Updike employs the present tense in this novel, a powerful literary technique which was somewhat unusual for the time. The sense is that readers are living Rabbit's life along with him, that no one knows when and where this running will lead. This technique establishes an immediacy that pulls the reader along, as in the opening: "Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts." And of course, in the conclusion: ". . . he runs. Ah: runs. Runs." Movement is a central theme of the novel, and there would be precious little movement in "... he ran."
Updike trained as an artist in the Ruskin School for Fine Arts in Oxford, England, and his visual acuity is evident in the incredibly detailed scenes he sketches, often writing beautifully about the most sordid vistas:
He hides in the lavatory. The paint is worn off the toilet seat and the washbasin is stained by the hot-water faucet's rusty tears; the walls are oily and the towel-rack empty. There is something terrible in the height of the tiny ceiling: a square yard of a dainty metal pattern covered in cobwebs in which a few white husks of insects are suspended.
Updike devotes as much detail to sexual encounters in the novel, counter to the norms of 1950s literature. The initial sex act between Rabbit and Ruth covers six and one-half pages, including a vivid description of Ruth's post-coital cleansing rituals.
Another Updike technique, which echoes the chaos of Rabbit's life, is the use of a dense narrative, with few official interruptions of the action. Rabbit rarely pauses to think before he acts, so this format echoes the main character's sensibilities. Occasionally, Updike uses a spatial breather, but the book rockets on with only two true stopping places. The first division happens just after Rabbit gets his first glimpse of "it," watching his golf shot recede along a line "straight as a ruler-edge." He finally has escaped the traps, both on the golf course and in his consciousness, and has delivered the ball arcing toward its intended destination. For Rabbit, who earlier could not follow a road south without becoming hopelessly lost, this success is amazing. The narrative stops here, and when it begins anew on a separate page, he is happily laboring in Mrs. Smith's garden, an occupation that seems ideal for any rabbit. The second division is just after Janice drowns the baby, and it signals the final cycle of the novel.
Ideas for Group Discussions
The central contradictions of this novel are ones that most readers face as well and therefore lend themselves to often strong debates. Some readers sympathize with Rabbit's reaction to his circumstances, others condemn him for his selfishness. Learning the difference between lust and love, learning that freedom carries responsibilities, and finding some meaningful work are all issues that young adults must face. In addition to these concerns, the novel provides fodder for analysis and debate about many other issues:
1. Updike has said that he has presented a portrait of American life in the late 1950s in this book. Using the text as an historical document, describe what the country was like, specifically as to gender relationships, the economy, work, and popular culture.
2. Some critics have argued that Updike's novels, especially this one, offer a perspective that is too exclusively male. What evidence is there to support and to contradict this belief?
3. Discuss how Rabbit's early athletic success has ironically condemned him to failure as an adult.
4. Focus on the scenes that precede Rabbit's various flights in the novel. What do they all have in common?
5. The reader may see Rabbit as an ambiguous character, but the women in the novel seem to have unconflicted opinions about him. Discuss how these various women view Rabbit: Mim, his mother, Janice's mother, Janice, and Ruth.
6. Like many young people, Rabbit turns to people in leadership positions for advice when he finds himself in trouble. Discuss the guidance Rabbit receives from his former coach (Tothero) and from his wife's minister (Eccles).
7. One frequent criticism of Rabbit's behavior in the novel is that whereas his abandonment of his wife may be somewhat understandable, his leaving his child is not. What evidence is there in the text that Rabbit really does care for his son?
8. Focus on the scene in which Rabbit works in Mrs. Smith's garden. Discuss why he seems so contented there.
9. Rabbit's relationship with Ruth has, from the first, been more like another marriage than an affair. Discuss what happens at the Club Castanet scene to make Rabbit re-think this relationship.
10. Readers disagree on assigning blame for Rebecca June's death. Analyze how Updike avoids taking sides on this issue by offering readers Janice's own interior monologue. How is this event precipitated by both parents?
With the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960, John Updike began a series of four novels exploring the inner life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former basketball star who struggles to find meaning in his chaotic life. In this first novel, twenty-six-year-old Rabbit has left the basketball court where he excelled to find himself failing at work and in his marriage. The remaining novels in the series include Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). Updike, born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania, is the same age as Rabbit, who inhabits the world of Mt. Judge and Brewer, Pennsylvania, fictional towns much like Shillington. According to the introduction to the Everyman's Library edition of the quartet of novels, Rabbit is Updike's way of seeing the country and American culture through different eyes. Those eyes belong to an ordinary blue-collar man who refuses to be trapped in a life that he sees as "second-rate."
Rabbit, Run is a portrait of America in 1959. Readers are immersed in the minutia of popular culture: the Mickey Mouse Club, the top ten songs, news of President Eisenhower, the search for the Dalai Lama. It is a time in which Rabbit can support his stay-at-home wife and child on his meager salary from demonstrating the MagiPeel vegetable peeler at the five-and-dime store, a time in which a Chinese dinner for four totals $9.60, monthly rent on an apartment, $110. The economic and political stability of the late 1950s provided many young white men just out of the army, as Rabbit is, with opportunities to build the American Dream.
Rabbit Angstrom, however, suffers from the angst that inhabits his name. He is a feeling, not thinking, man who is ruled by his own worse instincts. He leaves work one March evening, when "things start anew," and crashes a pick-up game of basketball. Discovering that the boys he plays with have not just forgotten him, "worse, they never...
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Updike revealed his fascination with the notion of a downwardly mobile ex-basketball player in two previous short works. A short story, "Ace in the Hole," originally appeared in the New Yorker and was anthologized in 1955. Ex-basketball star Ace drives home to his ineffectual wife, Even, after being fired from his job, feeling "crowded" by his mother and his wife. Running the last few blocks, he is mesmerized by the sight of a kid across the street "dribbling a basketball around a telephone pole that had a backboard and net nailed on it." This scene, with few alterations, forms the opening of the later novel.
In 1958, he published the poem, "Ex-Basketball Player," about Flick, a player "with hands like wild birds" who holds the county scoring record "still." Also lost after his early athletic success, Flick now "sells gas/Checks oil, and changes flats." He once in a while "dribbles an inner tube," but "most of us remember anyway." At the gas station, Flick "stands tall among the idiot pumps," but he spends his life vainly awaiting the missing crowd's applause.
Updike periodically revisits Rabbit throughout the rest of his life, exploring both Rabbit's inner consciousness and the social and political climate of the United States at ten-year intervals. In Rabbit Redux (1971) Updike explores the summer of 1969, complete with racial and cultural tension, as the country first puts men on the moon. Janice is the run-away this time, leaving Rabbit for another man. Rabbit and his son Nelson bring Jill, a real teenage runaway, into their home, and both soon see Jill as a member of the family. Skeeter, one of Updike's rare African-American characters, enters the narrative as a drug supplier for Jill. Ten years later, America is embroiled in an oil crisis, and Rabbit and Janice, together...
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According to Donald Greiner in John Updike's Novels, Updike originally subtitled the manuscript of Rabbit, Run "a movie," and he wrote the opening scene of Rabbit playing basketball with two young boys after work as background for the title and credits of the film. Greiner reports that Updike later realized that the film medium could not show the ambiguous nature of Rabbit's questing and therefore abandoned the screenplay idea.
However, in 1970 Warner Brothers produced and Jack Smight directed the film version of Rabbit, Run, which starred James Caan as Rabbit. Also featured were Jack Albertson and Anjanette Comer. The film, rated R, is still offered for sale, its topic listed as "A former...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots, Definitive 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.
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