35 John Updike: Rabbit, Run

Ms. Monikinkini Basu

epgp books



John Hoyer Updike born on March 18, 1932 and died on January 27, 2009. He was a novelist, poet, short story writer, art and literary critic. Updike’s most famous series of works is his “Rabbit” series which includes the novels Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and the novella Rabbit Remembered, which is almost a chronicle of the life of the middle-class common man Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over  the  course  of  several  phrases,  i.e.,  from  young  adulthood  to  death.  Both Rabbit Is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) were recognised by the critics and Updike received the Pulitzer Prize for it as well. He is one of only three authors the others being, Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once. He published above twenty novels and more than a dozen short stories in the form of collections, accompanied by poetry, art criticism, literary criticism and children’s books. His stories, reviews, and poems often appeared in The New Yorker starting in the year 1954. He also wrote for The New York Review of Books.


Updike described his subject as “American small town, Protestant middle class”, and was well recognized for his careful craftsmanship of his plots and characters, his uniqueness of prose style, and his dexterity. Updike formulated his fiction with characters that “frequently experience personal turmoil and responds to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity.” His fiction is distinguished by its notion about the concerns, passions, and suffering of average Americans; its emphasis on Christian theology; and its dealings with sexuality and sensual detailing. His work has gained him a significant amount of critical attention and common reader’s praise, and he is widely considered to  be  one  of  the  greatest American writers of his time. Updike’s highly characteristic prose style features a rich, unusual, sometimes disjoint vocabulary as is conveyed through the eyes of “an intelligent authorial voice” that extravagantly goes on to describe the physical world, while remaining distinctly in the realist tradition. He described his style to be an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”


Life and Times of Updike:


Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the only child of Linda Grace and Wesley Russell Updike, John was  raised  in  the  nearby  small  town  of Shillington. The  family  later  moved  to  the village called Plowville. His mother’s attempted to become a published writer and this impressed the young Updike. “One of my earliest memories”, he later recalled, “is of seeing her at her desk… I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter, eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in—and come back in.”


His early  years  in Berks  County, Pennsylvania,  influenced  the  environment  of  the  Rabbit series, along with many of his early novels and short stories. Updike had graduated from the Shillington High School as co-valedictorian and class president in 1950 and went   to Harvard with a full scholarship. At Harvard, he soon became famous among his classmates as a talented and prolific contributor to the Harvard Lampoon, of which he was the president. He graduated in 1954 with a degree in English. After his graduation, Updike attended The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford with the intention of becoming a cartoonist. After his return to the United States, Updike and his family moved to New York, where he became a regular contributor to The New Yorker. This was the advent of his writing career which he took as a profession.


Updike stayed at The New Yorker as a full time staff writer for only two years, writing “Talk of the Town” columns and submitting poetry and short stories to the magazine division. In New York, Updike wrote the poems and stories that came to be published in his early books like The Carpentered Hen (1958) and The Same Door (1959). These works were influenced by Updike’s early assignments with The New Yorker. This early work also featured the influence of J. D. Salinger; John Cheever; and the Modernists like Marcel Proust, Henry Green, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.


At this time, Updike went through a profound spiritual crisis. Suffering from a loss of faith in religion, he began reading Kierkegaard and the theologian Barth. Both deeply influenced his own religious beliefs, and therefore figured prominently in his fiction. Updike returned as a believing Christian till the end of his life.


Later, Updike along with his family shifted to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Impressions of Updike’s daily life in Ipswich during the 1960s and 1970s are included in a letter published soon after Updike’s death and written by a friend and contemporary. In Ipswich, Updike wrote Rabbit, Run (1960), on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and The Centaur (1963), two of his most acclaimed and popular works; the latter won the National Book Award.


Rabbit, Run featured Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball favourite and a middle-class paragon who went on to become Updike’s most popular and critically acclaimed character. Updike wrote three complementary novels about him. Rabbit, Run was presented in Time ’s All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels.


Updike’s career and popularity were nurtured and expanded by his long association with The New Yorker that published his works frequently throughout his lifetime of writing, despite the fact that he had left his job with the magazine after only two years. The New Yorker, particularly in the 1930s and throughout the 1980s, reached a wide, informed and literate audience with emphasis on writers, artists and thinkers on the eastern coast, where most of its readers also resided. The New Yorker was also read by readers throughout the United States, including states as far away such as Texas and California, who viewed it as an access point to the literary and intellectual concerns that was not just limited to the eastern states, but also extended to the entire nation. For many decades, it was one of the most pre-eminent publishing forums for the American short story, a genre at which Updike outshone most of his contemporaries, and it continued to publish shorter fiction long after many other publications had ceased to express any interest in publications. Until the 1960s, there were many of popular magazines which published short fiction but gradually as magazines directed their attention to the “targeted” or special interest of audiences whose prime interest was towards advertisers; short fiction began to fall behind in popularity. As the number of publishers declined rapidly, the importance of appearing in The New Yorker rose. Updike’s short story output found a great market with The New Yorker, which, in turn, introduced him to a wide and  alert  reading  public.  The  Maple  short  stories,  collected  in Too  Far  To  Go (1979), reflected the ups and downs of Updike’s first marriage; “Separating” (1974) and “Here Come the Maples” (1976) were pertaining to Updike’s divorce. Those stories were the base for the television movie also called Too Far To Go, broadcast by NBC in 1979. Two other novels from this period, A  Month  of  Sundays (1975),  the  first  in  Updike’s  so-  called Scarlet Letter trilogy; and Marry Me: A Romance (1976), are also observations on adultery.


