry works at a Linotype machine for the newspaper of a small city. He often thinks in terms of newsprint, and Updike exploits this as a stylistic device by including in the text of the novel several of Harry's mistakes at the typesetting machine. The mistakes are direct evidence of the distraction and confusion suffered by the protagonist. Harry feels that the rules for his life are "melting away," and Updike reflects the chaos directly on page after page.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Updike describes Rabbit Redux as "echoes and ramifications of the national and international disturbances that were so preoccupying in the late 60's." Thus questions about the novel's picture of America in turmoil should provoke a stimulating discussion. Many critics have also focused on the role of the main character in the Rabbit series and have debated his response in this novel to the news of Apollo 11 and Vietnam.
1. Why does Updike narrate Rabbit Redux in the present tense? How does this strategy help to create a consciousness for the novel that hovers between author and character?
2. Does the realistic style of Rabbit Redux allow the novel to be read as a reflection of contemporary American history? How do echoes from newspapers and television bring another dimension to Updike's story?
3. How is space exploration used as a controlling metaphor to show the experience of Harry Angstrom? Why does Updike begin each chapter with a quotation from men in orbit around the earth or the moon?
4. What views of America's role in Vietnam are expressed in the conversations between Angstrom and the black veteran? How does the violence of the war begin to invade Rabbit's life in America?
5. Why is the black veteran presented as a self-proclaimed religious prophet? How does his indictment of America foreshadow the scene of arson and death near the end of the novel?
6. How does Updike...
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Rabbit Redux is the second in a series of novels about the adventures of Harry Angstrom. All four novels are concerned with the deterioration of the American dream, but Rabbit Redux offers the strongest indictment of a contemporary America in crisis. The novel takes place during the late 1960s when pride in the success of Apollo 11 is set against the anguish of Vietnam. The location is a small city in Pennsylvania where the flaws of an industrial society are evident, and the chances for life are diminishing. The chief character works at a Linotype machine for a local newspaper, but the day arrives when his skill is no longer needed, and his job disappears.
The disintegration of American culture is further described as violence comes to the suburban life of Harry Angstrom. Rabbit Redux includes a black militant who cannot forget the chaos of Vietnam, and a young girl who uses drugs and sex to escape the limits of her rich but uncaring family. When both characters move into Rabbit's house, the result is a desperate play of drugs and sex followed by scenes of arson and death. Updike's realistic style exposes the crisis in America after a decade noted for its social revolution, race riots, and television coverage of the war in Vietnam.
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Two of Updike's contemporaries published books just before Rabbit Redux that respond in different ways to the success of Apollo 11.
Norman Mailer was invited to the NASA facilities in Houston and Cape Kennedy. He interviewed the scientists and astronauts, had dinner with Wernher von Braun, and witnessed the liftoff of Apollo 11. The result is a book, Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), that contains some of Mailer's best descriptive writing, but he was too close to the events to be able to turn them into metaphors and images for fiction. Mailer and Updike, however, share a fascination for the language used by the astronauts, and quote several examples of how the men in space are programmed to talk like robots.
Saul Bellow was so inspired by the success of Apollo 11 that he planned to call his next book "The Future of the Moon," but second thoughts relegated that title to a manuscript owned by a comic character in Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). There is a scientist in Bellow's novel who talks insanely about the immediate need for establishing colonies on the moon. Updike does not create a comic advocate for the space program to match Bellow's scientist, but in Rabbit Redux he does work the language of space exploration into the very texture of the novel.
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Updike began the adventures of Harry Angstrom with Rabbit, Run in 1960. The protagonist is in his mid-twenties, feels trapped by the responsibility of a young family, and tends to run away each time the pressure mounts. He leaves behind a trail of hurt feelings, bitter accusations, and tragic events. His wife accidentally drowns their new baby after one of Harry's repeated desertions. Although his actions may be selfish and cruel, Harry remains a sympathetic character insofar as his restlessness is marked by a nostalgia for the innocence of lost youth, and his sexual adventures are described as a metaphysical yearning.
Ten years later in Rabbit Redux the protagonist still has more questions than answers, but he is less apt to run away from his problems. Despite the chaos of the novel, the ending shows a tentative reconciliation of husband and wife. Updike builds upon that for the next book in the series, Rabbit h Rich, in 1981. The education of Harry Angstrom continues as he makes love on a bed full of gold coins and discovers the unexpected dividends of wife swapping. The echoes of space travel, however, are only dimly heard. The novel is written in Updike's realistic style, but now it seems limited to probing deeply into the surface of things. The hero enjoys more sex and money than he deserves, but Updike can no longer find what he revealed in Rabbit Redux — the violence and fear at the heart of contemporary America.
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Only the first novel in the Rabbit series has been adapted as a film. Updike reports: "Rabbit Run, made in the late '60s, came and went with tremendous speed at the box office. It was not a success, although I thought parts of the movie were very fine. It starred James Caan, whose physique was not quite Rabbit's, but his face had that worried look that was good for Rabbit."
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Miller, D. Quentin. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
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