Rabbit, Run Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
Rabbit, asleep in Ruth's bed, has a strange dream. In it, he is seated with his family at a table. A girl opens the wood icebox near them, and Rabbit stares into the "square cave where the cake of ice sits." His mother promptly tells him to close the icebox. He says that it wasn't him who opened it, and points his finger at the girl. His mother replies that she knows her "good boy wouldn't hurt anyone." She then proceeds to viciously scold the girl, who we learn is in fact Janice. Rabbit tries to defend his wife, and is soon left alone at the table with her. Janice is crying. Rabbit attempts to console her, but the dream comes to a nightmarish climax when her face begins to peel off and fall into his hands.
Rabbit wakes up. It is morning. He looks out the window at the church, and is filled with happiness at the idea of these people giving away their Sunday mornings to go to mass and pray. He is even inspired to quickly pray for Ruth, Janice, Nelson, his parents, the Springers, Janice's unborn baby, and his own forgiveness; he prays for God to forgive Tothero and "all the others." Soon afterward he gets into an argument with Ruth, who does not believe in God. His insistence on his belief, however, seems to soften her attitude towards him. When he finally makes her laugh, he asks her why she likes him. She responds, quite genuinely it seems, "'Cause you haven't given up. 'Cause in your stupid way you're still fighting." For whatever reason, Rabbit loves hearing these words.
He suggests that Ruth cook lunch for them, since she has mentioned how much she loves cooking. He heads to the nearby store to buy the necessary items. When the meal is ready, Rabbit notes to himself that Ruth's cooking is superior to Janice's. He seems to want to be with her; for him this relationship is no fly-by affair. Still, she holds back, and Rabbit is compelled to assure her, when he says he intends to return to his apartment to grab clothes, that the clothes are just "for tonight." He also wants to return the car to his wife, since it seems only fair to him: her father, a used-car dealer, originally sold them the car at a big discount.
When Rabbit enters his home, he is relieved to find that nobody is there. His wife and son have cleared out. He grabs clothes, sets down the keys, and hurriedly exits, forgetting his toothbrush and razor in his rush to escape. On the way out, Rabbit runs into an elderly neighbor, Miss Arndt, who is coming back from church. Then a young minister, Mr. Jack Eccles, appears driving a green car, and insists that he give Rabbit a lift. Rabbit gives in, and the two chat. Eccles is a neighborhood reverend and has been consulting the Springers since Rabbit's departure. He tells Rabbit about Janice, how worried she had been when Rabbit didn't return; how she had called the Angstroms; how Rabbit's father brought Nelson to her, tried to reassure her, and went out looking for his son; how Janice didn't call her own parents until two in the morning; how her mother had subsequently called Eccles. This extended narrative does not seem to greatly affect Rabbit, who claims that he has no plan, and is playing the whole thing "by ear." He tries to explain why he left, that he had felt glued in by Janice's petty demands, that her request for him to buy her a pack of cigarettes was the last straw, and that it was partly realizing just how easy it was to leave that prompted him to do so. When Eccles asks him why he returned from West Virginia, Rabbit can only say that "it seemed safer to be in a place I know."
After arguing that God cannot possibly want Rabbit to make his wife suffer, Eccles asks Rabbit to play golf with him. Rabbit agrees, leaves Eccles' car, and makes his way back to Ruth's place. There he finds that Ruth has showered; her smell strikes him, as does her clean appearance. Again, he seems filled with affection for her. The two go for a walk to the top of Mt. Judge, where Rabbit asks Ruth, out of the blue: "Were you really a whore?" She answers: "Are you really a rat?" He says: "In a way."
That Tuesday, Rabbit visits Eccles' place. He is greeted by a woman who immediately seems a little suspicious of him. She turns out to be Jack's wife, Lucy Eccles. The family has two daughters: Joyce, who is three years old, and Bonnie, who is one. Lucy is cold and glib, saying things like, "I thought that brat was asleep." Her attitude shocks Rabbit, who can't imagine that a minister's wife would dislike her children. She, in turn, knows about Rabbit's troubles with his wife. When she turns to address her husband, who has been upstairs in bed, Rabbit slaps her bottom. She glares at him, but says nothing. When Jack comes down the stairs, Rabbit expects Lucy to tell her husband. The revelation will cast Rabbit out of the house, and out of Jack's life, forever - a prospect to which Rabbit is indifferent. Indeed, he can't help but wonder why he's even here in the first place.
Lucy, however, does not tell Jack anything. Her husband seems to be getting on her nerves, which may explain her silence. Moreover, the house is in chaos, with Joyce appearing on the stairs, yelling to her father that there is a lion in her room. He has been reading his kids the vivid Belloc poetry of which he is particularly fond, and of which Lucy sharply disapproves. After taking care of Joyce, Jack reassures his wife that golfing with Rabbit is "work" - that it's the best way to get him to talk. Rabbit is not intended to hear this exchange, but he does.
Rabbit and Jack leave in Jack's car, heading to the Chestnut Grove Golf Course. On the way there, Jack tries to get Rabbit to open up to him, but Rabbit evades his every move. Jack tells Rabbit that Janice seems happy to be with her parents again (though Rabbit knows she dislikes them, particularly her mother), and that when he went to visit her she was with a friend named Peggy Fosnacht. The name reminds Rabbit of "Fosnacht Day," a sort of unofficial holiday in his childhood during which the key was to not be the last to descend downstairs. Musing to himself, Rabbit recalls that his grandfather would wait upstairs until little Harry Angstrom came down first, just so that the boy wouldn't be the "Fosnacht."
