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John Updike's Rabbit, Run
John Updike: The author was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932, and he later attended Harvard University and also the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts, located in Oxford, England. He began his professional writing career by contributing poems, articles and book reviews to The New Yorker magazine (1955-1957). Updike, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich, has written over 25 books. He is the father of four children, and lives in Massachusetts. It is believed that the central character in Updike's "Rabbit" series (four novels, beginning with Rabbit, Run), was a real-life basketball hero who hailed from Shillington, Pennsylvania, where Updike grew up.
Plot Summary: The central character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, is an unhappy middle class Pennsylvanian living in the 1950s. He is chained to nightmare jobs selling "MagiPeel Peelers" in supermarkets, and selling Toyotas, jobs that give him zero satisfaction compared to the thrills and glory he received years ago as a high school basketball star. His wife, Janice, bores him, bugs him, and he leaves her for a number of explicitly described sexual encounters. He also leaves her to "run" on the road for a time, unsure of where he is really going. Updike's general literary statements about middle class 1950s society included these thoughts: people were going through the motions of a meaningful life, but not achieving satisfactory meaning from it. Some perversion very likely resulted from this vacuous lifestyle, one can deduce from the novel.
Character Development: The character central to this novel is so bizarre from time to time, he keeps the reader off balance (which is what Rabbit is actually doing in a fictionalized state, to his wife Janice, and others). Rabbit does things like standing in the hospital parking lot praying to the moon on the night when his son is born - and he had recently returned to his wife at this time of birth from the prostitute he had an ongoing affair with. In one of his "runs" he makes offhanded decisions about where to go, based on his past; for example, he takes highway 23 because in his first varsity basketball game back in high school, he scored 23 points. Clearly, he is confused about his life and times, and that reflected the widespread cultural bewilderment experienced in the Cold War 1950s.
Rabbit desperately needs good advice, but Updike builds his character around the fact that nobody knows what to tell him to do, or what is right. He only seems to hear cliches and platitudes on the radio and elsewhere, and this keeps him at a level that is sad and depressing.
In describing the futility and flaws of the Rabbit character, Greiner (55) says Rabbit is "a decent but flawed adult who finds the little complexities of life - a boring job, a dreary wife, a dingy apartment - too much to handle." And the problems Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom faces are "not those of poverty, politics, and the nuances of keeping up with the Joneses." Instead, Rabbit's character problem is more along the lines of "how to see junk he does not believe in while returning home each night to a marriage that drains his spirit, that insists on finality instead of fluidity."
Continuity is the key to Updike's maintaining character growth throughout the series he wrote. Indeed, it is interesting that the characters Updike uses in the first book, Rabbit, Run almost all continue to appear in his three novel sequels. "Part of the resonance of John Updike's Rabbit saga," writes Donald R. Anderson in the Journal of Modern Literature, "comes from the cast of characters that continues to reappear in the novels, either directly or through flashback." By "braiding and re-braiding major and secondary characters," Anderson continues, "Updike gives the works - Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and the novella Rabbit Remembered (2000) - the sense of an ongoing present unthreatened even by the death of the title character at the conclusion of the fourth novel."
Rabbit turned out to be one of contemporary American Literature's more durable protagonists," writes Stanford Pinsker (74), in his essay "Restlessness in the 1950s: What Made Rabbit Run?" "The problems he faced during the next decades tell us much about how and why the culture changed."
As for Rabbit's wife Janice, Pinsker quotes from the book (10-11) that Rabbit thinks, "Janice is a frightening person. Her eyes dwindle in their frowning sockets and her little mouth hands over in a dumb slot." And Rabbit abandoned Janice for apparently noble reasons, Pinsker points out. "I once did something right," Rabbit says (106-7). "I played first-rate basketball...and after you're first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate." And Rabbit adds, "...that little thing Janice and I had going was really second-rate."
In addition to being bold, radical, and making decisions that call into question his morals, Rabbit shows he also has a guilt complex. While waiting in the hospital for the birth of his child (196-8), "He is certain that as a consequence of his sin Janice or the baby will die...the thrust whereby it was conceived becomes confused in his mind with the perverted entry a few hours ago he made into Ruth," the prostitute. "He feels underwater, caught in chains of transparent slime, ghosts of the urgent ejaculations he has spat into the mild bodies of women."
