This is the first in what would eventually be five novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. John Updike is a master of language, and the novel has many beautifully evocative descriptions of landscapes, both rural and urban. However, these descriptions pale compared to the horridly Freud-inflected story Updike tells of Rabbit, a 26-year-old man in Mt. Judge, Pennsylvania, married to the depressed, alcoholic Janice with a two-year-old and another on the way. Throughout the novel, Rabbit is confronted with unhappiness and challenges which fail to live up to the promises of greatness he felt as a high school basketball player; his response in all of these situations is to run. Asked by the pregnant Janice to pick up their son from her parents and bring home a pack of cigarettes, Rabbit instead takes the car and drives to West Virginia, before losing his nerve and returning to Mt. Judge, where he first stays briefly with his old high school coach, Marty Tothero.
Tothero introduces him to Ruth, a fat woman who accepts money in exchange for sex, with whom Rabbit sets up an uncomfortable domestic arrangement. He stays with her long enough to convince her to perform fellatio on him; later that night, when he discovers that Janice is in labor, he leaves Ruth, as this sexual act is one which ultimately degrades her to him: “I need to see you on your knees” (161). The birth of their daughter Rebecca June briefly restores a connection between Janice and Rabbit, which is then shattered by Janice’s drunken accidental drowning of the infant after Rabbit has left her once again. After a funeral in which any possible sympathy for Rabbit is destroyed by his loud insistence at the graveside that it was Janice who killed the baby, not him, he returns to Ruth’s house, only to discover her pregnant as well. Because she will not promise to return to him or carry the baby to term, the novel ends with, predictably, Rabbit once again running.
I find the Freud-inflected misogyny of the novel quite difficult to take. I understand that Rabbit is supposed to reflect the failure for men in post-WWII America to find satisfaction in the family, in marriage, in work, and even in the church; however, while it may be a symptom of his own shortcomings, his inability to see women as anything more than “white, pliant machine[s] for fucking, hatching, feeding” (201), as Rabbit not only sees Janice as, but somehow sees her as accepting with “gratitude” such an understanding of herself is difficult for me to get over. Even pre-adolescent girls, when Rabbit sees them can only zero in on their legs beneath their shorts, can only see through a sexualized lens. The novel seems rather sexually graphic for 1960, in its frank depiction of sex and discussions of sex, as well as his rather up front discussion of abortion with Ruth.
It’s also a rather jaded look at the state of Christianity in America at the time, particularly through the character of Reverend Jack Eccles. His name is reminiscent of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg in The Great Gatsby to me, and he does serve as a near-constant presence in Rabbit’s life once he first runs away. Religion and religious belief is called into question, as Dr. Eccles himself is often presented as rather ineffectual, with an unhappy home life and marriage of his own. His solution to helping the lost lamb of Rabbit is to take him golfing once a week. Though this is an overt theme of the book, I’m more interested in what seems to be a more subtle commentary on nihilism, one expressed in the title of the book. As the novel ends with Rabbit running away from yet another problem, one with yet another lack of solution, “he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.” I want to read this as a response to the end of Waiting for Godot, in which the characters say, “Let’s go,” but then stay seated. It’s not clear to me whether running is better than stasis, at least in Updike’s opinion, or whether he’s perhaps trying to say that, in response to the existential angst of the previous generation who couldn’t move, who were stuck, the current generation’s response—having been taught only to run, to progress, to improve—is just as impotent a response.