In the 19th century, social commentary was the most common way of writing. Good writers like Martin Luther and Jonathan Swift used this strategy. In their literature, they addressed social issues that affected the society. Their primary aim was to promote societal change and bring people to the realization of justice within the community. Social commentary was used in different forms that included print and conversations to pass along critical information. Jonathan Swift used social commentary to expose the level of poverty that affected people of Ireland during his days, attributing this state to the British government’s fault. On the other hand, Martin Luther used social commentary in initiating Protestant Reformation, which mainly stood against some practices that the Catholic Church held so dearly. Social commentary has slowly faded with the centuries. Today, modern fiction writers are embracing psychology and perception as their main areas of interest. John Updike is one of the famous writers who write contemporary fiction with the idea of perception. This essay addresses his unique application of perception in writing his book- Rabbit, Run.
Rabbit, Run is an exciting novel that depicts the family in the modern American society. In his writing, Updike gives a clear description of the main character –Harold C. Armstrong. He is commonly referred to as Rabbit or Harry. He describes him as a young man who is a natural athlete, taller than six feet, urban and sexually magnetic. Such a description reflects a healthy young man in the American society in his twenties. He goes on to describe his prowess in basketball at the beginning of the novel while playing with the boys around the telephone pole. This book gives the reader a perception of how a young American man would be in society in the 1950s. As a young man, Rabbit’s life is filled with so much drama. Updike uses perception to reflect the common challenges that youth go through at his age and time.
First, it is evident that Rabbit is addicted to cigarettes. The author describes his posture as “… But the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy” (Updike 1). Seemingly, in this society smoking was nothing strange especially among the young people at Rabbit’s age. This is a perception that the society allowed cigarettes smoking and drinking alcohol as part of people’s consumption. In his house, Rabbit possesses several ashtrays he uses together with his wife. His wife as well, portrays an image of a young unruly woman who does not see a problem with taking alcohol and cigarette smoking. She is so addicted that she drinks and smokes even when she is pregnant. Despite the fact that this couple has a young baby, Nelson Angstrom, they take on smoking and drinking as part of their lives without realizing that this could affect Nelson as well as the unborn baby.
Rabbit Run novel comes in the form of a documentary. It gives the reader a fascinating insight into the lives of individuals living in a small town-Mt. Judge, one of the suburbs of the city of Brewer (Updike 2). The city of Brewer is considered as the fifth largest in Pennsylvania. Big homes and dozens of story buildings characterize the city. However, at the beginning of the novel, life in this suburb does not reflect any wealthy or upper class living until towards the end of it. The reader perceives Rabbit as someone who is still struggling financially despite his stay in Mt. Judge. His house is described to be in a desperate state. “The wood steps up to it are worn; under them there is a cubbyhole of dirt where a lost toy molders. A plastic clown. He’s seen it there all winter, but he always thought some kid would be coming back to it (Updike, 13)”. Updike goes on to paint a picture of Rabbit’s house, “overhead, a daytime bulb burns dustily. Three tin mailboxes hang empty above a brown radiator. His downstairs neighbor’s door across the hall is shut like an angry face. There is that smell which is always the same but that he can never identify; sometimes it seems cabbage cooking, sometimes the furnace’s rusty breath, sometimes something soft decaying in the walls” (Updike 4). Such words clearly reflect a desperate and miserable state that this family faces. Rabbit cannot afford to buy a better home for himself other than an old dusty house in Mr. Judge.
At an early stage of this novel, the reader can realize there is a strained relationship between Rabbit and his wife. Instead of being happy that he is home to meet his wife and two-year-old son, he begins an argument with his wife, who is watching the television. Their conversation starts with an angry statement on why the wife has closed the door already while it is still daytime. According to Rabbit, his wife already stopped being pretty. The writer describes her as a tiny woman who has little wrinkles on her. She also has a greedy mouth, and her hair had thinned out. Rabbit keeps thinking about the skull under it. To him, she is no longer attractive to him. This gives him the desire to go out of this environment to a better place where life is better and bearable.
