Rabbit, Run Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
Jack has just gotten off the phone with Mrs. Springer. The news of Rebecca's death and Rabbit's departure is a shock to him. He tells Lucy what has happened and declares that he has to find Rabbit, but his wife only responds with indignation for his persistence in trying to help "that worthless heel." Jack responds: "He's not worthless. I love him." A bitter fight breaks out between Jack and Lucy, who asks her husband why he doesn't seem to love her or their children. "You couldn't bear to love anybody who might return it," she says. Finally she proclaims that Rabbit "as good as [killed his baby]. Runs off and sends his idiot wife on a bender. You never should have brought them back together. The girl had adjusted and something like this never would have happened." The implication that Jack is ultimately responsible for the accident cuts him to the quick; although his wife takes it back, he can't help but feel that she was probably right. He tries calling Ruth, but no one picks up. He then gets a call from Rabbit, who is at a drugstore in Brewer and wants to go back to Janice. He has been calling the apartment, he tells Eccles, "but nobody answers." He is worried his wife may have called the cops. Jack braces himself for his "familiar duty" - breaking tragic news - and tells Rabbit: "A terrible thing has happened to us."
We then switch to Rabbit's perspective, picking up moments after Eccles has told him what has happened. He reels back from the phone; he feels that there is a "loop" inside of him, threatening to come out, and is overcome by nausea. He boards a Mt. Judge bus - the same kind of bus he rode into Brewer the previous night. He reminisces about that night, wonders what, exactly, kept him from returning home. He had initially wanted to visit Ruth, but there had been nobody in the apartment. He had wandered through Brewer, hoping to spot her, but it was more than just a desire to see her that kept him out into the next day; deep inside, he had begun to feel that something was wrong, that something terrible had happened. What kept him out and about was, he recalls, more than anything "the feeling of being closed in."
Rabbit heads to the Springers. Mrs. Springer slams the door in his face, but Eccles arrives and lets him in, informing him that the undertaker has taken the baby away. Nelson is there as well, and Rabbit takes him out onto the porch. Eccles prepares to leave, but tells Rabbit to stay: he is needed here. Some time later Mr. Springer serves Rabbit and Nelson some sandwiches for dinner, but Rabbit can't eat a thing. Mr. Springer is calm and civil with his son-in-law; he explains to Rabbit that though he can't say he doesn't blame him, "life must go on," and assures Rabbit that he remains a member of the family.
Rabbit tucks Nelson into bed in a room that may have belonged to Janice when she was a child. Nelson asks him if Becky is dead, to which Rabbit can only say: "Yes." Nelson asks his father if she was frightened (Rabbit says "no") and if she is happy now (Rabbit says yes, "she's very happy now"). Rabbit then leaves to spend the night at his apartment, where he drains the bathtub and tries in vain to pray, only to find that "there's no connection." He goes to the bathroom, terrified of seeing a tiny corpse in the bathtub. In the morning, he returns to the Springers. Mrs. Springer fixes him coffee and even speaks to him, albeit "cautiously." He goes up to see Janice and tells her that it was his fault, and the two "cling together in a common darkness." To Rabbit's surprise, Mr. Tothero appears. He walks with a cane and half of his face is paralyzed, but he is very much alive, and he tells Rabbit: "Didn't I warn you?" He tries to explain to his former star athlete his vision of right and wrong, how they aren't "dropped from the sky," but are created by man. His speech disturbs Rabbit, who would rather "believe in the sky as the source of all things." As if on cue, Eccles appears: he is there to complete the arrangements for the next day's funeral. Rabbit asks him what to do, but for once Eccles cannot give him a clear-cut answer. The minister confesses that the guilt is his to share as well, and tries to offer a silver lining by suggesting that this tragedy has "at last united" Rabbit and Janice "in a sacred way." Rabbit - with considerable difficulty - "clings to this belief" for the hours that follow.
Asleep beside Janice in her bed, Rabbit dreams he is alone on a "large sporting field, or vacant lot." There are two "perfect disks" - one a dense white, which hovers directly below the second, slightly transparent, one. A loudspeaker announces that "the cowslip swallows up the elder," and the pale disk promptly moves down and eclipses the dense one. Rabbit is seized with the sense that he finally understands life and death, and is filled with the desire to start a new religion. As soon as he awakens, however, he realizes that it was all a dream and "that he has nothing to tell the world."
It is Wednesday, the day of the funeral. Rabbit and Janice go to their apartment to pick up some things. She is unable to fit into the black dress she has selected to wear. They return to the Springers' house: Janice winds up wearing her mother's dress, while Rabbit dons an outfit Mr. Springer lends him. Rabbit, Janice, Mr. and Mrs. Springer, and Nelson all head to the funeral. Once there, Rabbit becomes terrified at the prospect of seeing his parents, especially his mother, whom he feels has at this moment the ability to crush him irrevocably: "if she gave him life she can take it away." He is relieved to find that she treats him and the Springers with kindness upon arriving at the funeral home - despite one question that the Springers seem to dismiss and forgive as momentary madness: "Hassy, what have they done to you?" She calls Janice "my daughter", and the two women seem to silently bond over the tragedy: "His mother had been propelled by the instinct that makes us embrace those we wound, and then she had felt this girl in her arms as a member with her of an ancient abused slave race, and then she had realized that, having restored her son to herself, she too must be deserted."
Eccles gives the sermon. His delivery is, as usual, "false" to Rabbit's ears, but the words themselves affect him: the imagery that Eccles uses - a shepherd, a lamb, arms - fills his eyes with tears. Later, at the cemetery, Rabbit becomes convinced that his daughter is indeed going to Heaven, and feels imbued with a new kind of understanding. This change, however, inspires him to utter unspeakable words without realizing the effect that they have. Finding that Janice's "face dumb with grief" seems void of any comparable awareness, and seems instead to block "the light", he tells her: "Don't look at me...I didn't kill her." Everyone is shocked: Janice snatches her hand away from him, and even Rabbit's mother looks horrified.
