Rabbit, Run: Mirror and Criticism of Contemporary American Middle-Class
Dr. Priti Verma
Assistant Professor, School of Business Studies, Sharda University, Noida
*Corresponding Author Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbit, Run; John Updike’s second novel, deals with the disgusting American middle-class lifestyle. It critically presents loss of traditional middle class values : Family life, religion, morality and the resulting - frustration, lack of mental peace and meaningless life. It portrays the complex and fluctuating relationships in an American middle class family and seems to be critical of directionless American middle-class values – individualism and freedom as well. Harry ”Rabbit” Angstrom, the protagonist, is essentially an American and is afflicted with the ills that have afflicted the modern middle-class society in general . He is disgusted with middle-class home environment and lifestyle, which fails to give him a background of stable meaning, objective values and mature guidance ,escapes from suffocating middle class life, marriage and its responsibilities to a prostitute to find some relief. He keeps running and running to escape but this journey of escape ends where it began. Whether Rabbit has valid reasons to feel disgusted and frustrated or not, in the novel, the narrator brings to light a widespread loss of moral fortitude, loss of sustaining religion and a pervasive spiritual laxity rampant in American middle-class society. It consistently portrays confused and unfulfilled characters, bereft of the emotional and psychological resources that sustained the earlier generations.
KEYWORDS: Middle-class, family life, escape, loss of values
Rabbit, Run is John Updike’s second novel. It specifically deals with the complex and fluctuating relationships in an American middle class family. The protagonist, Rabbit represents an unsuccessful, frustrated, sensual and “ sensitive but not too bright middle class hero”1. Rabbit is a “ rather ordinary middle-class magipeeler salesman”2, who is unable to cope with the responsibility of marriage. The novel revolves round Rabbit’s escape from marriage and its responsibilities to a prostitute for temporary pleasure.
Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, the protagonist is a middle-class family man. He is 26 and has been a good basket ball player. One day, on his way home from work, he spends some time in playing basketball with teenage boys. He reaches home late and finds his wife Janice drinking, and watching TV, utterly indifferent to house keeping. Rabbit is filled with anger and disgust. He discovers that his son, Nelson, is at his mother’s and the car is at Janice’ mother. So he goes to bring the kid and the car back but instead, picks up only his car secretly and drives all night to the United States southland to escape and to find some relief. Ultimately, he goes to his high school coach Tothero, who introduces Harry to Ruth Leonard, a prostitute. The whole novel focuses on the development of his relations with Ruth and its repercussions. Janice’ parents consult their family minister, Eccles, who makes efforts to reunite Harry and Janice.
One fine day, Harry comes home only to collect his clothes. By that time, Janice and his son Nelson have shifted to Janice’ parents home. So, he collects his clothes and on his way back to Ruth, happens to meet Eccles, who tells Harry of the worries of Janice but this has no effect on him.
Once, two months later, he comes to know that Janice is in labour . Full of guilt, he rushes to the hospital. Harry and Janice are blessed with a daughter. He, along with his son, stays at home while Janice recovers.
After Janice is discharged from the hospital, they live peacefully for some time. One Sunday, he goes to attend Episcopal church. While returning home he happens to meet Mrs. Eccles. This encounter with Mrs. Eccles awakens warm feelings in him for her. At home Janice is not well and cannot please her. This irritates him. He deserts Janice for the second time. In despair, Janice gets drunk and in a fit of drunkenness, drowns the baby while bathing her.
Eccles informs Harry of his daughter’s death. Harry returns and consoles her but again after the last rites are over, his attitude changes and he blames Janice for the death of the baby. He runs away from the cemetery and goes to Ruth who is pregnant with his child and wants him to divorce Janice. Harry fails to do so. Ruth throws him out and in the end, we find Harry running aimlessly through the forest.
Reflection of Middle-class Values:
The novel depicts some of the major American middle-class values in relation to religion, morality, individualism, freedom, status consciousness, interest in sports and the generation gap. As Robert Detweiler observes, “Rabbit Run is extremely sensual, clinically sexual, cynically middle-class and insistently moral”3.
Disturbed Family Life
To explain the theme of the disturbed middle -class family life, the questions that arise are: Why is Harry disgusted? Why does he seek escape? And what are the results of this escape?
