Rabbit, Run Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
Rabbit returns to the hospital, where he runs into Marty Tothero's wife. At first, he knows that she is familiar but cannot remember who she is. When she introduces herself as Harriet Tothero, he recalls seeing her once in and a while on the streets when he was still in high school. The students at Mt. Judge High knew of Tothero's tendency to play around, but he was such a clown that the sins didn't seem to stick to him; instead, they accumulated around the image of his wife: "his wife appeared to their innocent eyes wreathed in dark flame, a walking martyr." Harriet Tothero asks Rabbit if he'll visit Marty, who, it turns out, has suffered two strokes, is incapacitated, and is staying in the same hospital as Janice. She explains it would make Marty "very happy" since he has had so few visitors. Rabbit agrees, but when he goes to see his former coach he finds the experience deeply disturbing. Tothero is unable to move or talk, and Rabbit cannot say much of anything except to tell him about the baby and thank him for his help. Feeling like he has failed both Harriet and Marty, Rabbit crawls over to Janice's room, where he quickly begins bickering yet again with his wife. She has apparently not been paying the rent on their apartment, and it may no longer be available to them. Finally Janice turns on the television, which "makes for a kind of peace" by bringing a stop to the argument. Husband and wife silently watch a crass program on which women tell of the tragedies they have experienced and are awarded money according to how much applause they receive.
After watching the show, Rabbit leaves to see the baby. He is escorted by a female nurse whose body he voyeuristically consumes with his eyes. But then, just when all seems potentially lost, the sight of his beautiful new daughter - whose beauty surprises Rabbit, habituated as he is to the idea that newborn babies tend to be ugly - revives Rabbit's spirits, and he rushes back to Janice intent on naming the girl June, for the month in which she was born. Janice, however, would like to name her Rebecca, after her mother. Rabbit finds himself moved by his wife's willingness to play the part of the loving daughter, and they reach a compromise: the child is named Rebecca June Angstrom.
It turns out that Mr. Springer has in fact been quietly looking after the apartment's rent, as if sure that Rabbit would eventually return, but not wishing to advertise his certainty. He also gets Rabbit a job on his used-car lot while the young man lives with Nelson in the apartment, awaiting Janice's release from the hospital. Rabbit takes his son with him to tell Mrs. Smith that he can no longer work for her. She is friendly as always, but hints that he was all that was keeping her alive the past few months, and that she will not be around when the next set of rhododendrons blossoms.
Next, Rabbit pays a visit to the Springers. Mrs. Springer, still somewhat bitter, tries to pick a fight with him, but his refusal to fight back seems to lead to a kind of mutual understanding and even friendliness between the two. They sit on the porch while she sips iced tea and relates how much she disapproves of Peggy Fosnacht. Her love of Nelson, her affectionate behavior around him - both of which stand in sharp contrast to the attitude she displayed earlier, when Rabbit was still living with Ruth - please Rabbit and endear her to him.
Rabbit's visit to his own parents, however, does not go well at all. His mother, whom he expected to be pleased by her son's return, seems angry with him. What upsets him most of all is her coldness towards Nelson, which he finds unacceptable for a grandmother. Rabbit's favorable talk about the Springers only irritates Mrs. Angstrom further; she seems to be bitter that her son gave in to a family that she has never cared for. Mr. Angstrom is at least kind to Nelson, but "looks at Harry like there isn't anything there."
At night in the apartment, Rabbit grows obsessed with the fear that Nelson will die in his sleep. When Janice finally comes home the following Friday, he becomes fascinated by the sight of her breast-feeding Rebecca and by her new attitude with regards to her own body. She is still shy of her nakedness at times, but she is in general more careless; Rabbit, in turn, regards her as "a bleeding wound" and "worships her."
That Sunday, Rabbit goes to Eccles' church. He feels he owes it to Jack, but also loves the idea of going to mass, of believing, of being one of those churchgoers he observed through the window of Ruth's apartment. Indeed, he feels that he has finally found himself. The sermon, however, is less than impressive: it concerns Christ's conversation with the Devil, and Jack's delivery does not please Rabbit. He winds up staring avidly at the back of Lucy Eccles, intently observing how the light plays with her skin and her hair. She sees him on her way out, and invites him to walk with her and her daughter, Joyce. During the walk, Rabbit contemplates the possibility of "lay[ing] the truth bare" - of telling Lucy that he loves her. But does he love her? The image of Janice's breasts comes to his mind whenever he glances at Lucy's chest. In any case, when she invites him into her house, he tells her he cannot enter, explaining that he has a wife. Lucy is furious, and shuts the door in his face. Rabbit wonders why she has reacted so angrily: is it because he refused her advances, or because he interpreted her invitation as a "proposition"?
Back in his apartment, Rabbit finds himself consumed with lust for Janice. He is itching to bed her, but Rebecca cries ceaselessly, and Janice complains that she has no milk left in her breasts to feed the baby. She and Rabbit quarrel; Janice is piqued that he recommends she have a drink to cool off. That night Rabbit tries making love to her, but after almost allowing him to ejaculate inside her, Janice abruptly tells him: "I'm not your whore, Harry." Rabbit promptly gets out of bed and leaves the apartment, ignoring Janice's pleas for him to stay. In fact, the sight of her weeping only furthers Rabbit's resolve to leave. He doesn't tell her where he's going.
