Harry Angstrom, walking along a street, happens upon a group of children playing basketball. The novel's protagonist is twenty-six years old, and a salesman for a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeeler. He is nicknamed Rabbit for "the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose." He joins the game, inspiring him to reminisce about his own high-school glory days as a basketball star.
After playing with the children for some time, he heads home. He lives in an apartment in a development that dates from the thirties - a collection of nondescript buildings in the equally nondescript town of Mt. Judge, a suburb of Brewer, PA. He finds the door to his place locked, although his wife, Janice, several months pregnant, is inside. He asks her why she locked the door, but all she can say is: "It just locked itself." This response annoys Rabbit, revealing the sorry state of their marriage. Rabbit no longer finds Janice pretty, and is contemptuous of what he perceives as her clumsiness and general stupidity. Janice's appearance and actions seem to exacerbate her husband's low opinion of her: she is sitting idly, watching the Mouseketeers on television. Rabbit learns that their car is at Janice's mother's place, and that their two-year-old son, Nelson, is at his own mother's. The situation angers Rabbit, and he talks to his wife with thinly veiled scorn. Janice responds with tears, forcing her husband to take her in her arms and pleading to him: "Don't run from me, Harry. I love you."
Rabbit sets off to get the car, his son, and a pack of cigarettes for Janice. Even this casual request of hers fills him with bitterness, and the walk outside only serves to deepen these sentiments. He passes the Sunshine Athletic Association, a dilapidated building in which Marty Tothero, his high-school coach, found work after being ousted from his position at the school due to a "scandal". Rabbit's mind drifts back to the days when he was a basketball star, and when he finally arrives at his old house and sees Nelson through the window, being fed by Rabbit's sister, Miriam, he feels that "this home is happier than his." All he can do at the end is turn around, locate his car, and drive away alone. Once in the car, "the highway sucks him on." Rabbit seems incapable of turning back: he may not know where he is going, but he knows that he must keep driving. He exits Mt. Judge, reaches the highway, stops at a gas station, gets directions, and starts heading south.
Soon enough, he finds himself as far south as West Virginia. He briefly stops at a roadside diner and notices a couple who seem to reflect his own predicament through a rosier lens. Rabbit's eye is constantly drawn to those around him: he notes that "he is unlike the other customers" at the diner, and that they seem to be staring at him; he feels like a stranger in a strange land. Back in his car and on the road, he grows frustrated that the more he drives, the more the country surrounding him looks like that of Mt. Judge. No matter how far his travels take him, he still feels trapped.
Night falls. Rabbit gets off the road by accident, and nearly crashes the car. He finds himself on a "lovers' lane." He stops his car, tears up his map in exasperation, and begins heading back to Brewer. The return trip is far easier than his attempt at escape; even though he has no map and hardly any gas left, he quickly reaches Brewer without difficulty and parks beside the Sunshine Athletic Association. He decides to sleep for a bit, hoping to catch Marty Tothero when he exits. It is already early morning, and when Tothero appears, Rabbit swiftly runs up to him and asks him for advice. He communicates his dissatisfaction with his marriage, refers to Janice as a "dumb" alcoholic, and finally claims that he is not "interested" in her. These remarks prompt Tothero to say: "I don't believe it. I don't believe that my greatest boy would grow into such a monster." He shows Rabbit to a small side-room in the Sunshine and tells him that he can sleep there on the condition that the two discuss his problems after he awakens.
To Rabbit's unease, Marty watches him undress. Later, Rabbit decides Marty's act was simply a means to reminisce, to return to the better days of the past when Marty would hover over the boys on his team, watching them prepare for a game. This memory leads Rabbit to recall a prostitute he slept with in Texas while he was in the Army, and how hurt he was to find out that she had faked her part in the act.
The opening image of Updike's novel - "Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it" - establishes the sport as a motif that will help structure the novel. Clearly, Rabbit sees the kids' game as a reflection of his own lost youth. The boys only offer him "puzzled silly looks" when he asks them if he can join in; although they acquiesce, Rabbit remains distant from them, a phenomenon exacerbated by Updike's prose, which locates the reader firmly within Rabbit's consciousness while infusing the text with irony. The reader can share in the thrill of the sport, of Rabbit's elated discovery "that his touch still lives in his hands," while simultaneously laughing at the image of a six-foot-three, twenty-six-year-old man in business attire playing ball with "the real boys."
