Jaclyn Geller

Guest Post by Jaclyn Geller

[Bella’s intro: If you are interested in marriage and its discontents, especially as represented in beautifully written literary novels, then you are probably a fan of John Updike. Volumes have been written about Updike, but I’m betting you have never seen anything quite like the essay about Rabbit, Run written by the brilliant Professor of English, Jaclyn Geller. She believes that Updike offered not just a critique of marriage, but of an entire ideology of marriage dominant in the 1950s. The protagonist of the Rabbit series, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, wants to run from marriage, but finds nowhere to run to.

This is the first part of Professor Geller’s long, thoughtful, beautifully-written essay. The last part, “How Today’s Marriage Mentality Is Still a Lot Like What John Updike Described in 1960,” is posted on my “Living Single” blog at Psychology Today.

I want to thank Professor Geller for the tremendous amount of work she put into the essay that she wrote specifically for the readers of my blogs. Jaclyn Geller is also the author of a book I love, Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique. Several years ago, I published a 3-part interview with her that was very popular. The first part was “Meet a brilliant, fearless, and funny satirist of the marriage mystique,” and includes links to the second and third parts.]

Where Could a Rabbit Run? What John Updike Shows About Marriage

Guest post by Jaclyn Geller

Never-married people have made amazing contributions to culture; anyone who doubts this should take a moment to reflect on Jane Austen, who basically created the repertoire of techniques used by modern novelists. Her juvenilia and six novels have spawned a critical industry, but they generated only thirteen reviews during her lifetime (1775-1817). Austen did, however, nurture protégés. In 1814, after the success of Pride and Prejudice, she was living in a communal household that included two other unwed women, in Hampshire County’s village of Chawton. At work on her next book, she found time to correspond with aspiring novelist Anna Austen, giving advice that distills realistic fiction-writing to its fundamentals: accuracy, polysemous description, and familiarity with one’s subject. She pointed out geographical problems with her niece’s manuscript: “Lyme will not do. Lyme is towards 40 miles distance from Dawlish & would not be talked of there.” Etiquette was misrepresented (“when Mr. Portman is first brought in he would not be introduced as the Honble”), and the setting of Ireland was wrong (“you know nothing of the manners there”). The young novice’s story was interlarded with surplus words: “You give too many particulars of right and left.” Fiction demanded accuracy, verisimilitude, and economy.

Like most sensible authors, John Updike followed these dicta. “I am drawn to southeastern Pennsylvania because I know how things happen there, or at least how they used to happen,” he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1968. “Once you have in your bones the fundamental feasibilities of a place, you can imagine there freely.” Updike’s 1960 novel, Rabbit, Run, presents Brewer: his dismal version of Reading. It’s a landscape of deserted factories with collapsed porches, dead flowers, dirty clapboard houses, toys moldering under dilapidated staircases, dark vestibules, odors of cooking cabbage, stained whiskey glasses, and cigarette smoke. These “particulars” show someplace caught in an unfortunate time warp; Brewer has post-war sexual mores without 1950s prosperity. This leaves Updike’s protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, doubly damned.

Twenty-six years old at the novel’s opening, Rabbit refers to himself as an old man. His days setting county basketball records are over. He can still make a ball sail through a hoop without touching the rim, but Rabbit has learned a grim reality that none of his teachers, teammates, or fans, mentioned; sinking a layup is a singular skill. No one pays you to do it after high school. And it doesn’t transfer to anything…other than sinking another layup.

Rabbit married his girlfriend three years before the story starts, because she was pregnant. We learn this through the technique Austen perfected, called “free indirect discourse,” where characters’ thoughts are filtered through a third-person narrator: “He married relatively late, when he was twenty-three and she was two years out of high school…with shy small breasts.” This is the narrator, but it’s Rabbit who sees twenty-three as an advanced age, remembers his wife’s breasts as “shy” (and now views her mouth as distastefully “greedy”). We know that twenty-three-year-olds are callow, and body parts don’t have feelings. But Rabbit’s nostalgic language comes through an objective teller. This provides immediacy and distance; we think as Rabbit thinks, feeling his sense of being prematurely washed up. Simultaneously, we view him from the outside. The presence of an omniscient speaker suggests something larger: the culture that shaped Rabbit’s beliefs. He accepts wedlock as inevitable and marriage as the fix for pregnancy. Prodded to skepticism by an ironizing narrative voice, we doubt both ideas.