And so Rabbit runs. He darts through the woods, with Eccles chasing him. He loses the minister, but soon finds himself lost in the darkness of the forest. He stumbles upon an abandoned house and feels the presence of the past, of previous human activity, of "ghosts" surrounding him. He finds a road and feels liberated as soon as his feet hit the asphalt. Once again, he believes he has begun a new life. He makes it to the top of Mt. Judge, where he gazes out over the city of Brewer. He wants to explain his change of heart to Eccles, to reassure him that everything is fine, but instead Lucy answers the phone, and promptly hangs up when she finds out it's him.
He descends the mountain, and goes to visit Ruth. She is furious with Rabbit, and orders him to leave. She reveals that she knows what has happened; Eccles has called her. What is more, she is pregnant with what she assumes is Rabbit's child. Rabbit fears she has aborted it, and is overwhelmed with joy when she tells him she has not. It seems that Rabbit wants to be with her again: he tells her that he would love to marry her. However, when she asks him how he can possibly hope to make things work out, he replies that he does not know. She is upset: "Maybe once you could play basketball but you can't do anything now. What the hell do you think the world is?" She finally gives him an ultimatum: she would like to marry him, but if he wants her to have the child he has to divorce his wife. If he does not, Ruth will be "dead" to him, and "this baby of yours is dead too."
Rabbit agrees to Ruth's condition, and runs out to grab some food to bring back. As soon as he exits the apartment, however, worries begin to plague him - the very worries he had hoped to vanquish once and for all. How will he be able to divorce Janice? What will happen to Nelson? What will his mother do? The questions prove too much for Rabbit, and he finds himself simply walking past the delicatessen, away from it all. He is filled with "a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter" as he sets off running yet again.
The closing section of the novel is predominantly concerned with Rabbit's perception of the events taking place. It is indeed a very internalized piece of writing that finishes the book; Rabbit, Run culminates in so focused an examination of Rabbit's interior world that by the end it seems as if Updike is attempting to literally burrow inside his character. The author and the reader are both rebuffed, however, by Rabbit's essential impenetrability. Updike admits as much in his penultimate paragraph, writing: "I don't know, he kept telling Ruth; he doesn't know, what to do, where to go, what will happen, the thought that he doesn't know seems to make him infinitely small and impossible to capture." "I don't know" is thus not solely Rabbit's answer, but is also, in a sense, Updike's. He is incapable of satisfactorily explaining Rabbit's actions; he suggests that no person can ever be fully understood or "known," that everyone is more or less "impossible to capture." The shifting means by which Rabbit is described reflect this quandary. Consider that, in the immediate aftermath of Rebecca's death, Rabbit is consistently referred to as "Harry" in the prose; only once he begins running again, into the woods and away from his child's grave, does his nickname return in full force. To be sure, "Rabbit" is used a few times before this event, most notably when the protagonist of the novel witnesses Rebecca's burial: "Rabbit's chest vibrates with excitement and strength; he is sure his girl has ascended to Heaven." That event recalls Rabbit's dream of the disks. In both instances an object is lowered vertically, both events take place outside, both are presented as spectacles to be gazed upon, to be consumed, and both seem to have spiritual significance. What do the disks represent? Rabbit, deep in his dream, seems to suddenly understand it all: "'[T]he cowslip' is the moon and 'the elder' the sun" - that is to say, the pale disk is the moon and the dense one the sun - and "what he has witnessed is the explanation of death: lovely life eclipsed by lovely death."
Of course, death is like Rabbit, in that it cannot be explained. When thinking of his mother and contemplating his fear of her behavior at the funeral home, Rabbit muses that "if she gave him life she can take it away" - linking her to Janice, and likening the act of birth to the act of murder. They are indeed two sides of the same coin. In Rabbit's dream, death is defined by life, and both are "lovely": one might interpret that word as referring simultaneously to "love" itself - recalling both Janice's killing of her loved one and the proximity between sex and death - and to aesthetics, to beauty. The latter connotation implies that death is primarily something to be seen. Thus, the importance of the gaze is reaffirmed for Rabbit. He sees himself as the only true spectator of the world around him, the only true "seer." What he finally objects to in Janice during the climactic scene at the cemetery is that she does not share this view: "She doesn't see. She had a chance to join him in truth, just the simplest factual truth, and turned away in horror." Her refusal to look returns her immediately to his perception of her at the novel's beginning; in other words, it returns her to mediocrity. The word "dumb" is frequently used to describe Janice early in the book, from Rabbit's perspective, and here it reappears with all its spiteful force: "He hates her dumb face."
Updike concludes his novel, then, on a decidedly downbeat note - and yet hope remains. Rabbit's persistence in questioning his life rather than passively accepting it, as well as the very relentlessness which inspires so many of his flawed actions, can easily be seen as positive qualities. When Rabbit wonders, while contemplating Mt. Judge, "why [he was] set down here, why...this town, a dull suburb of a third-rate city, [is] for him the center and index of a universe that contains immense prairies, mountains, deserts, forests, coastlines, cities, seas," it is possible to both pity his life and to admire his ability to see beyond it, to grasp - if not in entirety, then in fragments - the larger picture. Yes, his search for meaning, for God, for a new life may fail, but at least he tries. In that sense, the reader may recall Ruth's earlier explanation of why she "likes" Rabbit: "'Cause you haven't given up. 'Cause in your stupid way you're still fighting."
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