Rabbit Is Rich Themes
by John Updike

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Rabbit Is Rich Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Updike introduces a theme of the novel in the two epigraphs. The first is a definition of the ideal citizen from Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt: "At night he lights up a good cigar, and climbs into the little old 'bus, and maybe cusses the carburetor, and shoots out home. He mows the lawn, or sneaks in some practice putting, and then he's ready for dinner." The second is from Wallace Stevens' poem "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts": "The difficulty to think at the end of day,/ When the shapeless shadow covers the sun/ And nothing is left except light on your fur." Babbitt is an ironic look at the solid middle-class businessman, the role Rabbit plays now as chief of Springer Motors. Sure enough, Rabbit often cruises around in any one of his Toyotas, and after he has checked his garden to make sure the vegetables are doing well, he most often heads to the Flying Eagle, the golf and racquet club where his social set drinks, swaps stories and hits the links.

Stevens' poem exposes a rabbit that imagines himself puffed up to heroic stature. Rabbit, too, is somewhat the hero in the midst of a town running down. He is now "King of the lot ... the man up front. A center of sorts, where he had been a forward." With his sports headlines on the showroom walls, "yellowing, toasted brown by time," he still "has that look" of a famous basketball player, according to the young woman he decides may be his and Ruth's long-lost daughter. Rising gas prices have made Rabbit even more satisfied with his fleet of fuel-efficient Toyotas, which "sell themselves," and he likes having this money to "float in," the other guys at Rotary and Chamber looking up to him again as they did when they all played ball back in high school. Rabbit is comfortable in his status, both at the lot and at the country club, where his golf game and storytelling prowess keep him in the center of attention. However, Harry is not completely fulfilled, and his search for what is missing in his otherwise happy life fuels the action of the narrative.

Harry's quest is no longer for "it," that elusive spark of grace found only in the spiritual world. That was the object of a young man's search. Rabbit's middle-aged quest in this novel is much more down to earth: to be rid of his son Nelson, to bed the exotic Cindy Murkett, to have a home of his own, to find the daughter he has never known. It is as if achieving these goals will stave off the aging process. Although he is happy at the moment, there is a specter of death looming not too far out of reach. In fact, the statement about his newfound happiness follows a paragraph cataloguing his dead friends and family members. Since childhood, aging has troubled him. He remembers grade school in which he had "suffered another promotion, taken another step up the stairs that has darkness at the head." Harry's Herculean task is to secure these desires before it is too late, while he is still among the living.

A principle threat to his happiness is the arrival of his son, Nelson, who has dropped out of Kent State to move into the old-fashioned home Rabbit and Janice share with her mother, Bessie Springer. Rabbit's attempt to rid the household of Nelson's unwanted presence drives the narrative. Although Rabbit loves his son, he can barely control his animosity toward him. The father has been "blissfully" content both at the dealership and at home until the son demands a job and seems to take up more than his share of the house. Rabbit feels threatened by him, perhaps more so because Nelson is also repeating many of Rabbit's youthful indiscretions. At twenty-three, Nelson too gets his girlfriend pregnant, conducts two sexual relationships at once, and finally, runs out on his wife who has just had their baby. But what Rabbit really despises about his son is his lack of grace, his awkwardness, his lack of spiritual qualities. When the young Rabbit made the same mistakes, he was at least in search of redemption; when Nelson runs, it is simply to avoid...

(The entire section is 1,658 words.)