Like Austen, Updike makes matrimony his main subject and satiric target. Marriage is recurrently depicted in Rabbit, Run, but it’s never celebrated. Instead of connubial bliss we see conjugal stalemate, beginning when Harry enters a run-down, messy apartment overseen by his spouse, who drifts through life in an alcohol-induced haze, watching children’s television programs and game shows. Janice Angstrom reports her day’s high points: buying a bathing suit and hearing that she looks tired. Rabbit jokes, “You’re supposed to look tired. You’re a modern housewife.” Janice doesn’t get it.

The exchange shows how mismatched Rabbit, Run’s main characters are. A sheltered scion of people more affluent than Rabbit, Janice never grasps his witticisms. Their interchange also indicates what she does professionally (nothing) and highlights the post-war obsession with convenience. Rabbit is mocking his job visiting five-and-dime stores to demonstrate the MagiPeel Kitchen Peeler, a time-saving gadget designed to make wives less tired. Three years after the publication of Rabbit, Run, Betty Friedan would diagnose domestic malaise as “the problem that has no name.” As if anticipating this critique of housewifery, Updike uses nuggets of dialogue to show someone fatigued by inactivity, whose culture solves her problem by intensifying it — making her life easier with an array of appliances, preservative-saturated foods, and cooking contraptions.

Unable to face another dinner of greasy pork chops and non-conversation, Rabbit leaves. Updike describes his departure — and all subsequent events — in the present tense, so episodes unfold dramatically before readers’ eyes. Given this choice, the novel’s title is confusing. Logically, it should be a declarative sentence with the present form of the verb “run:” Rabbit Runs. Or, it could take the present-progressive: Rabbit is Running. Instead, the title is an imperative sentence with Rabbit as the subject and “run” as the simple predicate. It’s telling the protagonist to run, fly, escape. From what?

Marriage ideology, as I read the novel. This is something larger than the yoking of incompatible adolescents, because coupling is the norm and she’s pregnant again. It’s the seemingly “natural” practice of matrimony that Rabbit is urged to flee, with a title whose urgency highlights his main limitation: an inability to analyze social customs. Showing what scholar Marshall Boswell calls the Eisenhower years’ “creepy all-encompassing conformity,” Rabbit, Run depicts collectivism that stamps out individuality in people like Harry Angstrom, who are intellectually limited without being simple and hanker for something but don’t know what it is. Updike crafts him, as Jane Austen shaded her potentially one-dimensional ingénues, with contradictions. Rabbit is personally fastidious but mentally sloppy, witty yet clueless, routine-driven and impulsive. He is physically aggressive and emotionally passive, consistently loyal but occasionally brutal. A nominal Christian, he has genuine religious thirst. Midway through the novel, he confesses to the man who becomes his confidante, Reverend Jack Eccles, “I don’t know all this about theology, but…I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this…there’s something that wants me to find it.” This force manifests itself in non-marital settings. Scrimmaging with a group of kids, Rabbit grips a basketball; its touch transforms his body and “gives his arms wings.” He becomes, temporarily, an angel. Janice lacks any yearning for the transcendent, so their relationship is doomed to asymmetry.

We sympathize with Rabbit as someone unlikely to find words for his inchoate yearnings. A college-education could help, but it’s not an option. He’s a working-class kid with slender resources, confined within a milieu of forced coupledom. Here, Rabbit is something of a commodity: not the prize he was, but still a trophy. Although his beautiful physique is in decline (tobacco addiction gets him winded when he runs), and his job yields no prospects, Harry Angstrom has cache. His culture is set up as a game of musical chairs, in which women learn that there is no greater shame than being the one left standing, without a partner. We’re told that a pale Scandinavian face and quick movements earned him his nickname but sense more in the moniker; rabbits are animals that dash aimlessly and land in traps. This everyman is prey — wedding-bait for a system that locks people in matrimonial roles. Angstrom, which contains the noun, “angst,” hints at the pain caused by such entrapment. Janice’s maiden name, Springer, has multiple resonances. It suggests the snare “sprung” for Rabbit and also highlights his attempts to “spring” himself loose, as he once sprinted down many a basketball court. Finally, it conjures up images of economic springtime; local muckety-mucks who own car dealerships, Rabbit’s in-laws are rising financially. His fortunes will improve if he returns and dons his “husband” mask.