Harry is disgusted with middle-class home environment and lifestyle. He reaches home after the whole day’s work and finds “his wife sitting in an armchair - - - watching television turned down low”4. Later on while explaining to Janice why he had deserted her, he tells her, “Well, Jesus. Janice: All you did was watch television and drink all the time”5. At another place, the narrator writes that Rabbit could “ feel the undertow of liquor sweep over her and is disgusted”6 .Later Rabbit tells Tothero, “ My wife is an alcoholic” and again “ I can’t stand the stuff”7. Tothero remarks, “ Perhaps,if you had shared this pleasure with her, she could have controlled it”8.Herre, Alice and Kenneth Hamilton rightly comment, “Rabbit cannot follow this reasoning but ,but readers of Updike well recognize the theme of sharing as the principle of right rule(control)in the kingdom of marriage”9.Rabbit ignores this. The result is that their family life suffers a lot.
According to Joyce B. Markle, in the novel “ the unattractiveness of .Rabbit’s environment is clearly underlined without going beyond an absolutely ordinary middle-class seting”10. Rabbit is disgusted with his small home equipped with things of middle-class life:
He goes to the closet - -- the clutter behind him in the room-the old fashioned glass
with its corrupt drugs, the chocked ash-tray balanced on the easy-chair arm, the
rumpled rug, the floppy sticks of slippery newspaper, the kids’ toys here and there
broken and struck and jammed, a leg of a doll and a piece of bent card bound that went
with same breakfast-box art-out - - - the continual crisscrossing must cling to his back
like a tightening net 11.
Joyce B. Markle aptly remarks, “a rather ordinary middle-class apartment – distasteful and unsatisfactory for him. Smallness, a little clutter, the wife,s drink and the television offend Rabbit” 12.This middle-class life fails to “ give him a background of stable meaning,objective values and mature guidance” 13. Whether Rabbit has valid reasons to feel disgusted and frustrated or not, in the novel, the narrator has tried to show that middle-class domestic environment and lifestyle frustrate Rabbit.
Rabbit was at one time a successful basketball player . “He wanted to be the best”14 .but he ended up as a middle-class man. “ His quest is for that environment in which he can give his best”15.Alice and Kenneth Hamilton observe:
Because of his fierce preoccupation with his feeling that life should be great and not
sualid, free and not bound to the staleness of mediocrity, Rabbit has been judged
by some interpreters of Updike to be a saint indeed, a hero of the Spirit
challenging all adjustment to bourgeois society 16 .
And throughout the novel “Updike insists that shabby conditions of lower-middle-class are the true culprits”17
Freedom and Individualism:
Rabbit seeks freedom from – responsibility, his family, his home, and the trivialities and complexities of middle-class life. His individualism is his motivating force. He deserts his wife, child and home. He tries to escape from suffocating middle class life but his journey of escape ends with mediocre things: Listening music on radio, eating bad food and committing adultery.
Adultery was one of the besetting sins of American middle-class society in the sixties and to some extent has entered the upper middle class society in contemporary India as well. In the novel there is an explicit indictment of sex as a wicked influence. What is particularly criticized here is sex in its anti-family form. Rabbit’s adulterous relation with Ruth end nowhere. His first escape to Ruth is short lived and the news of the birth of their (Rabbit and Janice) child brings him back to Janice. However, This “sexual animal”18 indifferent to the problems of Janice again escapes. His individualism carries the way and he seeks freedom. This escape proves disastrous and he is held responsible for the death of his new born child. Donald j. Greiner rightly observes, “It is not - -- that Rabbit intends to cause pain but he wrecks the lives of others in a selfish break for freedom” 19. ‘ Rabbit’s desire to free himself and act independently becomes, according to Joyce B. Markle “social injustice and become a cause,in the system, of personal suffering and death to others”20.His guilt brings him back home, but again he runs away from the cemetery, tries to free himself from his social bonds and escapes to Ruth. But,now, he finds himself trapped in a situation worse than before. Ruth is pregnant with his child and wants him to divorce his wife. Rabbit’s relations with Ruth pose a serious danger to the integrity of his family.The dominant concern of Rabbit, Run is Rabbit’s quest for a life of self – fulfillment which comes to nought because he thinks that disloyalty to his family and pursuit of a prostitute would enable him to win the freedom he desires.He confuses freedom with his assertion of freedom.So his family life is on the rocks. Adultery stands exposed as an immoral as well as an antifamily vice of the American middle-class society. The paradox that emerges is : Freedom lies in bondage. A married man must search for his freedom within the family not without, for marriage is not inconsistent with freedom, and total freedom is an unrealizable goal. But to make a success of a marriage, desire for freedom and a sense of responsibility are not enough. Human relations are a complex phenomenon ,far beyond the potentialities of dating and romance.
