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Rabbit, Run

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is one of those guys who peaked in high school. Once admired for his basketball skills, he finds himself stagnant in his mid-twenties as an unhappily married father in a dead-end career. He's lost and doesn't know what he's looking for, but that won't stop him from searching. Set in the conservative suburbs of 1950s America, Rabbit, Run (1960) questioned many of the era's societal norms and served as the breakthrough novel for John Updike (1932-2009). Keep reading to learn more about the characters in Rabbit, Run, its themes, and more.

Rabbit, Run: Summary

Set in the small town of Mount Judge, Pennsylvania, Rabbit, Run spans three difficult months in the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Once a famed high school basketball player, he was popular, talented, and destined for great things. But the fame has faded, and now he's a 26-year-old kitchen gadget salesman with one kid. He is distant from his pregnant wife, Janice, who drinks too much.

Desperately wanting to escape his stifling married life in the suburbs, Rabbit drives out of town and considers never looking back. Winding up at the home of his former high school coach, Marty Tothero, he stays for dinner and meets Ruth Leonard, who captivates Rabbit with her youth and confidence. He embarks on an affair with Ruth and moves into her apartment.

Rabbit Run, Basketball Boy, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The local fame Rabbit enjoyed as a high school basketball player has faded.

Meanwhile, Rabbit's distraught wife takes their son, Nelson, and moves back in with her parents. Struggling to find meaning and repair his marriage, Rabbit reaches out to Jack Eccles, a young Episcopalian priest who's facing a crisis of faith. Jack takes Rabbit's arrival in his life as a sign from God and makes it his mission to restore Rabbit's marriage as a means to restore his battered faith.

After quitting his job, Rabbit finds employment in a large estate garden and lives happily with Ruth for the next two months. One day he learns that Ruth worked as a prostitute and has been with Ronnie Harrison, his old high school enemy. In revenge, Rabbit manipulates Ruth into giving him oral sex. Later that night, Rabbit finds out that Janice has gone into labor and rushes to the hospital to be by her side.

Rabbit is driven by his sexual urges throughout the story. Updike shows us that when he indulges in these urges, he often ends up hurting those he loves. What point is Updike trying to make?

The family reunites, and Rabbit enjoys a brief period of peace as he supports his wife and looks after his newborn daughter. After church, Rabbit walks the preacher's wife home. When the preacher's wife invites him in for a cup of coffee, he misinterprets the invitation as a sexual advance. Returning home, Rabbit coaxes Janice into drinking whiskey and attempts to seduce her, but she refuses, feeling ignored and used. In frustration, Harry masturbates over her and leaves in a rage.

Committed to returning with Ruth, Rabbit finds her apartment empty and goes to a hotel. The following morning, a still traumatized Janice starts drinking early and accidentally drowns the baby. Unable to be reached, Rabbit reaches out to Jack to mediate peace between the couple. Jack informs him of the tragedy, and Rabbit is immediately racked by guilt.

Rabbit returns to town believing he is fully responsible for the child's death. Tothero visits Rabbit and tries to console him. During the conversation, Rabbit describes the emptiness that spurred this journey and tells Tothero about the vague thing he's been looking for this entire time. Tothero responds that what Rabbit has been searching for probably doesn't exist.

At the baby's funeral, Rabbit becomes overwhelmed by guilt and grief. He publicly tries to proclaim his innocence and then flees the graveyard. After tracking down Ruth, Rabbit learns that she's pregnant. Ruth threatens to have an abortion if he doesn't divorce Janice and marry her. To calm her, Rabbit agrees to the deal and offers to go to the store and pick up some groceries. He leaves the apartment and abandons Ruth, unsure of where he's headed.

After emerging victorious from WWII, the USA entered a period of peace and prosperity. These postwar years saw the growth of the middle-class and the spread of the suburbs, since for the first time many Americans were able to own houses.

During this period, America's GDP almost doubled. With more secure and better-paying jobs, there was more disposable income, which led to increased consumerism and commodification as houses filled with gadgets and conveniences, like television and kitchen appliances. The standard of living improved significantly, and the population skyrocketed with the birth of the "Baby-boomer" Generation.

Many people view this period with great nostalgia and see it as America's peak, after the victory of WWII and before the deindustrialization of the 1970s. Many American families could enjoy a level of financial security their ancestors could not have imagined. To many, the 1950s represent the embodiment of the American Dream.

However, not everyone enjoyed the benefits of this boom. America was still deeply segregated by race. Women, who stepped up to work in factories during the war, were forced back into the traditional role of mother and wife.