Upward social mobility through wedlock was a standard plot by Austen’s time. Updike complicates it by having Rabbit defect. “After you’re first-rate at something…it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate,” he tells Reverend Eccles. “And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate.” Minimizing his marriage in the past tense when it’s still legal expresses certainty that rings false. He’ll strain against a future of enmeshment with someone cast as helpmate and companion, who functions as neither, but it seems, from the outset, that Rabbit will ultimately accept his role as family man, not because he likes Janice, or respects her, or believes in wedlock, but because there’s nothing else to do. Post-war Brewer offers no social alternatives, and he’s not inventive enough to create one. Everywhere, he encounters language that prescribes marriage as beneficial and people who direct him back to Janice. Brewerites see this woman as dull and slovenly but consider her entitled to devotion from a man who took vows. Their assumptions dovetail with twentieth-century advice literature: popular volumes like Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918) and Enduring Passion (1928), Paul Popenoe’s 1950s Ladies Home Journal column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”, and 1953 schema of psychologist R.J. Havinghurst, which made matrimony key to ego development. All promoted wedlock as an intimate sexual affair; Stopes castigated unwed life as a societal threat. Rabbit, Run shows the absurdity of such rhetoric. For Harry, Janice is not a lover but a stranger. “I don’t know what [Janice] feels,” he tells his reverend. “I never have.” The novel forces us to contemplate how many actual Americans, pushed up the aisle when they were barely adults, faced this daunting alienation.

“My books attempt to show several sides of something, and leave the reader with the awareness of difficulty, rather than with the grasping of a slogan or a motto to live by,” Updike told interviewer James Plath in 1994. I think Rabbit’s difficulties are being a quester without a clear quest and a repudiator of conventions he can’t identify. Updike represents this dilemma with a rule of three, giving us triangular perspectives through which to view Rabbit’s journey. Three styles of literary expression — allegory, sermon, and satire — suggest that it is imprudent to institutionalize eroticism. Three couples (a minister and his wife, a coach and his spouse, and a businessman and his consort) cement the idea.

First comes Rabbit’s flight; he climbs into his 1955 Ford and drives south with fantasies of sunny Floridian skies. Stopping for fuel, he meets a gas-station attendant who appears to also be a farmer. Instead of providing the map Rabbit wants, this middle-aged man gives advice: “The only way to get somewhere, you know, is to figure out where you’re going before you go there.” Driving into the darkening night, Rabbit is incensed by these words: “Funny how the man sticks in his throat. He can’t think past him, his smugness, his solidity, somehow.”

Who is this person? We never learn, but his image lingers. Characters from allegory, where a second meaning hides behind the first, have this haunting quality. Embodying abstract concepts and conveying principles, allegorical figures appear, utter non-sequiturs, and vanish. Their words can’t be shrugged off.  Like the ancient wanderer in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, who tells three criminals that they’ll find death by following a crooked road, Updike’s character is anonymous and built from external details: work boots, flannel shirts, glasses, scuffed hands, cracked lips, and a facial scar. He is rooted: a tiller of earth who assists passersby and requires no roadmap to get his bearings. His language and message are transparently simple: every traveler needs an endpoint. By implication, every searcher needs an object. Rabbit doesn’t have either, and this personification of solidity agitates him by stating that unless he sets a course, he’ll travel in literal and existential circles. Marriage has allure for people like Rabbit, because it maps their lives for them. This doesn’t make it enjoyable or good — just seductive.

As if damned by the man’s phrase, Rabbit reaches West Virginia before backtracking to Brewer. Re-ensconced in Pennsylvania, he is approached on the street by Episcopal minister Harry Eccles, who intends to get this young ne’er-do-well home. Cagily, he invites Rabbit to play golf. They quickly become golfing buddies, and during their outings Eccles applies subtle mental pressure. His message is more civic than religious. Eccles reminds Rabbit of his responsibilities, telling him that he’s enmeshed within a societal fabric, and when one strand of this material is loosened, its integrity is weakened. When Rabbit protests, Eccles asks, “What do you think it’s like for other young couples?” Pretty awful, we imagine, since Eccles, though married, is clearly gay.

