John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ Saga
by Ralph C. Wood
Ralph C. Wood's most recent book is The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Notre Dame). This article appeared in the Christian Century January 20, 1982, p. 50. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
At the beginning of this decade and each of the past two, John Updike has published a novel about Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, his prototypical American character who embodies the fears and hopes, the vices and virtues, of our age. Now with the release of Rabbit Is Rich (Knopf, 467 pp., $13.95), it is fair to say that Updike’s “Rabbit” books are forming an American saga. Indeed, Rabbit Angstrom is becoming as definitive a figure for our cultural consciousness as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and William Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin. But while these earlier heroes inhabit a world now irrecoverable, Rabbit dwells in our time, in our place. To follow Updike’s continuing account of Rabbit’s life is to relive our own lives, to see our own era re-imaged and appraised, and to be called to our own self-assessment.
Yet Updike’s vision of our world is not something obvious and cheering. It is at once wittily comic and soberly tragic, radically religious and unstintingly secular, almost pornographically sexual but finally committed to married love. No wonder many readers have been perplexed and the critics often unkind. With the approach of Updike’s 50th birthday, and with the publication of this his 25th book, it is time to offer an assessment of his work as a whole: to trace his natively Lutheran vision of life as cast by God into an indissoluble ambiguity, to examine his treatment of death and sex as the two phenomena wherein the human contradiction is most sharply focused, to set this new novel in relation to the earlier “Rabbit” books, and to determine what is religiously troubling and compelling about Updike’s art.
When Updike speaks, therefore, of having a primary concern for “suburban or rural, unpolitical man, he is not disdaining interest in our present public crisis. He is declaring his deeper allegiance to the universal struggle which perplexes the human heart regardless of social circumstances, and which an overpoliticized approach to life threatens to obscure. Precisely in this regard Updike is a religious novelist. In his view, it is God himself who renders our existence double, who plants us amid contraries, and who thus ensures the, taut oppositions without which life would go slack and lose interest.
Updike’s dialectical vision seems to have been shaped decisively by his Lutheran upbringing, and especially by his reading of those two latter-day Lutherans Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. The Lutheran doctrine of the two. kingdoms becomes, for Updike as for Kierkegaard, a way of interpreting the self. That human, beings cannot thrive as happy animals, but are both plagued and blessed with a self-reflexive mind, points to God’s existence: Someone has set us on this perilous tightwire stretched between finitude and infinity. Updike’s characters believe in God if only because of their guilt and anxiety. Their discontent implies that their lives are not godlessly accidental but divinely decreed.
With Tillich, moreover, Updike believes that we must plummet into sin if we are to be truly human. Existence equals fallenness. The plunge into evil, is not merely inevitable but necessary, and the apple of iniquitous knowledge must be bitten willfully. “Unfallen Adam is an ape,” Updike declares. “The. heart prefers to move against the grain of circumstance,” he adds in an almost Faustian boast; “perversity is the soul’s very life.” Updike speaks thus of being “branded with the Cross,” for it is the giant X canceling all swinish adjustment to the world. And faith signifies, for him, a gracious acceptance of our fundamental ambiguity, a steadfast refusal to leap out of the inescapable quandary which our mortality and sexuality force upon us.
Updike’s fiction has been obsessed with death ever since his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, described a group of elderly people facing their slow doom in a nursing home. Alone among self-conscious creatures, we humans can anticipate our own death; and this fatal knowledge casts a shadow over the whole of life. Because death calls everything into radical doubt, Updike’s characters regard it as the great evil. They tremble not so much at the prospect of pain as at their own annihilation. Their pagan dread of mortality issues in an equally pagan desire for earthly life to continue beyond death. In a sermon devoted ostensibly to the resurrection, Thomas Marshfield, the narrator-priest of A Month of Sundays, declares that
we do not want to live as angels in ether, our bodies are us, us; and our craving for immortality is . . . not for transformation into a life beyond imagining but for our ordinary life, the mundane life we so driftingly and numbly live, to go on forever and forever. The only Paradise we can imagine is this earth. The only life we desire is this one.
Updike does not flinch at making God responsible for the deaths that undermine our confidence in the goodness of life. His God is as much hidden as revealed, the worker of terror as well as wonder. On the one hand, the earth is full of a glory that prompts Updike’s characters to Lutheran meditations on “the teleologic bias in things.” On the other hand, they complain against what Luther called “the left hand of God”: the divine bungling that blotches an otherwise splendid creation. Updike’s dying President James Buchanan confesses what seems to be his author’s own protest: “I am not troubled by the sins of men, who are feeble; I am troubled by the sins of God, who is mighty.”