One can perceive Harry’s wife as a stubborn and careless woman, especially when she is drunk or pregnant (Duvall 56). For instance, she got the television wire wrapped around her foot at one time, nearly pulling the set down. This was mainly to avoid interruptions from her husband Harry as she watched some of her favorite programs. She also decides to leave the kid at her mother’s place with the idea that Harry will go for him and the car. Harry also calls her a “mess” when she explains that both the kid and the car are not at home. According to Duvall, Updike helps the reader through perception to realize that Janice cares less about the baby growing in her womb. By the fact that she smokes and takes alcohol through her pregnancy is a clear indicator of her carelessness. Additionally, she does not make any efforts to maintain a neat house. The room is filled with clutter-a chocked ashtray, old glass with corrupt dregs, a rumpled drag. The floor is also slippery with newspapers stuck all over, broken toys, dolls, and useless boxes are everywhere. Updike helps us to notice that these couple is made up of two completely different people. Rabbit likes to fold his clothes before he places them in the closet while Janice cares less about neatness. Rabbit believes in neatness at all times. He is even seen folding clothes before he sleeps with a prostitute, and Tothero’s unkempt house tends to irritate him.
Janice and Harry are still very young in marriage. Early marriage was not a major concern back then, and even in today’s society. However, the marriage seems to be slowly becoming a challenge for both of them, and they are slowly losing out on it. Harry, in his monologs, concludes that his wife, Janice is dumb. “There seems no escaping it: she is dumb” (Updike 42). Rabbit wonders why it is a struggle for her to be neat and behave in a different preferable way yet she did it before they got married. He explains to Tothero how he is tired of her and is no longer interested in her because of her drinking habits. This couple’s time of passion has already passed by, and responsibilities are taking over their lives. At 26, Rabbit already has a two-year-old son, and his wife Janice is already pregnant. The reality of life slowly dawns on them, and this explains why Harry looks forward to running away from his wife. “The problem knits in front of him and he feels sickened by the intricacy” (Updike 34). He is overwhelmed by responsibilities. He is not sure whether he should get his son or the car first.
A closer look at Updike’s reaction to the boys who are playing basketball makes a reader sense some desperation of Harry to return to his youthful stage. Apparently, Rabbit watches these kids and reflects on his lost youth. When he wants to join the game, the boys offer him “puzzled silly looks” (Updike 2). They find it funny that an old man like him could stop to play with young children. Despite their acceptance, Rabbit plays distantly, an expression of the fact that he was filling out in place, but still interested in the game. It is interesting to note that Rabbit discovers “that his touch still lives in his hands” (Updike 2).The reader is engaged in the thrill of this sport when imagining a six-foot-three man, twenty-six-year-old dressed in a business attire busy playing basketball with small boys. It is easy to interpret that Rabbit had a deep yearning to go back to his youthful days. He seems to be having deep regrets on why he did not maximize his young life. In Ferreira and Mansur’s views, Rabbit appears disappointed by the fact that he has no point of return, and the fact that he is already a parent cannot be changed.
Throughout the events of this novel, the reader is kept close to Harry, and his thoughts and basketball life. John Updike outlines three separate occasions that reflect Rabbit’s love for this sport: when drives to the highway in his car, during his meeting with Marty Tothero when he watches him undress, and when he passes outside Sunshine Athletic Association. The most illuminating occasion was when he drove down the highway. “He doesn’t drive five miles before this road begins to feel like a part of the same trap. The first road offered him he turned right on. A keystone marker in the headlights says 23. A good number. The first varsity game be played in he made 23 points. A sophomore and a virgin” (Updike 10). It is evidently clear that Rabbit attempts to escape the reality of his hardship in life through his basketball memories. Additionally, he decides to take the road that gave him fond memories of his past when he played the varsity game. This offers the reader a clear perception that the Rabbit was still in love with his past, and he wanted to get back to it.