Homosexual characters are now common in Anglo-American fiction. But in 1959, when Updike wrote Rabbit, Run with the support of a Guggenheim grant, he was attempting something risqué, and the delicacy of his characterization is remarkable. Jack Eccles, whose hopelessness is suggested with a name that alludes to the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, is un-stereotyped. He does not mince, wear flamboyant clothing, belt out show tunes, or address Rabbit as “Darling.” He holds a job, maintains a house, and golfs. He does what gay American males have always done: work alongside straight colleagues, sit with heterosexual guys in boardrooms, and play sports with them. What differentiates Eccles from other men in Rabbit, Run is not the presence of stylized femininity but an absence of masculinity. Something is just…not there. Rabbit feels it when he first enters Eccles’s home, exchanges pleasantries with the reverend’s wife, and surprises himself by grabbing her rear end. It’s a gesture as spontaneous as his botched road trip; Rabbit’s hand moves to Joyce Eccles’s backside, like metal drawn to a magnet. That she neither rebuffs him nor cries out, speaks volumes.

Again, Updike uses free indirect discourse to indicate character; when Eccles gets nervous, he doesn’t think, “Oh, shit;” he thinks, “Oh dear.” His sexual identity is suggested through minor choices of diction. Inviting Rabbit to stay at his home, Eccles doesn’t say, “We have a ton of space;” he says, “We have scads of room.” In church he indulges one vivacious outburst. Looking on, Rabbit notes that his friend is being “indiscreet;” in other words, he’s not lying well enough. As if sensing that her husband’s efforts to reconcile the Angstroms are misdirected attempts to repair his own private life, Joyce Eccles asks why he’s worked so hard to effect a rapprochement. His reply — “Marriage is a sacrament” — resonates as a hollow joke.

This novel shows no connection between sanctioned coupledom and religious meaning.  Because it provides worldly advantages, marriage is more often seen as antithetical to what is Godly. Eccles senses this when he visits Janice, who has taken refuge at her home of origin, and thinks that “the mother and daughter have a sinister aura,” a coldness that is “thoroughly meshed into the strategies of a middle-class life.” Their agenda entails retrieving Rabbit before Janice gives birth; baby number two will then re-cement the relationship. Toward this bourgeois end, Eccles is their errand boy. Distasteful work, it’s his job as he understands it.

The novel provides a different perspective with a scene of homily. When Eccles enlists the help of a senior colleague, he is rebuffed with Rabbit, Run’s sole sermon, delivered in a German accent by an old-style Lutheran minister whose name, Fritz Kruppenbach, suggests east Pennsylvania disdain for clerics who peddle couples-therapy: “I know what they teach you at the seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it.”  Kruppenbach enjoins Eccles to cease his conjugal mediating, tells him that Rabbit’s crime is not momentous in the scheme of things, and adlibs a quote that sounds apostolic: “a thief with faith is worth all the Pharisees.” Then, he invites Eccles to supplicate: “Will you kneel a moment with me and pray for Christ to come into this room?” When Eccles says that he’s too mad, we again smell insincerity. It’s not anger but discomfort with direct appeals to God that makes this sophisticate recoil. He’s less a preacher than a psychotherapist who prescribes wedlock as an emotional bromide.

Ultimately, Updike imagines a syntax of dishonesty underlying post-war relations. Matrimony demands deception and rewards liars. Lacking bedrock faith, Rabbit, Run’s most conspicuous fraud entered the ministry because he liked Christianity’s aesthetics and married because that’s what ministers do. Eccles reaps conventional benefits: a living, a home, and prestige accorded by wedlock. Sacrificing happiness for a status-enhancing relationship, however, means living a lie and encouraging others to do the same.

Harry seeks guidance elsewhere, driving to Brewer’s underbelly in search of his old coach, Marty Tothero. Bald and sporting a gaudy, checkered sports coat, Tothero greets his erstwhile star warmly, but when Rabbit admits that he’s absconded, the coach becomes solemn: “That doesn’t sound like very mature behavior.”

“Mature” was a much stronger word in 1960 than it is today. Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1983 study, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment describes “maturity” as a virtual cult, fueled by authors like H. A. Overstreet. His 1949 The Mature Mind blamed most human transgressions — war, bigotry, social injustice — on childishness. Such advisors pitched their flag on the claim that marriage encouraged adult behavior; being a spouse translated into being a good citizen, a responsible neighbor, and a reliable employee. The license proved emotional fitness, and wedlock offered never-ending opportunities to practice acting grownup, from paying bills, to maintaining a home, to “building” a relationship.