In what ways does the novel and its characters reflect contemporary American culture? Rabbit, Run was seen in some literary corners as a shockingly, sexually honest book for that particular period (published in 1960 but depicting the 50s' society) in American contemporary history. The so-called "sexual revolution" had not yet taken place, which in retrospect shows perhaps how far ahead of his time - or at the very least how totally in tune with his times - John Updike was. His use of obvious symbolism gives the book some of its edgy, robust sexual flavor. Indeed, the word "rabbit" itself suggests that protagonist Harry's reproductive proclivities are substantial; the name "Angstrom" certainly appears to be merely an extended use of "angst" - which may be meant to indicate the anxiety and general unease in Harry's life, which propels him into the sexual adventures.
In the novel, according to quotes attributed to Updike (Greiner 49-50), Rabbit engages in explicitly-described sexual activities not merely for perversion but rather to express his passionate yearnings, and to fulfill his need to take society's morals to the edge of the envelope. "Yeah, I meant it to be...I thought then, and I still feel, that if you're going to have sex in a book, you really ought to have it," Updike is quoted as saying.
Greiner's book also reports that Time magazine (in its 1960 review of Rabbit Run), called the sexual scenes "too explicit" and "often in the worst of taste." However, that viewpoint is rebutted by critic George Steiner (Greiner 51), who wrote that Updike's sexually graphic descriptions have "integrity" simply because Updike sees "in sexual life the only compensation, the only open terrain, left to human beings cornered in the soul-detergent inferno of American middle-class existence."
Notwithstanding all the critical attention focused on the raw sexual material that Updike's novel brought to mainstream literature, Greiner (51) writes: "...The irony is that not sexual promiscuity but lack of useful work is at the heart of Rabbit's dilemma." The root of the problem is that age 26, Rabbit cannot land a job which offers him the same potential for purposefulness and meaning as his storied high school basketball career had provided.
Greiner goes on to quote Updike as saying his novels "...are all about the search for useful work. So many people these days have to sell things they don't believe in, and have jobs that defy describing...a man has to build his life outward from a job he can do."
So, as readers pour through the brutally graphic sexual liaisons and trysts Rabbit engages in, these scenes are merely the author's point that the great American middle class in the 1950s needed to break through the boredom and monotony of meaningless work. "The point is," Greiner (52) writes, "that the most acceptable analyses of Rabbit, Run understand how the reader's unsettled attitude toward the characters is part of the mixture of attraction and repulsion that most of us, including Updike himself, feel toward the American domestic life."
And though Rabbit could be seen, by some, as "hollow and spineless," Greiner asserts, a "fairer reading" leads the perceptive reader to understand that Rabbit "suffers because he cannot communicate what he desperately longs to say." Whereas Rabbit could be seen as a bad guy or a good guy, the "rightness or wrongness of his running" isn't pertinent, Greiner explains. "Rather, the novel urges acknowledging the complexity of his dilemma."
Looking back on all four novels in the "Rabbit" series, Updike,…[continue]
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And there is Nelson, Harry's son, a drug addict whose dependence is pushing him toward a mental breakdown. Updike touches on the spiritual awareness of American's during a conversation between Harry and his friend Charlie Stavos. "What do you think you are champ?" asks Charlie when Harry questions his choice to have pig valve replacement surgery. "A god made one of a kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A
Disillusionment in Postmodern American Literature The latter half of the twentieth century saw a raft of dramatic changes to American culture and society, bringing with them new forms living and thinking about the world. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing onward, the country saw a deep disillusionment with the suburban trappings of contemporary America, as Cold War anxiety combined with rampant consumerism to instill a sense of moral vacuity, which was
For instance, according to Fischman (1991), "This need is generated by the task to which Marx believes all human beings are drawn, but in which the working class, of all segments of society, is most frustrated: the realization of their human powers" (1991, p. 106). Many working-class people, though, may believe their "human powers" are being fully realized on a daily basis as they enjoy their hobbies and sports,