On the next occasion when he meets with his previous coach Tothero, Rabbit seems to have fond memories of his prowess equally in the basketball team with Tothero as his coach (Gillenwater 3). Rabbit has a slight distaste for Tothero, who got fired as a coach due to a scandal that was ‘unnamed’. However, he had an undeniable bond with him, which projected him into his past. Rabbit finds Tothero as the only solution he had for the struggles he was going through in his marriage. Tothero watches Rabbit as he undresses to go to bed. He finds this uneasy, but he remembers how Tothero would keep an eye on them as they undressed after a match.
There is a sense of the fear of God in the lives of Rabbit and Harry. Both of them seem to attribute to the fact that there was a God, and that both of them had gone astray. In the earlier parts of the novel, after he reaches the house, Rabbit signals Janice to be quiet while he listened in to a program on the television. “Know Thyself, a wise old Greek once said. Know Thyself. Now what does this mean, boys and girls? It means, be what you are. Do not try to be Sally or Johnny or Fred next door; be yourself. God does not want a tree to be a waterfall, or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each one of us a special talent” (Updike 13). These words from Jimmy in the program make Janice and Rabbit to become unnaturally still and feel guilty. The mention of the name of God makes them cautious of their ways. They both realize that they are living a life that does not please God yet both of them are Christians. The words of Jimmy seem to speak to Jimmy directly. Rabbit does not know what exactly the “big Mouseketeer” means when he tells people to be what they are meant to be. Should Rabbit have opted to stick to basketball since this was his special talent? Should he quit his mediocre marriage and the sales job he has? (Duvall 39). For the first time, God’s name is mentioned in this novel and seemingly at an appropriate time. Despite all this, Updike does not seem to use Janice and Rabbit’s plight to condemn religion.
Later on, Updike introduces Jack Eccles, a minister, with an elaborate persona. Rabbit meets Eccles, and they exchange a handshake, which made him fearful and reflective. “Eccles’ handshake, eager and practiced and hard, seems to symbolize for him an embrace. For an instant, Rabbit fears he will never let go. He feels caught, foresees explanations, embarrassments, prayers, reconciliations rising up like dank walls; his skin prickles in desperation. He feels tenacity in his captor” (Updike 37). Rabbit appears to be wrestling with his faith. His blindness to reality is interfered by the presence of a priest in his life. The primary duty of Eccles in the life of Rabbit is to be a mediator. He comes to redeem the faults Rabbit has committed and still commits. Eccles seems to bring on the invisibility part of God’s acts to Rabbit. He tries to bring redemption to Rabbit by attempting to explain to him the meaning of hell and what entails. “Hell as Jesus described it is separation from God” (Updike 39). Since he had a sense of godliness in since childhood, Rabbit responds to this message by explaining to Eccles that they are all in it. “Well then we’re more or less in it.” Eccles’ final words show that he does not agree entirely with Rabbit about hell. He instead explains to him that he is faced with a serious problem of lacking his inner light, a real separation from God. He says, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. I don’t think even the blackest atheist has an idea of what real separation will be. Outer darkness. What we live in you might call” – he looks at Harry and laughs – “inner darkness” (Updike 40).
Eccles tries hard to convince Rabbit that he is not on the right track. He tells him to calm down and consider his ways, particularly his former state of marriage. He tries to help Rabbit to consider going back to his wife and son and maintain his previous marriage life. Eccles goes on to invite Rabbit to a golf game to help him relax and spend more time in convincing his inner soul. By playing golf, Eccles can identify Rabbit’s real thoughts and his inner self. From the golf game, Eccles is able to realize that Rabbit openly treats his life the same way he treats a game. He compares the objects of the game with his dear life. Rabbit “walks there, the bush damn somebody, his mother” (Updike 42). He demonstrates his weakness-an inner feeling of him being the center of everything. He is fearful of the people around him, including his mother. Eccles helps Rabbit to understand that he is a selfish and coward man. He runs away from the truth. He tells him that Christianity is not all about trying to be God, but trying to serve God his brings Rabbit to a point of more confusion. Eccles concludes his lesson to Rabbit by telling him the whole truth about his actions. “The truth is,” Eccles tells him with womanish excitement, in a voice agonized by embarrassment, “you’re monstrously selfish. You’re a coward. You don’t care about right or wrong; you worship nothing except your own worst instincts” (Updike 45). From Eccles’ perspective, Rabbit is not on the right track. Changing his life will have a positive influence on his inner man (Duvall 43). He will be able to see the light again if only he agrees to the demands of the priest and accepts the truth of God.