Accordingly, Marty Tothero mouths the expected clichés but proceeds to betray them. Rather than fortifying ties to the wife he no longer desires, he avoids her, staying in a shoddy attic above the Sunshine Athletic Association, where aging jocks get drunk. They indulge Tothero but consider him a buffoon. Marriage doesn’t carry over into other aspects of this shabby hypocrite’s life; indeed, Updike shows that such continuities are fictitious. Being a husband hasn’t made Tothero better, as being an athlete hasn’t made Rabbit successful. Tothero’s main interest is prostitutes, and he corrals two for a double-date. Over dinner, his companion, Margaret, slaps him as part of an ongoing ritual, while he speechifies about training athletes: develop the mind, the body, and the heart, and basketball will prepare a man for life by instilling in him “the sacredness of achievement.” Tothero’s highflying rhetoric is contradicted by atmospheric pathos: a garish Chinese restaurant that serves Americanized cuisine, a call-girl who specializes in kink, and the fact that neither he nor his embarrassed protégé have achieved much since their crowd-pleasing days. The myth of maturity, drilled into athletes by coaches who insist that they’re building not just bulk but character, is exposed and left, like a frayed basketball uniform dangling on a clothesline.

Harriet Tothero appears briefly at the end of the novel. She invites Rabbit to visit her moribund husband in the hospital, where he’s confined after two strokes. Rabbit recalls her as a figure of “morbid fascination” for high-schoolers wise to Tothero’s lechery. Her name, of course, is a female version of Harry’s, and he’s startled to realize that “the world she walks in is his world now.” In other words, she’s another marriage casualty who makes the best, maintaining the appearance of exclusive devotion despite well-known, contradictory facts, addressing her bedridden spouse affectionately: “Dear, I’ve brought you someone…”

Fred and Rebecca Springer, the novel’s final pairing, are likewise fused in dishonesty. Their existence is a pageant of pretense: over-decorating a house with expensive furniture, attending church to be seen there, getting a gold band on their little darling’s hand before she goes into labor. It all rests on shady business practices that include setting back the odometers on used cars Fred sells and, ultimately, falsifying claims about service facilities to get a Toyota franchise.

In keeping with the notion of separate spheres — man as breadwinner, woman as domestic overseer — they don’t discuss these matters. Rebecca Springer enshrines her husband as a hero, considers herself patrician, and derides the Angstroms as bumpkins. Austen fans everywhere, enjoy Mansfield Park’s Lady Bertram, a baronet’s wife who recoils from the idea of nautical travel, since she’s too lazy to leave her sofa. Updike does his own caricature with Rebecca Springer, who has (or imagines) a condition that keeps her ensconced on a porch glider with bandaged ankles, unable to perform the simplest tasks. Occasionally she gets up to visit the car-dealership, decked out in her mink coat. An anniversary gift, the fur is a perfect metonym of conjugal entitlement. Post-war Pennsylvania may seem a far cry from Georgian England, but the point is the same: wedlock is not the salubrious life-enhancer it’s said to be. Its modern, gendered version encourages unwholesome dependence and self-interest.

Rabbit stops running and rests, for a few months, moving in with the prostitute he meets through Tothero. The most likeable person in the book, Ruth Leonard is his wife’s polar opposite. Janice comes from affluence; Ruth originates in poverty. While Janice is tiny and bony, with a childish body, Ruth is large, womanly, and voluptuous. She remembers high school, where she was penalized in gym class for refusing to wear uniforms that made her look bovine. Spilling out of her clothes, she resented her flat-chested classmates: “those girls with their contractors and druggists for fathers,” who seemed so far up the social ladder that they might have been Kennedys.

When literature professors like myself gather informally and discuss our reading, Updike’s name often comes up. Everyone praises his stylistic brilliance and searing insight, but there’s always the question of his “take” on women. He created some of the most memorable females in the American canon, but feminist readers are put off by his most famous protagonist, who fornicates with whatever comes his way and calls his wife a “dumb mutt.” It’s not Rabbit’s estrangement or desire for space but the harshness of his language that creates discomfort. And there’s the lingering question of whether Harry Angstrom is a vehicle for his creator’s misogyny.

I think it’s imprudent to conflate Updike with his characters, especially Harry Angstrom. Rabbit, Run uses the free indirect style to bring readers close to someone from a particular time and place, who needs females but doesn’t find them entirely human. Anger at Janice is inseparable from rage at the doctrines that keep Harry stuck. We’re supposed to see that it’s easier to blame her entirely than question practices which seem timeless.