After Rabbit's departure, we stay with Janice, adopting her perspective as she sinks deeper and deeper into despair, waiting in vain for her wayward husband to return. The morning comes; dawn becomes day, and the hours pass. Janice begins drinking - one drink after another, until she is fully inebriated. Her father calls her around eleven in the morning, asking why Rabbit hasn't appeared on the lot. Her mother phones later in the day, and tells Janice that she is worried and that she is coming over. She even suggests that she once thought Rabbit's original abandonment was his fault, but that now she's "not so sure." In a panic, Janice struggles to clean the apartment, and in her rushed attempt to clean Rebecca, who is soaked in urine, she accidentally drowns the baby in the bathtub.
Almost immediately, Rabbit's calm has begun eroding; he is doomed to remain restless throughout the novel. His eyes and his mind continue to wander. He remembers the vision he shared with his high school classmates of Harriet Tothero, the ill-treated husband of the too-lovable Marty: "His wife appeared to their innocent eyes wreathed in dark flame, a walking martyr." What is important in this particular memory is that the husband - the sinner - remains unsullied by his actions. Rabbit is still unsure of where he stands in regards to Janice, who at first seems to have completely forgiven him but now, in the hospital, treats him more scornfully. Is she the martyr, burdened by her husband's thoughtless crimes? Or is he the victim of her constricting grip on his life?
Though the section opens by suggesting that there is hope for Rabbit and Janice, and though the baby Rebecca is like a beacon of light that illuminates and revives their troubled relationship, the specter of the television set seems to bode ill for their reunion. The show that Rabbit and his wife watch is a disgraceful attempt to turn tragedy into a commodity: the depth of a human's suffering is translated into a numeric value. Rabbit notes that, with all the commercials, "there isn't much room for tragedy left" - a bitingly ironic statement, since it is the very commercialism of the program that is the tragedy. This passage is certainly one of the sharpest indictments Updike offers of the society in which his characters reside.
The church, however, remains a possible savior. Rabbit's joy at the idea of going to mass should not be dismissed as simply misguided hopefulness; here, his yearning for some kind of faith seems, as always, admirable. Unfortunately, the service, perhaps due to its focus on Christ and the Devil, Jack's unimpressive delivery, or Rabbit's incorrigible wandering eye, leads Rabbit down the wrong track once again. The church becomes merely a theater in which Rabbit can consume the spectacle not of God, but of the female body. It is hard to believe that he actually "loves" Lucy: "He always thinks when they meet again he will speak firmly, and tell her he loves her, or something as blunt, and lay the truth bare." But what "truth" does he mean to "lay bare"? (Note that "truth" is described in insidiously sexual terms.) It seems that the notion of loving Lucy is no more than a reaction against his own situation; his desire to escape is confused with love. The reader must then wonder whether the affair with Ruth can be explained in the same way? Did Rabbit ever love her? Updike gives no easy answer to these questions, refusing to offer pat psychological explanations. Since his writing remains so focused on the perspectives of his characters, the ability to weigh and judge that would be offered by the use of the omniscient narrator is more or less absent. Thus it is sensory experience that holds sway, the power of the moment itself, as Virginia Woolf first formulated it in Mrs. Dalloway.
The influence of Virginia Woolf is clear in the following passage, which describes Rabbit's view of Lucy Eccles' back: "Against the dour patchwork of subdued heads, stained glass, yellowing memorial plaques on the wall, and laboriously knobbed and beaded woodwork, her hair and skin and hat glow singly, their differences in tint like the shades of brilliance within one flame." The "dour" church - recalling Ruth's earlier reference to it as part of a "dismal" view - fades away, while the flesh and hair of a woman take on an almost otherworldly quality. The most spiritual thing in the whole church is not the cross, not the altar, not Jack's sermon...but the back of Lucy Eccles' head.
This intense and evocative description recalls similarly precise passages concerning Rabbit's desire to "consume" Janice's body: "Top-heavy, bandaged, Janice moves gingerly, as if she might spill, jarred." Updike writes that she "seems to accept herself with casual gratitude as a machine, a white, pliant machine for loving, hatching, feeding." But this anti-feminist description hatches disaster, for it is precisely Rabbit's need to view his wife as a machine for satisfying his lust that turns Janice into a killer. The "machinery" fails and turns on itself, destroying that which it was created to protect. A more feminist interpretation of the chain of events might argue that Janice implicitly rebels against being treated like a "whore" by ironically turning herself into just that, according to the most conservative perspective - a woman who makes love without the intent or desire to procreate. By violently extinguishing her role as mother, Janice is only reflecting the same rebellion attempted by Rabbit, who forsakes his role as husband and father.
One must not forget, however, that in no way does Updike suggest that Janice is a latter-day Medea: it is critical to note that she does not intend to drown her child, that alcohol - and the threatening phone call from her own mother - serve as the primary catalysts. And, of course, Rabbit must bear his share of the guilt: when he sets off from Lucy's doorstep "jazzed" and "clever and cold with lust," he is sowing the seeds of his family's destruction. Sex may be a spiritual act in Rabbit, Run, but in this case it becomes a murderous one. There is a French expression that refers to an orgasm as "a little death." In this case, one might go so far as to argue that the orgasm that Rabbit never reaches with Janice is later provided by the baby's death - whose drowning in the bathtub recalls the liquids in a mother's womb as well as the fluids associated with sex. The tragic potential of the sexual act thus culminates in a "real-life" tragedy - one that recalls the tragedies sold on the television show that Janice and Rabbit watched in the hospital. One can only wonder if Janice will one day appear on a show like that one, bartering her misfortune for a little money.
Rabbit, Run Essays and Related Content
- Rabbit, Run: Major Themes
- Rabbit, Run: Essays
- Rabbit, Run: Questions
- 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
- Related Links on Rabbit, Run
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources