Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Taken together, the Rabbit Angstrom novels provide, at the most literal level, a highly accurate and entertaining record of United States history during the years of Harry Angstrom’s life. It is perhaps no accident that Harry was born during the same month that saw Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated as president of the United States. Harry’s childhood and young manhood are closely linked to political events of the time; as he ages, such events begin to take on greater significance, suggesting that Harry is, at least in part, the product of historical forces that he himself perceives only barely, if at all. Although Harry’s politics are conservative, it is clear from the outset that the author’s are not; the ensuing counterpoint sharpens Updike’s social observation to a keen edge, leaving for future generations of readers an unforgettable record of American society in transition.

Like O’Hara before him, Updike is also a keen observer of sexual mores, not excluding sexual activity and practice, described in full detail. By 1960, however, the American reading public was in general more receptive to such description, sparing Updike’s work the expressions of shock and outrage that had greeted O’Hara’s novels a decade or so earlier. In the case of Harry Angstrom, the prevalence of sexual activity is amply prepared for and justified by character; given Harry’s limitations, sex is both an understandable preoccupation and a natural, even logical form of personal expression.

Harry’s childlike religious faith, closely related at times to his sexual preoccupation, is deeply embedded in the substructure of all three novels. Updike is careful never to present Harry as a saint, nor to suggest that he is somehow “better” than other mortals: Harry’s faith is simply another of his personal characteristics, along with his height and hair color; it does not prevent him from acting stupidly, nor does it afford him any special insight into human character. At the very least, however, it allows him to endure such shocks as the deaths of baby Rebecca and Jill Pendleton, and possibly even to prevail.