Updike published a sequel to Rabbit, Run called Rabbit Redux, in 1971. His response to the 1960s; Rabbit reflected much of Updike’s ambivalence towards the social and political changes that beset the United States during that time. After his early novels, Updike became most famous for his presenting through his works, the concepts of infidelity, adultery, and marital unrest, especially in suburban America; and for his controversial depiction of the confusion and freedom inherent in this crumbling of the social structure. He once wrote that it was “a subject which, if I have not exhausted, but it has exhausted me.” The most prominent of Updike’s novels of this genre is Couples (1968), a novel that talks about about adultery in a family living in a small fictional Massachusetts town called Tarbox. It furnished Updike with an appearance on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society.” Both the magazine article and, the novel struck a chord of a kind of national concern over the American society’s abandoning of all social standards of conduct in sexual matters. The  Coup (1978), a novel about an African dictatorship inspired by a visit he made to Africa, however found Updike working in new territory.


In the year 1980, he published another  novel  featuring  the  character  Rabbit,  it  was  called, Rabbit Is Rich, which won him the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—all of three major American literary prizes. The novel found “Rabbit [as] the fat and happy owner of a Toyota dealership.” Updike found it difficult to end the book, because he was “having so much fun” in the imaginary county  that Rabbit and his family inhabited.


After writing Rabbit Is Rich, Updike published The Witches of Eastwick (1984), a playful novel about witches who lived in Rhode Island. He addressed it as an attempt to “make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors.” One of Updike’s most popular novels, it was adapted as a film and included on Harold Bloom’s list of Canonical 20th- Century Literature. In 2008, Updike published The Widows of Eastwick, a return to the story of the witches in their old age. This was his last published novel. In 1986, he published the out-of  the-box  novel Roger’s  Version,  the  second  volume  of  the  so-called Scarlet   Letter trilogy, it was regarding an attempt to prove God’s existence using a computer program. Author and critic, Martin Amis called it a “near-masterpiece.” The novel S. (1989), featuring a female protagonist, concluded Updike’s reworking on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.


In 1990, he published the last Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, in which his protagonist died. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Over 500 pages long, the novel is among Updike’s most celebrated creations. In 2000, Updike included the novella “Rabbit Remembered” in his collection Licks of Love, drawing a final closure to the Rabbit saga. His Pulitzers for the two final Rabbit novels make him one of only three writers to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, his other two peers being William Faulkner     and Booth Tarkington. In 1995, Everyman’s Library collected and canonized the four novels as the omnibus Rabbit Angstrom, for which Updike wrote a preface in which he described Rabbit as “a ticket to the America all around me. What I saw through Rabbit’s eyes was more worth telling than  what  I  saw  through  my  own,  though  the  difference  was  often  slight.” Updike later called Rabbit “a brother to me, and a good friend. He opened me up as a writer.”


After the publication of the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit at Rest, Updike spent the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s publishing novels in various genres; the work of this period was frequently experimental in nature. His styles covered the historical fiction of Memories of the Ford     Administration (1992),     the magic-realism of Brazil (1994),      the      science fiction of Toward  the  End   of   Time (1997),   the postmodernism of Gertrude   and Claudius (2000), and the experimental fiction of Seek My Face (2002).


In the midst of these, he wrote what was for him a more conventional novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), a historical saga with a span of several generations and exploring themes   of religion and cinema in America. It is considered to be the most famous novel of Updike’s late career. In Villages (2004), Updike returned to the familiar territory of infidelities in New England. In 2003, Updike published The Early Stories, a large collection of his shorter fiction spanning the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. This lengthy volume nevertheless had excluded several stories found in his short-story collections of the same period.

Updike worked in a wide array of genres, including fiction, poetry (most of it compiled        in Collected Poems: 1953–1993, 1993), essays (collected in nine volumes), a play, Buchanan Dying, 1974; and a memoir, Self-Consciousness, 1989.


Updike won awards his entire lifetime, including two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle awards, both the 1989 National Medal of Arts and 2003 National Humanities Medal, and the Rea Award for the Short Story for outstanding achievement. At the end of his life, Updike was working on a novel about St. Paul and early Christianity. Upon his death, The New Yorker published an appreciation on Updike’s lifetime association with the magazine, addressing him as, “one of the greatest of all modern writers, the first American writer since Henry James to get himself fully expressed, the man who broke the curse of incompleteness that had haunted American writing.”

