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Rabbit Is Rich is a novel about a middle-aged man—a fitting image for the spiritual condition of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. At forty-six, Rabbit is successful, but his expansive waistline reminds him of his declining energies as well as the encroachment of death. Updike updates Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) about the ever-aspiring businessman George F. Babbitt. The remaining sparks of vitality in Rabbit seek to combat the forces of exhaustion that fill the novel. Indeed, the sense of things running down and images of falling dominate the book.

The novel is set during the summer and fall of 1979 and the first few weeks of 1980. In those last months of the Jimmy Carter administration, Americans face long lines at the gasoline pumps, high inflation rates, and the continuing stalemate over the American hostages in Iran. Rabbit is not worried, however, for he is a co-owner of Brewer’s Toyota agency, since his father-in-law, Fred Springer, died in 1974. He and Janice have been living in the Springer house since their own house was destroyed by fire in 1969. Their son, Nelson, has been going to college at Kent State University. While Rabbit struggles with his son, he is haunted by the ghosts of his past—his dead daughter, his dead mother’s voice, and memories of Jill and Skeeter. Rabbit imagines that they embrace him, sustain him, and cheer him on in the autumn of his life.

In the first two Rabbit novels, Rabbit was out of step with his decade. In the complacent 1950’s, he ran; in the frenetic 1960’s, he watched. In Rabbit Is Rich, he is running again, but this time more in rhythm with the 1970’s. Rabbit jogs, an activity in keeping with the fitness craze that grew in that decade. The novel begins with Rabbit thinking “running out of gas,” a phrase that resonates at several levels. As a middle-aged man, Rabbit knows that his energies are diminishing. Because of the gasoline crisis, he sees America perhaps literally running out of gas.

Spiritually, the phrase suggests a running out of the old dynamism that fed the American Dream. In 1979, the American satellite Skylab was falling out of orbit—another fitting metaphor for the crises facing the Angstroms and America. Rabbit finds that his old desires and wants have shriveled. “Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inward dwindling.” When asked if he has seen the film Jaws 2 (1978), Rabbit responds in a way that reinforces the sense of entropy running throughout the novel: “D’you ever get the feeling that everything these days is sequels? . . . Like people are running out of ideas.”

In his new prosperity, Rabbit plays golf at a new country club, goes to Rotary Club lunches, and reads Consumer Reports, the bible of his new status. Consumption is linked with sex as a way to fill the spiritual void of modern life. In a telling scene, Janice and Rabbit make love on top of their newly purchased gold Krugerrands. Ambiguously, sex represents both vitality and the void, the unfillable emptiness that constitutes death.

Rabbit lusts after Cindy, the lovely young wife of one of their new country-club friends. Janice tells Rabbit: “You always want what you don’t have instead of what you do.” In a wife-swapping episode during the three couples’ brief Caribbean holiday, however, Rabbit must take Thelma Harrison instead of Cindy and is introduced to anal sex (arguably an appropriate image of the sense of worthlessness pervading American culture in the 1970’s).

Nelson’s return home...

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is like the visit of a nightmare, of something neglected or repressed that cannot be avoided any longer. He wreaks havoc within the family’s affluent complacency. Like his father, but lacking Rabbit’s grace and conscience, Nelson’s quest for attention and for love leads him to wreck practically everything he touches. Nelson also brings home a young woman, Pru, pregnant with his child. Their marriage is arranged, and in January of 1980, Rabbit receives a granddaughter, placed in his lap on the night of the Super Bowl. Perhaps, at last, Rabbit has the daughter he has longed for ever since Becky drowned and Jill died in his house in previous novels. He accepts his granddaughter—“fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire”—who represents both the hope for his future and a reminder of his mortality.

Abandoning Pru, Nelson begins the cycle of irresponsibility and bad luck that plagued his parents twenty years earlier. At one point, Rabbit tells Nelson: “Maybe I haven’t done everything right in my life. I know I haven’t. But I haven’t committed the greatest sin. I haven’t laid down and died.” The statement is a good summary of the character of Rabbit throughout the novels—a man of vitality, a lover of life, an embodiment of forces running counter to entropy and death.