Rabbit, Run Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
Rabbit has taken the gardening job Jack offered him, even though he's never gardened before and the pay is low. He seems to derive great pleasure from the work, loving the simplicity of it all, and even the fact that he doesn't have to cut his fingernails if he doesn't want to. The elderly Mrs. Smith is a widow, and often refers to her late husband, Horace, as "Harry". The garden was his more than hers, and she walks through it with Rabbit on her arm, reminiscing about her husband and his love of gardening. We learn that she was a farmer's daughter, and that she disapproves of the rhododendrons that are scattered throughout the garden: according to her, the flowers are uncertain in color, "a mealymouthed plant." Mrs. Smith "would have rather seen this land gone under to alfalfa." Nonetheless, when Mrs. Smith and Rabbit happen upon a small rhododendron in one corner, she launches into a story about having to go to New York City to get it years ago, because there was only one nursery in England that had it in stock. The shipment had cost two hundred dollars. This memory leads to recollections about the Depression and World War II, in which Mrs. Smith's son perished. She is surprised to find that Rabbit remembers the war, but, as he says, he was "pretty old." This revelation only serves to strengthen his friendship with Mrs. Smith; the old lady is obviously quite fond of him, and uses him as a welcome springboard for her own flights of recollection.
On Memorial Day, Rabbit and Ruth go to the public swimming pool in West Brewer. Two months have passed since Rabbit left Janice and Nelson. Ruth has gotten a job as a stenographer with an insurance company. Rabbit watches Ruth swim, admiring her body even though he can't help but notice two sixteen-year-old girls nearby. In what seems like quite a blow to him, Ruth treats him with a degree of contempt. After she asserts that Mrs. Smith loves him, she is irritated by his smugness when he claims that he is simply "lovable", that he gives "people faith", and that "Eccles has told him this."
In a surprising move, Updike shifts the narrative to Ruth's perspective, as if in an attempt to better understand the source of her anger. To Ruth, it seems that Rabbit has no compunction about having abandoned his wife and child. She thinks of his "mildness" and complacency, and this reflection leads her to remember the other men in her life, the men of her past. She has made love to married men before, often because "they wanted some business their wives wouldn't give." Is she a "whore" after all?
She recalls her childhood, and how her first sexual encounter was with Ronnie Harrison, Rabbit's former teammate. Throughout high school she was ceaselessly surprised by how ashamed the boys were of their genitalia, how much they seemed to yearn for a girl's approval, and how "ugly" they thought themselves to be. There is something sad but also sweetly nostalgic in her remembrances. Before long, however, her thoughts drift back to Rabbit and his smugness. She asks him if he thinks he will have to pay a price for his actions. He answers that, by leaving Janice, he discovered "if you have the guts to be yourself...other people'll pay the price."
In the meantime, Jack Eccles continues to deal with the effects of those actions. He has been playing golf regularly with Rabbit, and is still trying to help him find the way. What exactly the way is, however, he seems unsure of. One day, he visits the Springers and is relieved to find that Janice is not there: she has gone out with Peggy Fosnacht to see a matinee of Some Like It Hot. He sits on the porch and talks with Mrs. Springer, to whom he takes an immediate dislike; she treats him coldly, sarcastically talking about the frequency of his golfing and forcing him to defend his pastime. She makes no secret of her own anger at Rabbit; she seems to think precious little of Harry Angstrom, in contrast to Mrs. Smith, and her comments prompt Jack to defend the man. He tells her that he still thinks Rabbit will return, though he does not actually believe his own words.
Jack watches Nelson in the yard, playing with Peggy Fosnacht's son Billy. Billy steals Nelson's truck, bringing Rabbit's boy to tears. Mrs. Springer refers to Nelson as a "sissy" and explains to Jack that he got that quality from his father, who is also spoiled. Jack objects to this, pointing out that Billy was in fact the one who stole, and that Nelson was only yearning for what was rightfully his. Mrs. Springer interprets this defense as a way of saying that what has happened to her daughter's marriage is "Janice's fault." She then describes the hurtful gossip that has arisen concerning the situation, and mentions that a woman recently told her that if Janice couldn't keep Rabbit she had no right to him at all. While Nelson and Billy begin to play with a dog, Mrs. Springer says that she would like to involve the police, a notion to which Jack initially objects and later agrees. There is, however, one problem with this plan: Mr. Springer has already expressed his disapproval of the idea. Out of the corner of his eye, Jack continues to watch Nelson - now "the leader" of the two children, it seems. Jack sees himself in the Angstrom boy, in the way that he is "always giving and giving and always being suddenly swamped." He senses that the dog will react viciously to the boys' teasing, and sure enough, it snaps back, scaring Nelson to tears.