A List of his Works

Rabbit novels

(1960) Rabbit, Run

(1971) Rabbit Redux

(1981) Rabbit Is Rich

(1990) Rabbit at Rest

(1995) Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels

(2001) Rabbit Remembered (a novella in the collection Licks of Love) Bech books

(1970) Bech, a Book

(1982) Bech Is Back

(1998) Bech at Bay

(2001) The Complete Henry Bech

Buchanan books

(1974) Buchanan Dying (a play)

(1992) Memories of the Ford Administration (a novel)

Eastwick books

(1984) The Witches of Eastwick

(2008) The Widows of Eastwick The Scarlet Letter Trilogy

(1975) A Month of Sundays

(1986) Roger’s Version

(1988) S.

Other novels

(1959) The Poorhouse Fair

(1963) The Centaur

(1965) Of the Farm

(1968) Couples

(1977) Marry Me

(1978) The Coup

(1994) Brazil

(1996) In the Beauty of the Lilies

(1997) Toward the End of Time

(2000) Gertrude and Claudius

(2002) Seek My Face

(2004) Villages

(2006) Terrorist

Rabbit, Run 


Rabbit, Run was published in 1960. He wrote three more Rabbit novels, each one at the end of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s respectively. He considered these novels to have become “a running report on the state of my hero and his nation.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for the “final” two books. But,  the  series  actually  continued  after  Rabbit’s  death  in  Updike’s  2001  novella, Rabbit, Remembered. In the year 2006, the Rabbit series was voted number four     on The New York Times list  of  “the  best  work  of  American  fiction  of  the  past  25 years.” Rabbit, Run was also selected by Time magazine as one of the top 100 books from 1923-2005. And the novel is listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most frequently banned books in the 20th century. Rabbit, Run touches on some delicate issues, like prostitution, male and female orgasms, alcoholism, adultery, , homosexuality (though only briefly and ambiguously), birth control, and abortion. Rabbit, Run also has lots of conversations between people arguing about different Christian philosophies, a main character with a complex relationship with Christ, a couple of atheists, and even a Freudian.


Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is 26, he has a job of selling a kitchen gadget named Magi Peeler, and is married to Janice, a former salesgirl at the store where they both worked and who is currently pregnant. They have a two-year-old son named Nelson, and live in Mount Judge, a suburban area around Brewer, Pennsylvania. He is confident that his marriage is corrupt and something is absent in his life: Having been a basketball player in high school and very popular for the same, Harry finds his middle-class family life unsatisfying. On the heat of the moment, he decides to leave his family and drive down south in an attempt to “escape”. However, after getting lost, he returns to his home town and decides against returning to his family, and instead visits his old basketball coach, Marty.


That night, Harry takes his dinner with Marty and two girls, one of whom, Ruth, is a part- time prostitute. Harry and Ruth begin a two-month affair and thereafter he soon moves into her apartment. During this time,  Janice  moves  back  into  her  parents’  house  and  the  local priest, Jack Eccles, befriends Harry with a futile aim to get him to reconcile with his wife. Nonetheless, Harry remains with Ruth until the night he learns that she had a passing affair with his high school nemesis, Ronnie Harrison. Enraged, Harry pressures Ruth into performing fellatio on him. The same night, Harry learns that Janice is in labour, and he leaves Ruth to visit his wife at the hospital.


Reunited with Janice, Harry returns home with her and their daughter, named Rebecca. Harry attends church one morning and, after walking with the minister’s wife Lucy home, interprets her invitation to come in for a coffee as a sexual invitation. When he declines the invitation for coffee, stating that he has a wife, she angrily slams the door on him. Harry returns home, and, happy about the birth of his daughter, tries to reconcile with Janice. He encourages her to have a drink, then, misreading her mood, pressurises her to have sex despite her postnatal condition. When she refuses and accuses him of treating her like a prostitute, Harry leaves her, yet again, in an attempt to resume his relationship with Ruth. But finding her apartment empty, he spends the night at a hotel.


The next morning, still distraught with Harry departing, Janice gets drunk and accidentally drowns Rebecca June in the bath tub. People come to know of the accident, except Harry and gather at Janice’s parents’ home. Reverend Eccles shares the news of his daughter’s death, and Harry returns home immediately, although in a somewhat aloof way. Tothero later visits Harry and suggests that the thing he is looking for probably does not exist. At Rebecca June’s funeral, both Harry’s internal and external conflicts result in a sudden proclamation of his innocence in the baby’s death. He then runs from the graveyard, pursued by Jack Eccles, until he gets lost.


Harry returns to Ruth and learns that she is pregnant by him. Though Harry is relieved to discover she has not had an abortion, but he is unwilling to divorce Janice. Harry abandons Ruth, still missing the feeling he has attempted to grasp during the course of the novel; his fate is uncertain as the novel concludes.


The text of the novel went through several rewrites. Knopf originally required Updike to cut some “sexually explicit passages,” but he restored and rewrote the book for the 1963 Penguin edition and again for the 1995 Everyman’s omnibus edition. Though it had been done earlier, as in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Albert Camus’ The Fall, Updike’s novel is noted as being one of several well regarded, early usages of the present tense in writing. Updike stated:

In Rabbit, Run, I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.


Time magazine included the novel in its Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

you can view video on John Updike: Rabbit, Run