John Updike’s Rabbit, Male Alienation, and the Fear of Intimacy

In the acclaimed 1986 film, Hoosiers, Myra Fleener observes that “a basketball hero around here is treated like a god.” Speaking about the town’s star, Jimmy Chitwood, she says, “I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.” John Updike, the late American novelist and cultural critic, has shown a willingness to take on the godship of the male athlete and the loneliness that comes with it after the stardom dies, as it inevitably does.

In “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” John Updike’s well-received essay about Ted Williams, he writes that baseball “is an essentially lonely game.” He also argues that Williams’ “craftsmanship, his rigorous pride, had become itself a kind of heroism.” For better or worse, that language — craftsmanship, pride, heroism — is often associated with and about men. Updike’s fascination with the loneliness of baseball extends to fans. While watching Williams’ last game at Fenway Park in Boston, Updike notices “one of those frowning, chestless young-old men who can frequently be seen, often wearing sailor hats, attending ball games alone.” Perhaps those fans are also the ones who — according to Updike’s poem “Male Voices, From Below” — discuss mostly the “monotony” of “who should / have been traded for whom, and who / isn’t worth a dime of his salary.”

Readers of Updike’s novels know that Updike’s interest in male alienation extends beyond essays about baseball. As Updike has said, “Our condition is basically one of anxiety, of lostness.” Admittedly, I would be less interested in this story and its themes if I did not feel like it, at least to some extent, puts a mirror up to myself. Henry Angstrom, or Rabbit as he is called, is the protagonist of Updike’s most famous and criticized fiction: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001). Of the five, I have only read Rabbit, Run, in which Harry flees his pregnant wife, Janice, cohabits with a prostitute, then returns as his wife births their child in the hospital. In Rabbit, Run, Harry, who “hates being disliked” and “is seeking what you never find” weaves in and out of relationships, but is, at least psychologically, alone.

The beginning of knowing Rabbit as a man and as a character is to see him as a former basketball star. He has been treated as a god, and thus “spoiled by his athletic successes,” according to the narrator, who also says, “They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him.”

But Rabbit has not forgotten his stardom and neither has his former Coach, Tothero. Both characters boast freely to unimpressed peers about those memories. Tothero calls Rabbit his “greatest boy” and tells Rabbit he “did more for me than I did for you.” That adults still remember and bask in Rabbit’s stardom is an annoyance to Rabbit’s mistress, Ruth. She tells him, “You have it pretty good…Oh all the world loves you…What I wonder is why?” But Rabbit sees it differently: “I’m not much good for anything now, but I really was good at (basketball),” drawing an important distinction between his present life and his past one. Apparently, after wowing crowds with his athletic skills, selling kitchen materials is not fulfilling for Rabbit, and neither is marriage. Scholar Jack Moore also acknowledges the distinction between Rabbit’s basketball life and everything else: “The inevitable question about Rabbit concerns whether or not he is a failure in life.” I suspect this is one of the central questions that most men deal with.

There is a disconnect between Rabbit’s sexual life and his emotional presence (or lack of it). His world is one, as Larry Taylor puts it in “Married Men and Magic Tricks,” of “desertion of a wife; domestic ugliness and disorder; alcoholic sorrow following hard on the heels of adultery.” Leaving a pregnant wife may not be the unforgivable sin, but it does invoke judgment from readers and other characters in the novel. But Tothero advises him, “Do what your heart commands. Your heart is our only guide.” We hear cliches like this one often, and serves as great justification and permission to flee the intimacy of marriage, more than once. Or perhaps it was as much his head that leads him to his decisions: “His life seems a sequence of grotesque poses assumed to no purpose, a magic dance empty of belief. There is no God; Janice can die: the two thoughts come at once, in one slow wave.” Later, he “does not know why (he) left,” which suggest a deep internal confusion. Who among us cannot relate? His dilemma comes right out of his Christian New Testament: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). As a pained Ruth tells him, “You love being married to everybody,” which of course ultimately equals being married to nobody at all.

He tries to explain his dilemma to Eccles, an Episcopalian priest: “I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate.” Anything looked good but what he had: “Harry has often wanted and never had a girl like that, a little Catholic from a shabby house, dressed in flashy bargain clothes.” And “all of a sudden it hit (him) how easy it was to get out, just walk out, and by damn it was easy.” He opts for a mechanical version of sexuality, which Updike describes liberally. But as Baylor professor Ralph Wood observes, “Even Rabbits sexual life with…Ruth has turned stale and predictable.” And so, to a compliant Ruth who loves him, he eventually demands: “Listen. Tonight you turned against me. I need to see you on your knees. I need you to…do it.”

To read Rabbit, Run solely as a condemnation of Rabbit’s sexual infidelities does a disservice to Rabbit’s psyche and the moral dilemma involved. Jeff Cambell explains that “all (Updike’s) books are meant to be moral debates with the reader.” Wood adds, “Updike refuses to censure Rabbit as a moral scoundrel, neither does he endorse him as an exemplar of the moral life.” If not a moral scoundrel, what then, are we to make of Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run? It is a vicious cycle, this high from athletic godship, which leads to dissatisfaction. The dissatisfaction becomes an existential quest, and for this purpose, Updike cleverly works in Eccles, a priest with a little bit of a savior complex, out to save Rabbit’s and Janice’s marriage.

From the glimpse readers get of Eccles’ marriage and relationship with his father, it is apparent that he has his own manhood issues to sort out, even as he tries to play the heroic moral compass for Rabbit. We are told that Eccles’ father and grandfather had vicious theological arguments from their “Darwinian Deist” and “Anglo-Catholic” positions, respectively. Eccles admits to Rabbit that “You know how it is with fathers, you never escape the idea that maybe after all they’re right.” The narrator later acknowledges that for all Eccles’ activity in his parish and world, “he doesn’t believe anything.” Sanford Pinsker calls him a “church failure.” Seeing all of this, the reader cannot help but be as troubled by Eccles as he is by Rabbit. His telling Rabbit’s father that “There’s a great deal of goodness in your son,” might be true, but coming from a befuddled priest who “goes to the weaker side of a fight almost automatically” does not add to its credibility. Needless to say, Eccles does not possess much in the way of wholeness, let alone the answers Rabbit is looking for.

In the end, Rabbit does what he does best. He runs. Undoubtedly, he has left behind a wake of devastated characters, but this time they are probably less surprised. Running is the pattern that develops out of his shame, confusion, disappointment, and moral directionless. As Taylor observes, Rabbit “(daydreams) a new life for himself and then (moves) in to fill its perimeters.”

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