Dating, an important feature of American culture is also, to some extent, responsible for unhappy marriages and quick divorces. Rabbit and Janice become intimate when they were dating and Janice’ pregnancy forced upon them the marriage which later on proved unsuccessful. In Detweiler’s view:
Rabbit and Janice have never experienced anything approaching a genuine marriage
Relationship . The original rapport was sexual, beginning as a series of secret assignations
in a girlfriend’s bedroom and culminating in a hasty wedding when Janice’ pregnancy
became Apparent 21 .
Janice is depressed seeing only darkness ahead:
She had thought things out and was resigned to her marriage being finished. She would
have the baby and get a divorce and never get married again 22 .
Religion which is the part and parcel of human beings has failed to guide and help many twentieth century searchers. Frailty of religion appears when in the hospital he thinks “There is no God; Janice can die”23. Here, the minister Eccles is trapped into the profession by parental expectations as his father was a clergyman before him. “He is without a faith that he can communicate”24. In the novel, Updike tells us the story of the misdirected and uncharted search of an earnest but immature social misfit, attempting to show that man intuitively desires “ something which is missing from our modern culture”25. As Uphaus perceptively explains:
Rabbit runs - - - Yet we are sympathetic - - - what is a mere human,or as one critic puts it,
a “non-hero” to do? What religious experiences has contemporary society to offer?
Attachment to the mother, the wife, the lover, the coach, one’s lost youth, none of
These is a satisfying substitute for the meaningful religion of the past. It is because society
No longer offers the satisfaction of a traditional religion that Rabbit must hopelessly search
for meaning elsewhere26.
This search for a new religion ironically leads Rabbit to commit adultery with Ruth, and to consider it as a new religious experience – the religion of sex.
But the new religion of sex is also unsatisfactory, and it leads to confusion, as is clear in the following exchange between Ruth And Rabbit:
What about your wife?
I don’t know.
Will you divorce her? No. You have been married to her, too.
You love being married to everybody. Why can’t you make up your mind what you want
To do 27.
Making up one’s mind is not easy as it would appear. It requires standards by which to judge and decide in order to choose. Our age lacks such generally accepted standards and values. “Thus”, writes Uphaus, “In Rabbit, Run, Updike conveys the confusion, meaninglessness and uncertainty in American society today”28.
Neither frustration nor disgust or failure in life can however, exonerate Rabbit from his wrong doing. Indeed he accepts his own responsibility for whatever he has done. He is mature enough to understand that as a consequence of his sin Janice or the baby will die. ‘His sin is a conglomerate of flight, cruelty, obscenity, and conceit; a black clot embodied in the entrails of the birth.’ The night he learns that Janice is in labour, he rushes to the hospital, full of guilt, to redeem his marriage. He knows what is right and what is wrong. While passing clubs and bars on the way at night, he is almost frightened, associating cards and alcohol with a “depressing kin of sin”.But his consciousness of sin has little affect on his conduct. However, at the death of his daughter, when all the members of his family and the minister, gather at the cemetery, “A suffocating senses of injustice blinds him. He turns and runs29.His tendency to run spells his ruin. He knows little stability and mistakenly pursues it in mobility, not in constancy. Such is his mental darkness that he pursues what he should shun, and deserts what he should embrace.
Cars are an indispensable feature of American middle class life, as F. Eugene Melder observes, “From conception to the grave, the automobile is an ever present and powerful force what better symbol of modern American life” 30. The car is a symbol of status and American middle-class people were, and are, very much status conscious. Rabbit has a “55 Ford that old man Springer had sold him for an even thousand in 1957 because the sacred bastard was ashamed of his daughter marrying somebody who had nothing but a ’36 Buick he brought for 125”31 .
The middle- class craving for possession and property also comes in for comment in the novel. Thus, we are told that Mrs Springer’s house “is expensively but confusedly furnished; each room seems to contain one more easy chair than necessary” 32.
Middle-class life and love of sports are closely linked. Rabbit was a good basket ball player and it was a matter of pride for the family.
One constant source of conflict in the American middle-class is the younger generation. As depicted in the novel, it is degenerated. This is how Mim, Rabbit’s siater is described as entering the room: “Flip greetings seem to trail behind her with wisps of cigarette smoke and drugstore perfume” 33.
The whole novel presents a picture of American middle-class society rotten at the core. As Greiner analyses the situation:
It is not that Janice Angstrom wants to stop being pretty in her middle twenties, or that
she means to drink old fashioned while the dinner burns, or that her husband dreams
of his past atheletic glory, but that they do not know how to cope with the tensions of
living as a family on the margin of the middle –class. - - - How can they Join the
middle- class treadmill when they cannot define the middle-class dream 34 .