After trying to comfort Nelson, Jack leaves and heads to the Angstroms. There he talks with Mrs. Mary Angstrom, who he notes is a "humorist", full of epigrams and quips. Just as Mrs. Springer was contemptuous of Rabbit, so Mrs. Angstrom is contemptuous of Janice, saying that she never approved of the girl, that the young woman has always had Rabbit wrapped around her finger, that she ceaselessly manipulates him, and that she let herself get pregnant when he was twenty-one in order to force him into marriage. At the same time, Mrs. Angstrom seems dismissive of her son, labeling him "soft" - like her husband. She compares him to his sister Miriam, and relates how back when Rabbit was twelve, he was always stricken with fear for the girl's safety when the family would walk out by the quarry. Miriam, Mrs. Angstrom explains, will never "marry out of pity like poor Hassy and then have all the world jump on him for trying to get out."
Mr. Angstrom arrives. He is of a very different opinion than his wife. He is bitterly angry at Rabbit, claiming that the others simply cannot understand the depths of his wrongdoing because they weren't with Janice the day it happened. Mr. Angstrom had to comfort her and search the town for Rabbit himself, and, having seen Janice's face that afternoon, he cannot be on his son's side. Both parents ponder aloud what happened to their son. They recall how clean, meticulous, determined, and ambitious Rabbit once was - particularly when it came to basketball. Mr. Angstrom decries what he has become: "the worst kind of Brewer bum." He and his wife note that his time in the Army in Texas seemed to permanently alter Rabbit for the worse, that upon returning the young man appeared only interested in "chasing ass." Finally, Mrs. Angstrom asserts that Janice has not let Rabbit "slip away." She maintains control of the situation, and will no doubt "have him back" - an outcome that Mrs. Angstrom clearly does not find pleasant. Mr. Angstrom, however, sharply disagrees, claiming that Rabbit will "slide deeper and deeper now until we might as well forget him." Indeed, he feels sick just thinking about what his son has done. This last comment makes Mrs. Angstrom cry - a change in her wisecracking and dominant demeanor that surprises Jack.
The minister spots Miriam, now an adolescent, before leaving the house, and notes to himself how beautiful she is. He drives to the rectory of Fritz Kruppenbach, a crusty old man who has been Mt. Judge's Lutheran minister for twenty-seven years. Although Jack does not much care for Fritz, he feels compelled to communicate the problem with Rabbit to him. He hopes to finally hear some good advice, since the visits to both sets of parents have not been very fruitful in that regard. Instead of offering Jack counsel, however, Kruppenbach harangues him for confusing religion with psychology, chasing petty problems, trying to be a personal counselor, and not spending more time simply praying to God. His speech infuriates Jack, who refuses Fritz's request that he pray right then and there and promptly leaves, fuming. All this time Jack has been hoping to find someone who agrees with his belief that Rabbit can be saved. At this moment, however, he wonders if he himself might not be the one who needs saving. Though he dismisses Fritz's "insane spiel", something inside him seems to tell him that the old man just might be right.
For the first time in the novel, Updike switches the narrative's point of view: a move that strikes the reader as abrupt and surprising. In the majority of novels that feature shifting perspectives between various characters, the device is introduced early on. In Rabbit, Run, however, Updike waits nearly one hundred and fifty pages (depending, of course, on the edition). Moreover, the switch itself is not underlined in any dramatic way, by a section break or anything of the sort; instead, Updike seems intent on providing as smooth a transition as possible from one psyche to the other.
