Rabbit, Run Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
Rabbit, having fallen asleep, is awoken by the sounds of card-playing and drinking from down below. A moment later, Tothero enters the room, beckoning him to get out of bed. The old man is in a markedly different mood now: he is wild, energetic, and perhaps a little inebriated. He declares that it is six o'clock, and that he wants Rabbit to join him for dinner in Brewer with two girls. He talks incessantly about one of them, trying to convey just how great she is. When Rabbit brings up the subject of Janice, Tothero tells him not to think about "mutts" like her, displaying a shockingly different attitude towards her than he did earlier.
Tothero brings Rabbit downstairs into the body shop of the Sunshine, where his friends are gathered. He proudly introduces Rabbit to them as his greatest athlete. Tothero and Rabbit take Rabbit's car to meet up with the girls in Brewer: Ruth Leonard and Margaret Kosko, the one who Tothero praised earlier. To Rabbit's dismay, Margaret appears to be "just another Janice"; Ruth, though fatter than Margaret, attracts him more, although perhaps only because she represents something new, something different. Together the foursome enters a Chinese restaurant, formerly a French eatery. It turns out that Ruth knows of Rabbit, since they graduated high school the same year - 1951 - and that their school's basketball teams were competitors. The name of one of Rabbit's teammates, Ronnie Harrison, is also mentioned; it seems that Ruth knows him, but she refuses to answer Rabbit's questions about the exact nature of her relationship with him.
The four order drinks. Tothero insists on getting chopsticks; only Margaret holds onto her silverware. Rabbit remembers the Chinese food he ate in Texas while in the Army, and is disappointed to find that the chopsticks here are plastic. In the meantime, he converses with Ruth and finds that she by turns irritates and intrigues him. For example, she annoys him by loudly referring to Tothero as a "bum." Rabbit defends Tothero as a great coach, leading Ruth to dismiss the role of a coach altogether. As a result, Tothero himself enters the conversation, explaining that a coach's function is to develop the "three tools we are given in life": the head, the body, and the heart. At the same time, Tothero insists that all he gave Rabbit was the will to win, that Rabbit was already a great player when he first joined the team. This may be false modesty, but Tothero's words inspire Rabbit to begin reminiscing once again - this time about a game he played at Oriole High during which he felt he "could do anything." All his shots were perfect, and he was filled with a sense of youthful vigor and power. No one at the table, however, is much impressed by Rabbit's account; they do not seem to understand what the game meant to him, or what it still means to him.
Later in the meal, Tothero refers to Margaret as a "tramp." The word enrages her, and she promptly slaps him. Tothero takes it as a joke, but he knows the party is over. He gets up to leave with Margaret and asks Rabbit if he can use his car. Rabbit politely refuses, and is left in the eatery with Ruth. Rabbit and Ruth begin talking about how "dumb" Margaret is. Ruth insists that Tothero enjoys being slapped by her, a claim that Rabbit seems to disapprove of, though he regretfully notes that his former coach is indeed in "sad shape." Ruth, who is a little on the plump side, is sensitive about her weight, but Rabbit makes sure to tell her that she is not fat, but rather "perfectly proportioned." Whether or not he believes this is perhaps beside the point: he is clearly attracted to her, and his attraction only grows as the time passes. He mentions that he is married, then adds: "Well, I was. Still am." He explains that he thinks he's left Janice. Ruth then reveals more of her own background. We learn that she lives alone in an apartment: her former roommate left, and she now has to pay the $110/month rent on her own. What is more, she does not have a job. Rabbit gives her fifteen dollars to help her out, which she takes without question; he also pays for everyone's meal.
Rabbit and Ruth leave the restaurant and walk through the nighttime streets of Brewer. She is treating him coldly now, and Rabbit remembers the prostitute in Texas who "hadn't meant her half." He feels something similar has occurred with Ruth, that "she dislikes him now, like that whore in Texas." Ruth even goes so far as to call Rabbit a "pig." He feels compelled to ask her: "Didn't you kind of like me in the restaurant?" He adds that he had tried to make Tothero feel good by telling him how great a coach he was. Ruth responds that Rabbit had only seemed to be talking about how great he was.
The two wind up at Ruth's apartment, where Rabbit embraces her forcefully by the doorway. His aggressiveness act scares her, and she tells him to leave. He pleads with her not to send him away, explaining that he's been full of desire for her all night, that he couldn't help it. She gives in, and appears to agree to sleep with him. That is as far as the agreement goes, however. Ruth tells Rabbit to wait for her by the bed while she undresses, but he insists on undressing her himself. She wants to use a contraceptive, but Rabbit asks her not to, and refuses to wear a condom. Ruth reluctantly gives in to his demands. When she goes to the bathroom to urinate, Rabbit watches her through the opened door and suddenly remembers how he and Janice have been toilet-training Nelson. He notes how tidy Ruth is in the act.
The would-be lovers get into bed. Through the window, the only source of light in the room, Rabbit can see a church. He seems at this moment overwhelmed by Ruth's beauty. Although she continually refers to herself as plump, the darkness hides her faults and helps create of her "beauty's home image." But Rabbit's demands continue. He wants to wash the makeup off her face, and when she objects, he pleads: "I just love you too much." She remains cold with him, acquiescing to his requests but maintaining that this is strictly a one-night fling. Rabbit, on the other hand, goes so far as to allude to his desire to marry her. He seems to be head over heels in love with her.