In most parts of this novel, Rabbit appears gloomy, sad, disappointed, and resentful. Even his rebellious move to drive out of the suburb is a huge failure. His return trip seems to be comfortable and more enjoyable than a trip to Brewer. Updike uses the aspect of running to give the reader a perception of desperation in the life of Rabbit (Cary 85). Rabbit is unable to cope up with the stillness he is experiencing in his house after he watches an informative program that mentions God in it. He has a lot of bitterness for his wife, and his moral life is highly endangered. Thus, he decides to run away by giving an excuse of picking up his son and the car at his mother in law’s house. After he lives his house, he gets the chance to run away from his ‘self’. Unfortunately, the outdoors seems to be growing dark and cool (Updike 17). The darkness experienced outside is a resemblance of the distress he experiences within his soul. Confusion takes toll on him as he walks down the streets and avenues towards his house. This confusion is explained by Rabbit’s inability to determine whether he will go for his son first or the car (Cary 75). Driving away has been used to reflect an escape from the stillness he experiences in his life. Rabbit loses his direction as he refills his tank at the fuel station. He is not sure about his direction, what his next activities are, or his feelings within him.
As he drives bravely down the highway, Rabbit realizes that the road is unraveling with exasperating slowness. This slowness causes him to get angry. “He realizes that the heat on his cheeks is anger” (Updike 21). Rabbit gets so angry that this influences his outward behavior. He performs several questionable things like swelling, grinding, and squashing. “The animal in him swells its protest that he is going west. His mind stubbornly resists. The only way to get somewhere is to decide where you’re going and go” (Updike 23). Rabbit suffers much from the pressure of loneliness and being lost in the dark road. His first search ends when he meets his former basketball coach who leads him to his house to rest. His body suffers extreme exhaustion and Tothero’s place seems to be the ideal location for him to have his rest before going on with his mission of running away.
Rabbit’s meeting with Ruth does not seem to offer any better life for him. He still experiences darkness inwardly. A closer observation of him does not provide any significant differences in his life due to the presence of his newfound love Ruth. His inward light does not shine even in his new status. His outward darkness is still evident, and his inner part still craves for nourishment (Gillenwater 2). As much as Rabbit enjoys sexual satisfaction with Ruth, he does not see any light. His external world turns invisible to him. Going to church on Sunday does not bring any difference to his inner soul despite the fact that him, Ruth, Janice are Christians. “…it seems a visual proof of the unseen world” (Updike 35). This indicates a world that is not familiar to Ruth and Rabbit. Rabbit is drowned up in thoughts. He feels like he is “hung in the middle of nowhere, thought hollows him, makes his heart tremble”(Updike 36). Ruth appears insignificant to his inner world (Gillenwater 3). One can readily perceive that despite the newness of his world with Ruth, he is still doubtful of a better life ahead. A life filled with gratitude, the peace of the family, and doing what he likes playing basketball.
Rabbit, run is a novel that depicts the gift of sensitivity to the life of the main character-Rabbit (Duvall 17). Reading through the chapters helps the reader to realize that as much as he is going through difficulty in trying to find his way out of the loop, Rabbit is a sensitive person. At the beginning of the novel, he recognizes that it is the month of March. “The month of March. Love makes the air light. Things start anew.” He senses newness and love in the air. Updike goes on to express Rabbit’s experience, “Rabbit tastes sour after the smoke of the fresh chance in the air, plucks the pack of cigarettes from his hobbling shirt pocket, and without breaking stride cans it in somebody’s open barrel” (Updike 23). Much can be sensed from this sentence. First, there is a sudden impulse for him to turn a new leaf (Ferreira & Mansur 5). The words reflect his strong will to stick to his decision in a split of a second without every turning back to the old. His body reveals so much power and ease to cooperate with the new decision despite the length of his addiction to cigarettes. He even tells his wife openly that he quit smoking without fear of losing the battle against addiction.