Updike’s gender affinities are, I think, revealed in a passage where the narrator takes us inside Ruth’s mind. It’s an interior monologue of someone not far past high school, who recalls how grateful teenage boys were if you groped them, “and how quick word got around that you did.” Sexual generosity made Ruth the town bad girl: “They wrote her name on the lavatory walls; she became a song in the school.” In defiance, she turned to older men, who forgave her not being pretty, because she was young. Ruth’s memories culminate in astonishment at the depth of her love for Harry: “but this one…She wonders what he has.”

Updike’s portrait of Ruth Leonard is a remarkable act of sympathetic imagination that evinces deep understanding of women who are young, unwed, resourceless, and scrappy. Like so much in his early corpus, it is forward looking, antedating books like Leora Tanenbaum’s 2015, I Am Not a Slut: Sexual Shaming in the Age of the Internet, which explores the sexual landscape of American high schools. Tanenbaum believes that any girl can be labelled a “slut” but suggests that those who seem different are most vulnerable to the branding. Among these, she names early developers; girls who are busty, curvaceous, or just tall; those who are poor (and by implication, trashy), and females rumored to be sexually active. Updike anticipates this renowned feminist’s insights and validates them by making Ruth, who knows that marriage stacks the cards against her and Rabbit will leave, a person of depth and constancy. In sequels, Rabbit recalls her as the one who saw his potential, with whom he might have been happy.

Ruth Leonard’s emotions are antithetical to Janice Angstrom’s. Rabbit, Run’s presiding non-entity, Janice has been the flimsiest of enigmas, always viewed from the outside. We glimpse her inner life at the end of the novel, after she gives birth to a girl. Rabbit has returned but gone again, leaving Janice desperate, not for him but for approval. She dreads being a figure of scorn; misplacing a husband seems the most shameful of failures.

“Mother’s neighbors will laugh their head off if she loses him again,” Janice agonizes. Her language and perceptions are those of a child. This doesn’t redeem her; children are needy, me-centered, and demanding. It simply demonstrates the absurdity of post-war America’s vogue for early marriages and its myth that wedlock was a “maturity” injection. Updike shows Janice imbibing this fiction. Recalling herself as a disappointing mediocrity, she wonders why wedlock didn’t make everything better: “She thought when she got a husband it would be all over, all that. She would be a woman with a house on her own.” A home, licensure that keeps relationships stable, a set domestic routine, and a narrow circle of intimates, were the alleged benefits of matrimony. Janice Angstrom’s character deflates each one. We see that far from expanding such a person, marriage reduces her with its implied fear of losing the status on which female self-definition is said to rest.

Janice ends up calming herself with alcohol and fantasy: “Harry will be back and no one will ever know, no one will laugh at Mother.” Drunk and panicked, she makes a mistake that comprises the novel’s tragedy. Without giving it away, I’ll make one observation: Rabbit, Run shows that the marital household is not, as “family-values” advocates still claim, an especially safe place for children. Caregivers are distinguished by character, not relationship status.

The characterizations of Ruth Leonard and Janice Angstrom seem to clearly flout any notion that marriage engenders virtue. A sexually explicit author, Updike had to change the original draft of Rabbit, Run to get it printed without obscenity lawsuits. But he did not alter the image of a woman who, while not a streetwalker, has lived improvisationally on money from men. Ruth shares this fate with Rabbit’s blood sibling, Miriam, who turns up in the sequel, Rabbit Redux, looking flashy in striped bell-bottoms and driving a car with New York plates, though she lives on the West Coast. “Somebody keeping you, or is it a new one every night?” Rabbit asks with fraternal curiosity. “Neither,” she answers. “…I perform a service.” It’s left vague, but we imagine that she’s a paid escort for gangsters, some of whom she sleeps with.

Updike knew professional women, beginning with the one who gave him life; Linda Grace Updike worked at Pomeroy’s Department Store in Reading. She earned her master’s degree in English from Cornell University and went on to publish a novel, a collection of short stories, and several pieces for the New Yorker. At the New Yorker it was fiction editor Katherine White who hired Updike as a staffer in 1954, and his time there coincided with that of journalist Lillian Ross, who shaped the magazine’s Talk of the Town column and openly conducted a relationship with its editor, William Shawn, whom she never lived with or married. If Rabbit, Run and its successors don’t show educated women or adults thriving in non-marital setups, it’s not because its author lacked exposure to both types. Why, then, the proliferation of sex workers and housewives?