Jack and Rabbit's discussion then moves on to the subject of religion. Rabbit asks Jack whether he believes in Hell, to which the minister replies that he believes in Hell as Jesus described it, as a separation from God. Rabbit responds, "Well then we're all more or less in it." Jack objects to this notion, arguing that people do not live in "outer darkness" - i.e. complete separation - but rather "inner darkness." The conversation gives Rabbit faith in his newfound friendship with Jack; he feels positively excited by their rapport. Jack offers him a job gardening for a parishioner of his, Mrs. Horace Smith, and then reveals that he knows of Ruth Leonard.
Rabbit's excitement evaporates as soon as the two men begin playing golf. Rabbit is terrible, and though Jack is not much better, the minister treats him patronizingly. During the course of their game, Rabbit tries to make sense of the sport, obsessively imagining all of the objects and settings standing in for the people in his life: the irons are Janice, the three-wood is Ruth, the bush is his mother, the rainy sky is his grandfather, the scruff is Texas (where he met the prostitute), and the hole is his "home." Finally the subject of Janice comes up again, and Rabbit mentions that she probably would have never married him if she hadn't so much wanted to leave her parents. Eccles notes that Rabbit is obviously still very involved with her and asks him point-blank why he left. All Rabbit can say is that "there was this thing that wasn't there." Jack insists on knowing what "this thing" means. Rabbit dislikes the question, objecting to the idea that Jack, a preacher, a man who sells answers to others as if he knows all, really wants to be told "that it is there, that he's not lying to all those people every Sunday." When Rabbit refuses to answer, Eccles calls him "monstrously selfish" and a "coward." As if in response, Rabbit finally makes a clean hit: the ball rolls into the hole, and Rabbit turns to Eccles with a smile and the words: "That's it."
Rabbit's dream foreshadows an encounter Eccles will later have with Mrs. Angstrom, during which the woman will reveal just how much she dislikes, even despises, Janice. The girl is clearly a victim, and Rabbit's guilt at having abandoned such a helpless, fragile, crying creature permeates the dream. As soon as he awakens, however, that guilt is replaced by the happier strains of a burgeoning devoutness. The church reappears - a view that Ruth had called "dismal" the previous night, and which now seems glorious to Rabbit.
It is worth carefully examining exactly what Rabbit's impromptu prayer consists of: "Help me, Christ. Forgive me. Take me down the way. Bless Ruth, Janice, Nelson, my mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Springer, and the unborn baby. Forgive Tothero and all the others. Amen." The line "take me down the way" is another example of the use of the road or path as a motif in the novel: Rabbit's drive away from Mt. Judge and his climactic run down the empty road near the novel's close serve as bookends to a narrative that is largely built out of movement and the desire to know where one is headed.
It is not coincidental that this theme figures so importantly in a novel that portrays a society governed by automobiles. That society is the American middle-class in the fifties, a time when, for the first time in the country's history, nearly every family owned a car. Janice's father is a used-car salesman, and Rabbit intends to use the Ford Mr. Springer sold to them as a token of repentance. That Ford is contrasted with the shiny green Buick Eccles drives - a garish color that seems, much like Eccles' home, ill-suited to a serious minister: "it [the home] looks too cheerful to be right; Rabbit thinks of ministers as living in black shingled castles."
The introduction of Eccles helps underscore the importance of religion in the narrative, and Christianity in particular. Rabbit seems to be echoing the words of Jimmy, the Mouseketeer, when he tries to explain his malaise to Jack in the car: "I once played a game real well. I really did. And after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate." This conversation is echoed by the discussion during the trip to the golf course a day later, when Rabbit and Jack discuss Hell. Updike uses the rhyme effect created by these paired conversations to both point to the development of the friendship between Rabbit and Jack and to suggest its futility. Though the characters are in a moving vehicle on both occasions, the dialogue creates a sense of immobility - neither participant can truly change. The golf course serves as something akin to a cruel joke in this regard, reminding the reader that the "excitement" Rabbit feels at finding a new friend so quickly can just as easily dissolve into muted hostility. The absurdity of the game, with Rabbit frantically swinging and Jack, himself a lousy player, offering pointers, reflects the very absurdity of these men's lives.
And yet life seems precious to Rabbit, insofar as he constantly muses on the prospect of death. Jack mentions off-hand that he has been busy with a death in the neighborhood lately, a casual remark that resurfaces in Rabbit's consciousness hours later, when he is standing atop the summit of Mt. Judge with Ruth, gazing out across the city of Brewer. In a remarkable passage, Updike describes Rabbit's realization that while he looks over the town, "someone is dying." The thought arises simply from an understanding of "percentages"; what it amounts to, however, is something far deeper: "Someone in some house along these streets, if not this minute then the next, dies; and in that suddenly stone chest the heart of this flat prostrate rose seems to him to be." Death emerges as the "heart" and soul of the city to Rabbit. Just as the act of love in Ruth's apartment reflected a need for God, the notion of death now suggests a spirituality that lies just out of reach. "His day had been bothered by God," Updike writes. "Ruth mocking, Eccles blinking - why did they teach you such things if no one believed them? It seems plain, standing here, that if there is this floor there is a ceiling, that the true space in which we live is upward space."
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Section 1
- Summary and Analysis of Section 2
- Summary and Analysis of Section 3
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- Summary and Analysis of Section 7
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