Sexual passion is, for Updike, our chief means of silencing the dread of death. “Only in being loved,” he asserts, “do we find external corroboration of the supremely high valuation each ego secretly assigns itself.” Sex is thus bound up with “the Promethean protest” forced upon the human animal who knows it must die. This is what gives sex its “huge but not all-eclipsing” dimension in our lives. It also accounts for Updike’s intention to bring sex both out of the closet and off the altar, and thus to reveal sexuality as “a function of, rather than a suspension of, personality.”
The problem is that our new sexual freedom, though a valid corrective to the old repression, knows no limits. With the decline of traditional connubial fidelity, once sanctioned by church and state alike, sex becomes a surrogate deity. Indeed, the sexual revolution is a direct correlate of the contemporary eclipse of God. As one of the new amoralists says in Couples, these secular swingers “make a church of each other.” Adultery is their only sacrament, and they celebrate it with abandon in their “post-pill paradise.”
Yet no sooner have these wantons created an earthly heaven from their sexual pleasure than it ends in hellish misery and recrimination. The keenest Updike paradox is that within marriage, sex turns stale and routine but outside it, passion become demonic and destructive. Only within the bonded love of life-companionship can the vagaries of sexual desire be channeled toward productive ends: children brought to moral maturity, a household established for the good of others as well as one’s own, a vocation or career sustained by mutual self-sacrifice. But the spouse who gives sex its moral and spiritual consequence also constricts romantic adventure. And thus does the ambiguity loop endlessly back upon itself.
Marriage, therefore, is a microcosm of the struggle that characterizes all of life: the conflict between the individual and society, freedom and necessity, the head and the heart, faith in God and the impulses of one’s own sweet will. Far from the ‘sensualist and pornographer that he is often accused of being, Updike is our premier novelist of marriage. There are virtually no playboys or penthouse girls in Updike’s fiction, for the obvious reason that their sex is not significant. He cares only for those unhappy adulterers who cannot leave their husbands and wives as though the marriage vows meant nothing. In marriage the ethical and religious tensions of life are stretched to the breaking point. There as nowhere else we confront the irreconcilable opposites which must be accepted and endured rather than be resolved.
It is in his three “Rabbit” novels that John Updike brings this dialectical vision to its most brilliant expression. Rabbit, Run (1960) provided our first acquaintance with Harry Angstrom, the harried and anxious youth yearning to be free from all shackling commitments and responsibilities. He is a former high school basketball hero whose boyhood dream of greatness and glory is withering amid the dullness and mediocrity of adult life. The conformity of the Eisenhower era puts intolerable limits on his sexual fantasies. Rabbit wants to get out, to run.
Like most of Updike’s protagonists, Rabbit Angstrom is a version of his creator. He shares not only Updike’s eastern Pennsylvania milieu but also the author’s stark confessional honesty. Rabbit tells all, and much of his unburdening makes for less than pleasant reading. Yet there is awful truth in Rabbit’s cynical thesis that “fraud makes the world go round,” and that to submit to it is to bury one’s soul. His job as a 26-year-old vegetable-peeler salesman is degrading. His wife, Janice, is turning slovenly with her endless drinking and television-watching. Their baby seems always to be crying. And the sexual exaltation they once knew has been reduced to something routine and predictable. In short, Rabbit has just cause for complaint.
Yet what can he do? Like a latter-day Huck Finn, Rabbit strikes out for his soul’s true West -- namely, for unfettered sexual freedom. He goes to live with a prostitute named Ruth. But Rabbit purchases his liberty at a terrible price. Drunken Janice, in despair at Rabbit’s abandonment of her, lets their infant daughter drown in the bathtub. And the poor harlot Ruth can hardly sustain Rabbit’s worship of her as his sexual goddess. Alas, she becomes pregnant with Rabbit’s child and prepares for an abortion. Rabbit the romantic thus sets out in search of greater life only to bring death into the world.