When he scrubs Ruth's face, however, something changes. Suddenly, her face is "not pretty." As Updike notes, "he makes love to her as he would to his wife." The foreplay is a sad affair, but once the intercourse is underway, Rabbit feels his spirits lifting, his "love and pride" reviving. These happy feelings do not last long, however: the orgasm ushers in a new round of sadness, which Ruth seems to sense as well. She goes to the bathroom to wash, an activity that "repels" Rabbit. He feels it is "insulting" how women "wash away men's dirt." Soon enough, however, he falls asleep.
The first question that comes to mind when reading this section of the novel concerns Tothero: why has he changed? In the first glimpses Updike offers the reader of Rabbit's former coach, he appears to be a father figure, scolding Rabbit for his treatment of his wife but nonetheless willing to lend a helping hand. The reference to the "scandal" that resulted in his dismissal from the high school is the only obvious blemish on his persona. After he begins drinking, however, he freely calls Janice a mutt and seems intent on using Rabbit to relive his own adolescence. In other words, the benevolent father-son relationship seems to have been abandoned. Tothero would now like to maintain the illusion that he and Rabbit are the same age, at least figuratively speaking - brothers or best friends, out to paint the town red. It is easy to forget that he is a married man, chasing after younger women without a hint of remorse.
That said, Updike refuses to paint any character with a single brush. Tothero's underlying sadness is palpable in the scene at the restaurant, where he seems beholden to Margaret - infatuated with a woman who clearly does not respect him in the slightest. Ruth herself is cruel to Tothero, and Rabbit gains our sympathy by leaping to the older man's defense. Later, however, that sympathy is dramatically undercut when Rabbit uses his defense of Tothero as evidence of why Ruth should like him: "Didn't you kind of like me in the restaurant?...The way I tried to make old Tothero feel good? Telling him how great he was?" The reader's allegiances thus fluctuate back and forth throughout this section, recalling Rabbit's own state of mind.
The dynamics in the restaurant point again to the cinema as a prime influence on Updike's writing. He describes actions in an almost bullet-point fashion, refusing to linger over them. Consider the following sentence: "Margaret hits [Tothero]: her hand flies up from the table and across her body into his mouth, flat, but without a slapping noise." The writing is breathless, hurried, and yet tremendously precise. The mood at the table has shifted dramatically, but that sentence is the only description Updike offers of the moment itself. These sudden crisis points, in which a social dynamic is irrevocably altered, recall the cinema of John Cassavetes, who, in his excoriating examinations of fifties and sixties middle-class American life, dwelled on the strange things that can occur when people are gathered together at a meal or party. Faces (1968), though released eight years after Rabbit, Run, seems to bear the imprint of Updike's style, just as Rabbit, Run suggests, in its treatment of time and incident, the urban chaos and frantic search for love found in Shadows (1960).
Ruth and Margaret's characters are suggestive of prostitutes, and indeed, Rabbit will later confront Ruth about her past as a "whore." Mainly, however, the women remain enigmas here, perceived strictly through Rabbit's gaze - a gaze that obsessively pores over every detail of the female body. Only a few pages into the novel, Rabbit notices, when looking at his wife, that "with the tiny addition of two short wrinkles at the corners, her mouth has become greedy; and her hair has thinned, so he keeps thinking of her skull under it." In this section, his eyes are continually locked on Ruth, who he finds at turns beautiful and plain. The most glaring instance of this highly subjective masculine gaze constructing the object of the "woman" comes when Rabbit scrubs the makeup off of Ruth's face: "Her wet face, relaxed into slabs, is not pretty; the thick lips, torn from most of their paint, are the pale rims of a loose hole."
Rabbit's love for Ruth is likewise prone to fluctuation. Does he genuinely care for her, or is he merely itching to bed her? Updike suggests that Rabbit's drive may be carnal, but that it does involve deep-seated feelings - a need to attach himself to someone, to truly bond with another living person. "He clings there," Updike writes, "crying out against her smothering throat that it is not her crotch he wants, not the machine; but her, her." What follows is the kind of exacting writing that stirred controversy when Rabbit, Run was first published - an unflinching and exceedingly graphic portrayal of the act of sex. Updike constantly relates this act to the emotions that guide it: the foreplay reminds Rabbit of his wife; there is "something sad in the capture," and the moment of release betrays an underlying despair: "Nature leads you up like a mother and as soon as she gets her little price leaves you with nothing."
Throughout the scene in Ruth's apartment, the specter of Rabbit's abandoned marriage looms. When Ruth urinates, Rabbit remembers toilet-training Nelson; during foreplay, Rabbit recalls that "Janice needed coaxing" and that "he would begin by rubbing her back." Even more important, however, seems to be Rabbit's yearning for something ineffable, perhaps spiritual. It is no coincidence that Ruth and Rabbit make love by a window that looks out on a church. Updike's point is not simply one of moral reprobation: it is a suggestion that the church and what it represents is not too far from what Rabbit is seeking in his life - some kind of meaning. Thus, when Updike writes that "as they [Rabbit and Ruth] deepen together he feels impatience that through all their twists they remain separate flesh," he is perhaps alluding to Rabbit's need to aspire to the "impossible." Thus, the act of love and the search for God are two sides of the same coin, and Rabbit's apparently shallow sexual adventure is also a spiritual one.
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- Summary and Analysis of Section 1
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