Ruth's eyes are the catalyst for the narrative's shift to her perspective. They are bloodshot from the swimming pool water, and Rabbit looks into them, observing them closely as he so often pores over every part of Ruth's body with his gaze: "These aren't the eyes he met that night by the parking meters, flat pale disks like a doll might have. The blue of her irises has deepened inward and darkened with a richness that, singing the truth to his instincts, disturbs him." There a new paragraph begins, and Ruth proceeds to "sing" for us the truth about Rabbit. Note how Updike establishes the first sentence of Ruth's perspective as a sort of skewed rhyme, creating a faulty couplet with the former line: "These eyes sting her and she turns her head away to hide the tears, thinking, That's one of the signs, crying so easily." "Sting" nearly rhymes with both "singing" and "instincts", and just as Rabbit is positioned as the object of a clause rather than its subject ("disturbs him"), so do Ruth's eyes at first render her a passive object ("these eyes sting her").
One might surmise that the intrusion of Ruth's perspective in this section results from a certain hesitation on Updike's part concerning Rabbit as sole protagonist, for it is doubtless that Rabbit's apparent lack of remorse over his actions severely limits the reader's compassion for him. We have been in his head, so to speak, for half of the novel, and have perhaps begun to chafe under the amorality of his character and the size of his ego. A criticism frequently thrown at Rabbit, Run when it was first published was that Rabbit does not earn our affection. Though Updike's strategy throughout the novel seems to be to belie the assumption that a novel must feature conventionally "likable" characters, he does appear to predict that very critique by positioning Ruth as, in a sense, a critic herself.
For the first time, Rabbit is no longer spectator: he is spectacle. Intriguingly, Ruth comes nowhere close to matching Rabbit's obsessive gaze; she bypasses the physical altogether, musing on Rabbit's flawed character and on her own past. The writing grows more and more stylized, eschewing punctuation conventions in order to achieve a stream-of-consciousness effect. It is curious that throughout our journey with Rabbit thus far, we have never been quite as "close" to him as we are now to Ruth: Updike even uses the first-person pronoun in the following, crucial passage: "For the damnedest thing about that minister [Eccles] was that, before, Rabbit at least had the idea that he was acting wrong but with him he's got the idea he's Jesus Christ out to save the world just by doing whatever comes into his head. I'd like to get hold of the bishop or whoever and tell him that minister of his is a menace."
What is even more interesting than content of that passage is Updike's decision to switch to Eccles' perspective two paragraphs later. Instead of returning to Rabbit, we jump to the second object of Ruth's dismay: "that minister." We may agree with Ruth's dismissal of him, for until now Eccles has been an almost comical character, using Rabbit, it would seem, as an excuse to play golf and feel good about himself. The pages that follow undercut this evaluation of him. We learn that Eccles does genuinely feel for Rabbit and that he is wracked by uncertainty and even guilt. Why exactly he feels compelled to "save" Rabbit is never completely revealed, but his need to do so is palpable. As if in a picaresque, we follow Eccles from one encounter to the other, each of which disheartens him further. The climactic speech by Fritz Kruppenbach underlines the crisis of faith Eccles is experiencing. Try as he may to dismiss the "insane spiel", Eccles cannot quite shake it off: "His depression is so deep that he tries to gouge it deeper by telling himself He's right, he's right and thus springing tears and purging himself, however absurdly, above the perfect green circle of the Buick steering wheel. But he can't cry; he's parched. His shame and failure hang downward in him heavy but fruitless."
This section, then, is nothing less than a three-part rumination on loss and failure, using three separate characters and the ineffable connections that bind them - the look of an eye, a stray thought passing through the mind: a sort of makeshift trinity through which Updike seeks to present humanity in all its flaws and foibles. The need for connection pervades everything. It is perhaps his desire to both befriend Rabbit and feel superior to him that drives Eccles' quest. The golf games become reminders of what Rabbit can do for Jack: "Their rapport at moments attains for Eccles a pitch of pleasure, a harmless ecstasy, that makes the world with its endless circumstantiality seem remote and spherical and green."
Rabbit, Run Essays and Related Content
- Rabbit, Run: Major Themes
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- Rabbit, Run: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Updike: Biography
- Rabbit, Run Summary
- About Rabbit, Run
- 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
- Summary and Analysis of Section 4
- Summary and Analysis of Section 5
- Summary and Analysis of Section 6
- Summary and Analysis of Section 7
- Rabbit, Run in its Time
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- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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