While on the surface, everything appeared perfect and content, some people felt this consumerist society was empty and shallow. In Rabbit, Run, Harry finds himself unhappy in this prosperous society. While his basic needs are met, he wants more out of life. While advertising and television tell him he should be happy, he struggles to find meaning in the trappings of modern life.

Rabbit, Run: Characters

There are four important characters in Rabbit, Run, including Rabbit, Janice, Ruth, and Jack.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom

The novel's protagonist is a tall, handsome, and charming 26-year-old. As a former high school basketball player, Rabbit wanted more out of life but is stuck feeling trapped by the suburban existence and family life. Throughout the novel, Rabbit is nostalgic but yearns for a vague future that's better than his present.

Updike uses Rabbit to represent dissatisfaction with the shallow consumerism of the postwar years in America. Rabbit, in theory, has it all: a wife, children, a home, and a job. Rather than feeling secure, he feels stuck and bored by his life. His nickname comes from his speed and ability on the basketball court but also represents elements of his personality. Rabbits are flighty and run at the first sign of stress. Rabbits have a high sex drive and seek out multiple partners, just like the novel's protagonist.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom proved to be Updike's most enduring character. The author would return to Rabbit in the novels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990).

After you're first-rate at something ... it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." (Ch. 5)

Tormented by the past glories on the basketball court, Rabbit struggles to accept the mundanity of everyday life. He yearns for greatness but doesn't know where to find it. Harry's struggle for fulfillment is evident in his surname, Angstrom, which contains the word "angst."

Janice Angstrom

Rabbit's long-suffering wife is also struggling with adulthood. After a rushed marriage at twenty-one, Janice attempts to support her husband but often angers him. At the novel's beginning, she is pregnant for the second time and drinking heavily to cope with Rabbit's neglect.

Ruth Leonard

Unlike Janice, Updike presents Ruth as a strong and sexually liberated young woman. While most of the characters in the novel struggle with some idea of faith or religious belief, Ruth is openly atheist. In contrast to the conservative time, Ruth uses birth control and seems confident and comfortable with her sexuality. She understands Rabbit's struggles and offers him shelter for two months.

Reverend Jack Eccles

An Episcopalian priest around Rabbit's age, Jack takes Rabbit's arrival in his life as a sign from God. While Eccles is well-intended, his interventions in Rabbit's life are often unsuccessful and sometimes do more harm than good. Eccles's commitment to Rabbit can be interrupted as an attempt to live variously through his friend's infidelities. While the pair golf, the thought occurs to Rabbit that Eccles may be sexually attracted to him.

Some literary analysts suggest that Eccles's commitment to Rabbit may be his attempt to live variously through his friend's infidelities. Others suggest he may be secretly attracted to Rabbit but unable to act on his feelings.

Rabbit, Run: Genre

Rabbit, Run is an example of literary fiction as it is a character-driven work that comments on more significant social issues, including sex, religion, and identity. Updike reveals Rabbit's journey and struggles by delving into his inner thoughts and feelings. The novel's controversial depictions of sex and Rabbit's nihilistic outlook shocked readers at that time, but the controversy also marked John Updike's emergence as a vital new voice on the American literary scene. While the novel's contents were shocking, many critics commented on his talent and ability to create a sense of realism and drama.

Updike presents Rabbit's story from a third-person omniscient perspective. While most of the narration follows Rabbit's inner thoughts and struggles, the all-knowing perspective allows Updike to check in with other characters during critical moments. Using this narrative technique, Updike can reveal the character's true inner feelings to the reader and uncover important insights that even the characters have not yet discovered. By closely monitoring Rabbit's emotional and psychological moods throughout the story, Updike has produced a work of psychological fiction.

Works of psychological fiction deal with a character's inner development and growth. By delving into the characters' consciousness, authors can explore the reasons and drives for their actions. Famous examples of psychological fiction include Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963).

Rabbit, Run: Analysis

Though Rabbit is shown to be unhappy and tortured throughout the story, he does find moments of peace and contentment. He talks bout his days on the basketball court as moments of perfection where he was able to excel at something. Similarly, his early sexual experiences with Janice have the same sense of peace and connection. Ultimately, Rabbit is seeking grace.

In religious terms, grace describes a divine experience between man and God where men accept God's love and can turn their back on evil and vice. While Rabbit isn't seeking a close connection with God, he wants that sense of peace and contentment. However, he is looking for it in all the wrong places.

Rabbit continually mistakes sex for love. Instead of viewing it as a sharing act between two people, he often reduces it to a mechanical action only concerned with his pleasure. This selfishness continually hurts Rabbit. He wants to relive the glory days of high school and blames others when this isn't possible. He sees grace as something he can control and give to others when in reality, it is a shared experience in which others need to be involved. When he realizes he cannot control grace, he becomes frustrated and self-pitying.