It is perhaps too easy to interpret this moment as a distillation of Rabbit's yearning to return to his youth; as Updike describes it, the game seems infused with the same gloom that pervades all of Mt. Judge. It is there in the opening line: the kids play not on a real court, but by a "telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it." Consider the language itself: "b" and "p" are the two consonants most heavily used in the sentence, and recall the noises of a basketball smacking against asphalt. Immediately we sense that Updike's strategy is not merely to provide a window into a consciousness, but also to create a sensory experience through his near-poetic writing: the sounds of the words he uses are as important as the actions they convey, and his use of fragments (e.g. "Legs, shouts") recall the quick cuts of cinema - a medium Updike himself claimed was hugely influential on his prose.
Throughout the ensuing events the reader remains close to Rabbit, and the specter of basketball returns on three separate occasions: when he passes the Sunshine Athletic Association, when he reaches the highway in his car, and when Marty Tothero watches him undress. The second instance is perhaps the most illuminating: "He doesn't drive five miles before this road begins to feel like a part of the same trap. The first road offered him he turns right on. A keystone marker in the headlights says 23. A good number. The first varsity game he played in he made 23 points." Thus, basketball and memory serve to frame his present attempt to escape the doldrums of his life; the road that reminds him of his first varsity game is the road worth taking. Why? It is not clear whether Rabbit wishes to literally return to the past, and there is a level of distaste in his perception of Marty Tothero, the former coach who lost his position because of an unnamed "scandal." Yet there is an undeniable bond between Rabbit and Tothero, and the former enjoys "getting into the old man's hollow" in the Sunshine, as if he were being tucked in by his father. Similarly, seeing Nelson through the window of his parents' home projects Rabbit back into the past, as if he were watching himself as a two-year-old child. The window frames his perception like a movie screen, and again Rabbit is a spectator, somehow removed from the world around him.
Therein lies the central paradox of Updike's novel, introduced in all its complexity in this lengthy opening section. Rabbit feels trapped by his environment, and yet he seems to remain aloof from it. Since Updike relentlessly writes from the vantage point of Rabbit's psyche, sometimes even going so far as to indulge in the stream-of-consciousness style of his idol James Joyce, the characters and places that surround the protagonist take on an almost ethereal quality, as if it were all a dream of Rabbit's. The use of the present tense heightens this effect by blurring the boundaries between incidents and their temporal spans, by gliding over gaps in time, and by uniting everything in a sort of continuum. The road itself seems the best metaphor for the narrative: a road down which Rabbit knows he must go, but whose destination he cannot ascertain or predict.
Nonetheless, it is worth examining what, exactly, Rabbit's "world" consists of. Updike's novel, published in 1960, is often interpreted as an indictment of the fifties - not middle-class life in general, but middle-class life in the Eisenhower era. Rabbit's job reflects the growing prevalence of door-to-door salesmanship in that decade, his suburban home recalls the boom in suburbia, and his high school star status is indicative of the hero worship of student athletes that reached a fever pitch in those years. This world is a solidly middle-class one; hunger is never an issue, but happiness certainly is. When we first see Janice she is watching a Mouseketeers special on TV. Ironically, Updike uses this tacky show to segue into the theme of religion that is so crucial to the later parts of his novel.
The "big Mouseketeer", Jimmy, appears on the set and says: "[B]e yourself. God doesn't want a tree to be a waterfall, or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each one of us a special talent." He seems to be speaking to Rabbit directly, but what does he really mean? Should Rabbit have stuck with basketball? What is he doing in a mediocre marriage, selling useless products? Updike writes, "Janice and Rabbit become unnaturally still; both are Christians. God's name makes them feel guilty." That "God's name" is spoken for the first time in the novel by a character on a TV show seems sadly appropriate.
And yet Updike does not use Rabbit's plight merely to excoriate religion. Through the complex persona of Jack Eccles, introduced later in the novel, and through Rabbit's own wrestling with his faith, Updike suggests, even here, that the specter or idea of "God" may be both a boon and a curse for his characters: it represents something higher than their dull existence, something to which they can aspire, but it may indeed offer false hope. Certainly the prevailing mood of this opening section is gloomy: besides a fleeting feeling of elation during the basketball game, Rabbit is upset, disappointed, frustrated, or resentful for much of the novel. Even his rebellious drive out of Mt. Judge is a failure. That the return trip is so easy suggests that there is an indiscernible force that binds Rabbit to his city, if not to his "home." With this in mind, the structure of the novel - primarily composed of comings and goings, of Rabbit's repeated attempts to leave and his repeated returns - comes into focus as an endless cycle. That image - of a loop from which Rabbit cannot hope to break free - is evident here in the novel's beginning, and is, to say the least, depressing.