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that she had seldom encountered a more convincing portrait of damnation than Rabbit, Run. It is far from clear, however, that Updike himself agrees. The narrator so fully inhabits Rabbit’s own confused consciousness that we are not certain what to make of him. On the one hand, Rabbit seems clearly condemned for giving full rein to the “urgent inner whispers” which civilized people must hold tightly in check. He is an irresponsible dreamer who will not walk “the straight line of paradox” that makes suffering and sacrifice life-giving rather than soul-deadening.
On the other hand, Rabbit stands strangely justified in his inability to find a middle path between resignation to blighted hopes and the quest for a more intense life, between marital fidelity and sexual vitality. Better, Rabbit reasons, to flee than to conform; better to keep his spirit alive, even destructively, than to let it die in conventionality. Hence the imperative character of Updike’s title. Youth that he is, Rabbit must run.
The 35-year-old Rabbit we encounter in this second novel is a creature driven by the chaos of the ‘60s into radical self-contradiction. He finds joy and dignity in his job as a linotype operator. Yet he remains discontent with the prospect of upward mobility into middle-class mediocrity. Janice is no longer the dull bed partner she once was, having joined the sexual revolution herself. Yet with liberation also comes experimentation: she has her first affair, and Rabbit takes up with a flower child named Jill, who is young enough to be his daughter. He despises the Vietnam war protesters and black revolutionaries as antipatriotic ingrates seeking only their own aggrandizement. Yet he gives shelter to a nihilistic black political messiah named Skeeter. Rabbit makes splenetic denunciations of the new Narcissus culture, with its endless talk of “self-fulfillment” and “thinking with your whole person.” Yet he falls victim himself to “the lovingness of pot” and its soft, sweet world without angles or limits.
Despite his attempts to lose himself in the tribal life of the ‘60s counterculture, Rabbit cannot. And therein lies his hope. What he painfully learns is that “growth is betrayal,” that we abandon those who have given us life, that to live at all is to make choices and commitments which exclude the many roads and selves not taken, that human existence is thus an endless trail of guilt and harm which can be traveled only in perpetual confession and forgiveness.
Rabbit accepts such humbling truths only after venturing into the world of moral and spiritual anarchy, and finding death awaiting him there once more. Amid circumstances that make Rabbit partially responsible, his house burns down with the hapless Jill inside. Rabbit’s ultimate reconciliation with his estranged wife is thus far from a return to normality. The last scene reveals them in bed with each other for a change. But the flippant final “O.K.?” does not dispel the shadow that haunts Rabbit’s rehabilitation.
Rabbit Redux is Updike’s only angry novel. In general, his is a fiction of acceptance, even of benediction. His art is rooted in the largely unnoticed miracle of “things as they are.” The decade of the ‘60s, in contrast, was typified by strident demands for a radical alteration, even a wholesale remaking, of the moral and social order. As a novelist pre-eminently of the middle way, Updike seems to have found this era of apocalyptic extremes rather dreary and dead-ended. Rabbit Redux is his uncharacteristically testy response to the delusions of the age, and it is not one of Updike’s best books.
The absence of a social and political Armageddon makes this a more tranquil novel than the previous one. It is Updike’s account of the late ‘70s, when Watergate seemed already a remote event. Inflation and the oil crisis are the only public cataclysms affecting Harry’s life. Spiritually, however, it is a stagnant time, as Updike’s coarsened diction and blighted commercial landscape reveal. Nor does the outward calm still Harry’s inner tumult. Indeed, the novel is comically focused on his troubled status as the prosperous heir of his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership.
Financially secure for the first time in his life, Harry is hardly at ease with success. On the contrary, he buys South African gold as a safeguard against the relative worthlessness of Susan B. Anthony dollars. Then he swaps the Krugerrands for silver in fear that the price of gold will fall. But after he and Janice have lugged the satchels of silver from the exchange office to the bank, they discover that the cache of coins will not fit into their safety deposit box. The silver pieces roll wildly about the vault, forcing Harry to carry 300 of them home in his coat and also to ponder the meaning of his new wealth: “to be rich is to be robbed, to be rich is to be poor.”
Nor is it merely inflation that reminds Angstrom of his fundamental insecurity. The once-lithe athlete is now growing paunchy at age 44. Not only is America running out of gas; so is Harry. He is more death-conscious than ever, thinking constantly of the corpses that stare up at him from the ground. And in a poignant bedroom scene, Harry confesses to Janice that they are caught in the inescapable paradox of life: “Too much of it and not enough. The fear that it will end some day, and the fear that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.”