Rabbit’s sensitivity is also reflected in the way he is able to sense other people’s body language, as well as their bodies. He is able to notice that his wife’s body has started to deceive his craving for health and youthfulness. “Just yesterday, it seemed to him, she stopped being pretty, […] her mouth has become greedy. And her hair has thinned, so he keeps thinking of her skull under it” (Updike 3).
From the novel, we can readily perceive that Rabbit is a focused person. Whatever he decides, he does it with all his heart regardless of the challenges he experience ahead. A goal set for him must be accomplished. Rabbit quits smoking for one instance. He does not look back on whether he will get back to his cravings or not. Once he decides to throw away his cigarettes on his way home, he makes it a goal not to go back to smoking. He even wonders why some people find smoking exciting after he quits (Martinez 41). Rabbit is bold enough to break this news to his wife who asks him for a packet of cigarette. As much as his wife ridicules him, he does not feel offended but rather determined to maintain his new status (Ferreira and Mansur 6). This is evident when he meets his former basketball coach Tothero and breaks the news of his decision to him. When he is offered some cigarette he out rightly refuses the offer at the bar with Margaret and Ruth.
His determination for a new life is also evident when he decides to run away from his dark past of a bad marriage (Updike 24). He gives the excuse of going for the car and child, and in the process runs away to an unknown place. He is so focused to escape that he looks for maps on his way and decides to drive as far as he can. Rabbit decides to make friendship with a different woman-Ruth. He hopes to find some new life and light in his inner soul. He befriends Ruth with the sole purpose of finding a new beginning in his life. This makes him separate from his wife Janice. Efforts by Eccles to reconcile Janice and Rabbit are not fruitful, Rabbit maintaining his focus on finding a new life for himself.
Updike’s use of perception in Rabbit, Run makes this novel an interesting piece. According to Martinez, perception helps the reader to identify the inner qualities of the characters and determine their views on a different agenda in the society (Martinez 110). From this, the reader can realize that Rabbit is a challenged man. His life is filled with different kinds of challenges and pain beginning with his marriage. His conversation with his wife clearly expresses the fact that he is not happily married even in his young age. At 26, it is evident that he still craves for his past life. He admires his youthful life of playing basketball without any fears whatsoever. Updike, in his writing through perception, helps the reader to understand the fact that Rabbit tends to run away from the realities of his life. He lives in a dark inner world (Ferreira and Mansur 4). His soul suffers some inward pain, which he does not know the right solution for it. His priest tries to help him resolve his issues, but he hits a snag on his attempt. From a close read of this novel, Updike opens up the reader’s mind by revealing to him or her that life on the outside is not a reflection of life on the inside. As much as Rabbit lived in a suburb, he did not enjoy his life much in wealth and peace.
Cary, Jonathan, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014. Print.
Duvall, John. The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Ferreira, Luiz and Mansur, Miriam. Run and Milton’s Paradise Lost. 2010. 13 December 2014.
Gillenwater, Cary. Lost Literacy: How Graphic Novels Can Recover Visual Literacy in the Literacy Classroom. Afterimage, Vol. 37, No. 2, October 2009.
Martinez, Jonathan. Art & Humanities – Professional Essays and Assignments: Architecture, Art History, Artist, Censorship, Criticism & theory, Linguistics, Literature, Theology, US Government Essay. NY: Jonathan Martinez, 2014. Print.
Updike, John Rabbit, Run. NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
Updike, John. Rabbit, Run Summary, and Analysis. 2010. Web. 13 December, 2014.