I think Updike is suggesting that the partition between marriage and prostitution is flimsier than people generally admit. Everyone in Rabbit, Run benefits financially from wedlock. Most are estranged from their spouses; those who aren’t construct a fantasy of who that person is and live inside the lie, reaping monetary rewards. Prostitution, as Ruth has practiced it, seems a more honest avocation. Rabbit, Run does not glamorize the oldest profession but refuses to vilify it. Given the material benefits of wedlock, there is no reason to judge or shun women who take cash for sex.

Significantly, the most powerful character in Rabbit, Run is female. Mary, the Angstrom matriarch, intimidates Jack Eccles, who notes her height — she gave Rabbit his Viking genes — and ironic bearing. He pegs her as a satirist at their first meeting, reflecting that such people are tough to gauge, because you can’t tell when they’re joking. Also the habit of of mockery is off-putting, because it involves directing sarcasm at the world; she’s angry at him for advocating on Janice’s behalf, but her rage is more generalized; “she doesn’t really see him at all,” Eccles thinks.  “Her confrontation is with everybody, and secure under the breath of her satire he can say what he pleases.” In other words, you can sense what a satirist is against, but not what she’s for, and her overall willingness to eschew courtesy is liberating.

We see what Mary Angstrom’s against: the Springers and all they represent. Unlike other characters in the book, who look down on Janice and up to marriage, Mary doesn’t differentiate. She names Janice as “a well-equipped little trick” who got herself pregnant to snag a husband, when he “could scarcely tuck his shirt-tail in.” Then, she moves from specific denunciation of a coquette to general condemnation of those who sanction her behavior: “That girl gets no sympathy from me. She has everybody on her side from Eisenhower down.”

Updike is deploying the technique of satiric expansionism used by parodists from antiquity, through the eighteenth century, to the present. A narrator moves from specificity to generalization. Mary starts with one example of vice (the girl who accidentally/on purpose got pregnant for a marriage certificate) and proceeds to denounce an entire society, which overvalues that certificate. Mary keeps equating Janice with the marriage system she bends to her advantage, buttressed by communal assistance. She points out that Janice has played her last hand: “That girl wanted Harry and got him with the only trick she knew and now she’s run out of tricks.” Mary is the only character in this novel who challenges the sexual double-standard ratified by marriage, which rests on the wife/whore binary: “You talk about tarts: they don’t become ivory-white saints in my book just by having a marriage license.”

Mary Angstrom does function as the novel’s vehicle for satire: humor with excoriating moral force that operates through shocking exposure. She says what no other Brewerite will admit: there are few “accidental” pregnancies, and the Springers are nouveau riche crooks. Pull back that veil of respectability, and there’s nothing to admire or fear. Her words have force unequalled by any other character in Rabbit, Run. They remind us of fables associated with a poet said to be satire’s first practitioner, the seventh-century B.C.E. Archilochus, who allegedly composed verse against the man who derided him for having slave ancestry. The power of this poetry drove Archilochus’s enemy to suicide. In popular Greek belief, words could kill, and satirists who were determined to cleanse vice, had unique power over language. Throughout, Rabbit, Run Mary Angstrom’s diction is succinctly fierce. “What have they done to you?” she implores loudly, when she sees Rabbit back with Janice and aligned with the Springers.  The pronoun “they” indicts both the Springers and an entire culture that conspires to keep its Harry and Janices together.  In Rabbit Redux, we find Mary crippled from Parkinson’s Disease, waving her cane with comedic artistry. Here, Miriam Angstrom assesses her as “a great woman with nowhere to put it,” reminding us of the wasted potential of such wives, who washed the same clothes by hand, prepared the same meals, and swept the same floors, never finding means to move from the imminent to the transcendent. She is, in a sense, uniquely positioned to feel Harry’s confinement, and when he visits her sickbed she wastes no time but enjoins him, “Run. Leave Brewer.”

Rabbit, Run ends with Harry dashing. Once again, his flight is unplanned, undirected, and pointless. He deserts his social circle and dashes into some woods, pushing through shrubs and trampling saplings. Unsure of his location, Rabbit can’t see past the towering trees that surround him on every side, but he ceases, fatigued, and notices a clearing. It has a damaged house, whose deteriorating walls, floor, and basement, scare him: “The thought that this place was once self-conscious, that its land was tramped and cleared and known,” is frightening.