There is,. however, a good deal of the old romantic flame yet alight in Harry. He is still willing to strike out sexually for the territories. The carnality in this new Updike novel is thus rawer than ever. But it is also a funnier and sadder kind of sex. Angstrom keeps thinking of Consumer Reports when he ought to be concentrating on erotic matters. He pours his Krugerrands over his naked wife in the hope that their new money will arouse them as their old passion increasingly will not. But the spouse-swapping at the end is treated with none of the quasi-religious seriousness found in Couples. There is no attempt to deny what is silly and tragic and nihilistic about it.
With the middle-aged banking down of the body’s fire, Harry is learning that it is better to suffer the “daily seepage” than to let life rush out in a single foolish passion; better to stay at home than to run, Despite his often murderous thoughts about her, Harry is bound to Janice by all the trouble they have endured and survived. They are ineluctably married, and for better more than worse. The presence of Angstrom’s elderly mother-in-law also serves to remind them that their lives are not merely their own. Harry still chafes, of course, at the way the world is enclosing him ever more tightly. But his rage lacks its old bitterness and desperation. The surprise dawning on him is that his “inner dwindling” contains a new freedom, and that to be obligated is oddly to be liberated.
The main obstacle to Harry’s reconciliation with midlife decline is his own progeny. Nelson is still living at home, has not finished college, and has got his girlfriend pregnant. The son’s irresponsibility is exceedingly irksome to the elder Angstrom. And when Nelson tries to prove himself as a salesman at the Toyota agency, by marketing old gas-guzzling convertibles, the results are at once uproarious and pathetic. In a fit of fury at his father’s repeated humiliation of him, Nelson smashes the ancient clunkers, thus sending Harry into even crueler attacks on the boy’s many failures.
Harry is all the angrier because he sees that Nelson is repeating his own sorry history: the son is the father one generation removed. Finally Harry comes to confess the humbling truth. “I don’t like seeing you caught,” he blurts out to Nelson. “You’re too much me.” This freely acknowledged guilt marks Angstrom’s real progress. It is evident even in the final scene, where Harry is holding his new grandchild and complaining that she represents another nail in his coffin. But he is also obviously pleased to be cuddling the first member of the next Angstrom generation. Life in the ongoing “Rabbit” saga thus has not merely gone ‘round; it has moved at least a small pace forward. And Updike has brought his epic American character a very long way indeed: from Rabbit the scared and solipsistic youth fleeing life’s limits to Harry the middle-aged grandfather reluctantly accepting life’s essential ambiguity. Rabbit Angstrom has come of age.
Rabbit’s gradual spiritual advance is the product of Updike’s natural religion: his conviction that God is discovered, if at all, in the irresolvable dialectic of human existence. The world remains too ambiguous a place for Updike to call its underlying principle sola gratia. Faith must stand in permanent conflict with doubt, joy with sadness, comedy with tragedy, the revealed with the hidden God. This deity remains, moreover, a kind of Archimedean point wherewith Updike’s characters get leverage on life. Only as God is posited over against the world is there any check upon the omnivorous ego, any validation of its enormous self-importance, any growth beyond mere animal self-absorption.
This existential belief that God ensures the world’s final duality sets Updike off from Karl Barth, despite his supposed allegiance to the Basel dogmatician. Theologically, what is missing in Updike’s fiction is precisely Barth’s vision of life not as an endless conflict of opposites but as the realm of God’s redemptive victory over them. It is perhaps too much to demand of fiction that it make an orthodox declaration of faith. But it does seem fair to ask that a writer, especially one with Updike’s profound Lutheran sensibility, not decadently celebrate the absence of final solutions, nor nihilistically relish the agony of contraries.
Updike escapes such severe allegations whenever his fiction moves beyond the deadly antithesis of self-canceling polarities. Rabbit Is Rich makes such an advance. Harry Angstrom is indeed caught in the hard passage from youth to age, and he negotiates the narrow divide between the angels and the apes with only uncertain results. Yet he is not the same Rabbit we first met in 1960. Though often cowardly and cruel, he is also forgiving and forgiven. Though still obsessed with vague romantic longings, he now sees that he must live in the muddled midground between pleasure and responsibility. And while there may be no joyous prospect of Rabbit’s redemption, he has at least come to affirm the goodness of his God-ordained condition. In my view, therefore, John Updike is our finest literary celebrant both of human ambiguity and the human acceptance of it.