Rabbit, Run, a novel of a former basketball star and his floundering marriage set in the late 1950’s, was the first of what has become a series of four novels about the protagonist and his family; Updike published one of them every ten years from 1960 to 1990. Together the novels form a revealing chronicle of the complex changes occurring in American culture between the 1950’s and the late 1980’s. In Updike’s hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the reader sees one of the author’s many lapsed creatures in search of renewal, of regeneration, of something to believe in. The destructiveness of the character’s actions in the first novel reflects Updike’s own intense religious crisis, experienced at the time he was writing the novel.
At twenty-six, Rabbit, who got his nickname from the way he twitches his nose, finds himself in a stultifying life. He has a job selling magic-peelers in a dime store and is married to Janice, a careless and boozy woman who is pregnant with their second child. Coming home with new resolve to change his life after a brief game of basketball with some children in an alley, Rabbit finds the mess of his marital life too much to overcome. Thus begins his series of recoiling actions from the stifling experiences of his present life.
The novel captures well the sense of bottled-up frustration of the 1950’s, a decade during which American society put a premium on conformity and adapting to one’s environment. Hence, like so many of Updike’s protagonists, Rabbit is enmeshed in a highly compromised environment, one committed to the values of the marketplace and lacking in spiritual concerns. Like a latter-day Huck Finn, Rabbit bolts from a civilization that would deny him freedom and a sense of wonder. His movement can be viewed as a kind of spiritual survival tactic.
A quote from Blaise Pascal serves as an epigraph to the novel: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances.” Those three things, Updike says, describe human lives. They also describe the basic movements and conflicts in the Rabbit novels, indeed in most of Updike’s fiction. Bewildered and frustrated, Rabbit wonders what has happened to his life. His disgust with his present life is deepened by his memories of when he was “first-rate at something” as a high school basketball star.
As some critics have noted, the novel is the study of a nonhero’s quest for a nonexistent grail. Rabbit initially tries to escape by driving south, goaded by visions of fertility and warmth. After getting hopelessly lost, he returns to his hometown and seeks out Tothero, his old high school coach. Tothero sets Rabbit up with Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute, with whom Rabbit begins to live. Pursued by the do-good minister Jack Eccles, Rabbit resists returning to Janice. To Eccles, Rabbit claims that “something out there wants me to find it,” though what that is he cannot say.
When Janice goes into labor, Rabbit returns, feeling contrite and resolving to restore the marriage. For nine days, their life seems to be going well. When Janice refuses Rabbit’s sexual advances, however, he bolts again and looks for Ruth. Feeling abandoned, Janice starts drinking heavily and accidentally drowns the baby. Rabbit returns to Janice again, but at the funeral he outrages the family by his claims of innocence. He runs again, returning to Ruth, who reveals that she is pregnant and demands that Rabbit divorce Janice and marry her. He refuses Ruth, and the novel ends with Rabbit running the streets, resisting all claims upon his commitment.
Rabbit’s back-and-forth actions create much havoc and mark him as selfish and irresponsible in the America of the 1950’s, a world offering little margin for the quest for the transcendent. In place of the old revelations of religion, Rabbit substitutes the ecstasy of sex, the deep mysteries of the woman’s body. Failed by his environment and its various authority figures, Rabbit registers his...
(The entire section is 1,460 words.)