At several points, Rabbit is compared to Jesus. Other characters see him as unnecessarily martyring himself for some unknown cause. Updike uses this to show American society's increasing obsession with individuality and its spiritual decline. As America became more consumerism and focused on the self, religious teachings like the idea of grace could be used by people to justify their selfish actions.

Rabbit, Run: Themes

Published during a conservative period in American history, Rabbit, Run was controversial for its graphic depictions of sexual relationships and questioning established societal norms.

Sex

While many classic novels depict sex scenes regarding love and connection, Updike portrayed them as realistic and graphic. This lack of romance reflects Rabbit's lustful look at the world. Motivated by lust and physical beauty, Rabbit has grown bored with his wife and seeks something new. With Ruth, he can indulge in something new; their sex scenes are described in animalistic terms. In contrast, Rabbit describes his early experiences with Janice in terms of connection—a connection that gave him a sense of power and fulfillment. He only felt like this when he played basketball in high school.

Rabbit, Run, Couple Bench, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Rabbit is constantly frustrated by the limitations of traditional marriage and seeks adventures.

Due to the book's graphic sex scenes, it has faced many bans. In Ireland, it was illegal to sell Rabbit, Run from 1962 to 1967. In the 1970s, high school students in Maine had to receive parental permission before reading the book.

Religion and faith

In the novel's setting, religion and faith were considered foundations of American life. Surrounded by a society that seems content to find meaning in the traditional values of religion and family, Rabbit sees them as limiting and empty. Rabbit is suffering from a lack of faith, and without a moral structure or code offered by religion, he feels his life lacks meaning.

The limitations of family and religious commitments contrast with Rabbit's urge to indulge in sex with other women. When he reaches out to Eccles for guidance, he finds a holy man going through his own crisis. Updike employs religious and biblical imagery throughout the novel as Rabbit seeks some sense of grace.

How easy it was, yet in all His strength, God did nothing. Just that little rubber stopper to lift." (Ch. 19)

Identity and meaning

Much of Rabbit's crisis comes from his struggle to find his identity and meaning in life. Unsatisfied by the American dream, he wants more than he has and refuses to conform to the social norms of the day. Having lost his high school fame, Rabbit returns to the old institutions he grew up with to find meaning. He fails to find guidance from both his high school coach and a religious leader. Rabbit wants to live a moral life by Christian standards but can't reconcile this drive with his sexual urges.

He can not find meaning in his family. His relationship with his mother is strained and distant, with little affection. Even his quest to define himself through sexual conquests fails. Without meaning, Rabbit runs from the stable elements of his life, unsure of what's coming next.

Rabbit, Run - Key takeaways

  • Rabbit, Run is a work of literary fiction by American author John Updike.
  • The story concerns Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's struggle for meaning and fulfillment in the suburbs of 1950s America.
  • The book was controversial due to its graphic sex scenes when it was first published.
  • The novel's protagonist would become Updike's most successful creation and returned in the books Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest.
  • The book deals with themes of sex, religion, and the search for identity and meaning.

Frequently Asked Questions about Rabbit, Run

Rabbit, Run deals with themes of sex, religion, and the search for meaning and identity. 

Rabbit, Run is considered a be an important and groundbreaking piece of literature because of Updike's beautiful prose and the novel's frank depiction of sex and existential themes.

Rabbit, Run was written by American author John Updike.

Rabbit, Run was published in 1960.

At the end of Rabbit, Run, Harry reunites with Ruth and learns she is pregnant. After assuring her that he will divorce Janice and marry her, he leaves the apartment and runs away.

Final Rabbit, Run Quiz

Question

Who is the main character in Rabbit, Run

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Answer

Harry Angstrom 

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Question

Who wrote Rabbit, Run? 

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Answer

John Updike

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Question

Rabbit, Run is set during the conservative Reagan era of the 1980s.


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Answer

False

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Question

At the beginning of the novel, Rabbit works as a ___________. 

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Answer

Salesman

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Question

Rabbit, Run was controversial due to its graphic sex scenes.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which character attempts to offer Rabbit spiritual guidance throughout the novel? 

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Answer

Jack Eccles

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Question

In high school, Rabbit excelled at which sport? 

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Answer

Basketball

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Question

Which genre best describes Rabbit, Run

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Answer

Literary Fiction

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Question

After leaving Janice, Rabbit moves in with _______. 

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Answer

Ruth Leonard

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Question

Rabbit finds a sense of purpose and regains his faith in the novel's climax. 

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Answer

False

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