Galloway is of the view that “the methods by which success can be achieved as a middle –class family man and car or kitchen-gadget salesman are not beyond his[Rabbit’s] mastery; they simply do not interest him. Rabbit has broken away from the hypnotic mediocrity of his life long enough to realize its meaninglessness” 35.
Rabbit is essentially an American and is afflicted with the ills that have afflicted the modern middle-class society in general. He is “ a complete failure in the world his culture has created for him” 36. The novel is an accurate exposition of what happens in the absence of positive values. As Rachael C. Burchard sums up, “ Rabbit, Run aligns itself with the twentieth century lament for the loss of traditional values.” 37 .
Thus, besides presenting such important aspect of the American middle-class life as their way of living, their religious uncertainty, domestic conflicts, their status consciousness and their interest in sports, the novel depicts confusion, frustration and lack of responsibility of a middle-class representative. It portrays the complex and fluctuating relationships in an American middle class family and seems to be critical of directionless American middle-class values–individualism and freedom as well. It emphatically lays bare the prevalence of the vice of adulterous relationships in the American middle-class and their threat to a harmonious family life. The novel presents Rabbit’s attempts to escape from family, and the development of his relationship with Ruth but each of his attempts to escape ends in failure. Despite all his wanderings and the efforts of others, Rabbit’s life ends where it began. It brings to light a widespread loss of moral fortitude, loss of religion and a pervasive spiritual laxity rampant in American middle-class society. It consistently portrays confused and unfulfilled characters, bereft of the emotional and psychological resources that sustained the earlier generations. It laments loss of traditional values and is critical of sex in its anti-family form.
1. Brennar, Gerry. Rabbit, Run: John Updike’s Criticism of the “Return to Nature”, in William R . Macnaughton, Ed. Critical Essays on J.ohn Updike, Massachusetts : G.K. Hall and Co., Boston, 1982.P.91.
2. Markle, Joyce B. Fighters and Lovers: Themes in the Novels of John Updike. N.Y.: New York Univ. Press, 1973. P.38.
3. Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. U.S.A.: Twayane Publishers Inc,1972.
4. Updike, John. Rabbit ,Run. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knoph,1960 . P.8.
5. Ibid. P 174
6. Ibid. P 111
7. Ibid. 36
8. Ibid. 36
9. Ibid. 144
10. Ibid. 8.
11. Ibid. 113-14
12. Ibid. P.38
13. Burhans, S. Things Fall Apart: Structure and Theme in Rabbit Run. In William, R. Mainaughton, P.156
14. Updike, John. Op.cit.P.132
15. Galloway, David. The Ab surd Hero in American Fiction. London: Univ. of Texa s Press, 1966. P.31.
16. Hamilton, Alice and Kenneth, The Elements of John Updike. U.S.A.: William B. Eerdamans,1970. P.142.
17. Klinkowitz, Jerome. The Practice of Fiction in America. Amess: The Iowa State Univ. Press,1980.
18. Detweiler. Op.Cit. P.58.
19. Greiner Donald J. From John Updike’s Novels. N.Y.: Ohio Univ. Press , 1984.P.48.
20. Markle, Joyce B. Op. cit. P.47.
21. Detweiler. Op.cit.P.55.
22. Updike. Op.cit. 204
23. Updike. Op.cit. 160
24. Detweiler. Op.cit. P.52.
25. Burchard, Rachael C., John Updike: Yea Saying. U.S.A.: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971. P.42
26. Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. N.Y. : Frederick Ungar Pub. Co. 1980.P.25.
27. Updike. Opcit. P.246
28. Uphaus. Op.cit. P.22.
29. Updike. Op.cit. P.239
30. Melder, F Eugene. “The Lizzie’s Golden Anniversary” in Henning Cohen, The American Culture. N.Y. : Haughton Mifflin Co. 1985.P.211.
31. Updike. Op.cit. P.20.
32. Updike. Op.cit. P.121.
33. Updike. Op.cit. P.134.
34. P. Greiner. Op.cit. P.50.
35. Galloway. Op.cit. P.31
36. Burchard.Op.cit. P.43
37. Burchad. Op.cit. P.47
Received on 31.02.2018 Modified on 19.03.2018
Accepted on 27.03.2018 ©A&V Publications All right reserved
Res. J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2018; 9(1): 344-348.