Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run Themes


The church that stands outside Ruth's window captures Rabbit's attention that night as much as her body; immediately, Updike suggests a connection between the thrusting act of sexual intercourse and the steeple of the church piercing the sky. What exactly forms that sky, in spiritual terms - i.e. what lies above Rabbit, beyond his day-to-day encounters and tribulations - is a question that animates the hero's conscience. Updike contrasts his grittily precise depiction of the mundane with allusions to God, Heaven, and Hell. These allusions are more pervasive and extend deeper than the conversations on the subject between Rabbit and Eccles. Indeed, what seems to link these two men is a shared crisis of faith: Jack fears he has forsaken the true calling of a minister, while Rabbit is distressed by the notion that his actions may have no meaning whatsoever. Though they chat about the "inner darkness" in men, Updike suggests that what troubles his characters most is that which cannot be described in words: the ineffable, which lies both within and beyond the dull middle-class milieu that forms Rabbit's earthly environment.


Does Rabbit love? Is he capable of loving? We never know for sure, but Updike certainly links the amorous with the fearful: it is when Rabbit worries that his wife may die in childbirth that we feel his love for her most strongly, just as it is the memory of Rabbit's protectiveness of Miriam that suggests the depth of his connection to her. However, the question of love is not solely Rabbit's. The first time we adopt Ruth's perspective, Updike constructs an extended, almost stream-of-consciousness passage detailing the romantic and sexual encounters of her past. There seems little evidence of any true love in that past, and yet in her wistful recollections of the shame of boys regarding their genitalia we can sense a genuine affection that has not yet eroded.


Rabbit, Run stirred a great deal of controversy when it was first published due to its graphic descriptions of sex. The two most extended passages of this nature describe Rabbit making love to Ruth for the first time and, later, his failed attempt to do the same to Janice. On both occasions, the prime motif is that of a need to connect on both a physical and a spiritual level. Sex becomes more than simply an act of lust, though it is never quite associated with love; instead, it emerges as an almost religious process, through which two humans strive to seek or create an invisible bond. Updike's writing has greatly influenced attempts in film to present sex as a beautiful but essentially tragic act, be it Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris or, more recently, Bruno Dumont's L'humanité. When once asked what fascinated him about the attempt to record or describe sex, Dumont responded, "I'm filming the impossible" - a formulation that has much in common with Updike's suggestion of two bodies becoming one, a state to which sex aspires but which it can never reach.


Rabbit's need to continually "run" certainly reflects, among other things, his past as a star athlete. It is perhaps the end of his reign as a basketball champ that prompts him to search for meaning elsewhere - in sex, in religion. One gets the impression, especially during Rabbit's recollection of a game at Oriole High, that basketball once served the same role for Rabbit as the church does for so many of his peers: a way of instilling his life and his actions with meaning. He tries to communicate what was so special about this game - and the sport itself - to Ruth and Margaret in the Chinese eatery: "I get this funny feeling I can do anything, just drifting around, passing the ball, and all of a sudden I know, you see, I know I can do anything." Updike writes: "It puzzles him, yet makes him want to laugh, that he can't make the others feel what was so special." The novel begins with Rabbit joining a kids' basketball game and ends with him running: the sheer physicality of sports seems to represent a lost age for Rabbit (though he is only twenty-six years old), an age when he could "do anything."


Two friendships figure prominently in the novel, and both end more or less in failure. The beginning of Rabbit and Jack's friendship fills both with excitement, but by the end of the narrative Rabbit is running away from Eccles just as he has run away from his wife and family. Rabbit's relationship with Marty Tothero seems healthy at first, with Tothero playing at being a father figure and both scolding and advising his former star athlete. The old man truly seems to care for Rabbit and his well being. Soon enough, however, the less agreeable aspects of Tothero's character emerge: he takes Rabbit out with two girls, refers to Janice as a "mutt", and does nothing to try to set our hero on the right track. Likewise, Eccles is not exactly a spotless savior: Updike repeatedly suggests, and Rabbit senses, that the minister uses him for his own purposes, to renew his faith in both God and himself. Neither friendship gives much cause for hope. One can contrast Updike's method to the use of Platonic friendship as the one unstained window into the goodness of humanity in Hamlet - a work to which Updike later wrote a prequel, Gertrude and Claudius.

Voyeurism and the Gaze

Rabbit is a perpetual voyeur. His eyes scan over every detail of women's bodies, even though his heart allegedly belongs to another. While watching Ruth swim at the public pool, his eyes drift over to "the lighter figures" of two sixteen year-old girls: "The one in a white strapless peeks up at him from her straw with a brown glance." While waiting for Janice in the hospital the day after the birth, Rabbit notices the "beautiful gray hair and somehow silver, finely wrinkled skin" of Marty Tothero's wife. These are but two examples - one clearly laced with eroticism, the other less obviously so. Rabbit's gaze is not confined to potential sexual adventures; it suggests his eternal restlessness, a need to look, to move, to run, and to do that permeates his everyday life.


Though Tothero seems close to death in one scene, only one character dies in Rabbit, Run: the newly born Rebecca. That Updike reserves the great void for a character that has only just been brought to life, so to speak, is worth considering. It heightens the death itself; it is not so much a life, full of the past triumphs and scars of Rabbit Angstrom's, that has been extinguished as the blossoming of a life - life's very possibility. Thus, Rabbit's resolve to start his own life anew is in effect answered by the baby's drowning. The theme of death also provides, like sex, a reflection some kind of spirituality or lack thereof in Rabbit, Run. When Rebecca is buried near the end of the novel, Rabbit is filled with a sense of renewed faith - which later leads him to wound Janice with words so unspeakably cruel that they set him on the run yet again. Updike writes, "Rabbit's chest vibrates with excitement and strength: he is sure his girl has ascended to Heaven." Perhaps, in the loss of his child, Rabbit seeks to find some form of redemption for his own sins. That search only lands him on the road, running from both life and death.

The Car and the Road

We often associate the '50s with the inception of the road and the highway as American myths. Indeed, it was the era of Jack Kerouac and On the Road; of the development of the Interstate Highway System; of the coupled boom in suburban construction and family car production and ownership. America has since been inextricably linked to the automobile, and though Updike does not set his novel out West, he uses the promise of the endless road as a tempting one for his protagonist. Ironically, when Rabbit drives all the way to West Virginia near the novel's beginning, he is dismayed to find that the country around him does not seem to have changed much at all; he still feels trapped in Mt. Judge. The car and the road are thus false promises: Rabbit's cage is spiritual and moral, not geographical. He can run and drive all he wants, but he'll never be able to escape.


In a sense, Rabbit, Run is a tale of four marriages and four families: the Springers, the Angstroms, the Eccleses, and Rabbit and Janice. We learn of other marriages, however: Mrs. Smith reminisces about her late husband and how much he loved his garden; Marty Tothero cheats ceaselessly on his wife, until a stroke cripples him. Marriage is presented more often that not as a constricting institution, one which chokes love more than it fosters it. Lucy Eccles muses on how sour her marriage to Jack has grown, Mrs. Angstrom refers to her son and husband as "soft", only later to be brought to tears by Mr. Angstrom...and yet Jack continues to believe in marriage as sacred. When Lucy finally explodes at him, decrying his persistence in helping Rabbit, who she refers to as a "worthless heel", she suggests that it was Jack's bringing Janice and Rabbit back together that caused the death of the baby. "Why were you so anxious to get them back together?" she demands. "Marriage is a sacrament," he responds. "Even a bad marriage?" she asks. "Yes," he replies.