This landing explains much about Updike’s protagonist’s inability to sever ties from a woman he disdains and an institution that leaves him cold. What Rabbit finally encounters is lost history: a civilization that once was. It can’t be accessed without a teacher or an interpreter. At the very least, to learn who occupied this pocket of east Pennsylvania, and how they lived, requires a “directive:’ this term for a New England guidebook gave Robert Frost the title for one of his finest lyric, a poem that invites readers to see the past and ushers them to a “house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm/And in a town that is no more a town.” Apple trees that once sustained the community are drying up; human activity has been consumed by the indifferent cycles of nature. Only the act of collective memory can can keep this place mnemonically alive; that process is tricky, since the guide of Frost’s 1947 “Directive” wants travelers to get lost. He represents the biased archeologist of the past: a historian whose accounts are always incomplete.

Himself an accomplished poet, Updike was a great admirer of Frost. I think he takes from “Directive” the sense that without history, individuals are disempowered. History lets us organize the past into larger patterns; discreet events become less random and more part of broader philosophies and movements. What was, becomes less a fractured chaos and more a source of evidence offering models that we can analyze, accept, reject, or challenge. Without understanding marriage as a historical event — something that had a beginning and might have an end — Harry Angstrom remains disadvantaged. His final flight proves the allegorical farmer’s prescience; Rabbit does not know where he’s going — cannot know, because he never learned where he came from. No example from the past enables him to perceive matrimony as a social construct rather than a timeless fact. He knows of no human ancestor who rejected marriage, whom he might emulate, and no forbearer who embraced it, against whom he might contrast himself. Lost in time, he can only return to the rhythms of a life he knows. The sight of a shattered domicile — a deserted domestic space — terrifies, because there is nothing to replace it.

Marshall Boswell posits that Updike uses the final image of a basketball player being double-teamed, as Rabbit was in his heyday, to connote two kinds of readers: people who judge Harry Angstrom for shirking his social duties and those who applaud him for following his instincts. I disagree. I find Updike to be an author averse to binaries; like the novelist from whom he took many cues, he avoids neat divisions and tidy conclusions. Like Austen, he maximizes ensemble characterization, using a few provincial households to explore broad political subjects. In Rabbit, Run, we see not a bifurcating road where a man must choose what to become: responsible citizen or self-vaunting individualist, mature homeowner or sybarite. Instead, we witness ideologies — unstated beliefs — that bolster social practices. These are what Rabbit’s many nonfictional, American contemporaries, surely found oppressive.

Ultimately, Updike shows how post-war matrimony forms a totality from which there is no escape for men like Rabbit, who are too much the product of their conditioning. Spending time alone, developing friendships, reading, and thinking are activities that could ameliorate his situation, but they don’t occur to him. A-historically, post-war culture isolates adults from each other by the enforced loyalties of wedlock. In sequels to Rabbit, Run he remembers his childhood home as a fortress that admitted no outsiders, positioning the Angstroms against all others, with “a certain guilt attaching to any reaching up and outside for a friend.” The phrase, “a certain guilt,” is significant. Rabbit is vague on why friendship never felt right. The clarity of his Sunday school lessons, which stressed faith, is absent from social cues signaling movement beyond the marital household as a betrayal of one’s primary circle. In this world, making a friend means abandoning the people who really matter. Updike shows how ideology operates indirectly on the human psyche; the idea is never stated; it’s just something people know. “Reaching up” is an equally telling choice of words, since, “reaching outside” would make the point. Rabbit intuits something readers are supposed to grasp: friendship elevates, bringing us someplace higher.

Isolated by the third installment, Rabbit is Rich, Harry Angstrom smolders with resentment. He envisions Janice as a force that has shriveled his existence and blocked his liberty. His father-in-law’s demise caused no pain, since Rabbit disliked the man: so much for the idea that marriage forges meaningful adoptive bonds. But Fred Springer’s absence elevated Rabbit socially, with an inheritance that includes part of the Toyota franchise, which he manages. He’s fully enmeshed with the Springers, sharing the business and the Mt. Judge house with his wife and mother-in-law. The suburb’s name is telling; Springers and Angstroms have climbed the socioeconomic mountain; they’re not just affluent but wealthy. From these mountainous heights Rebecca Springer can “judge” those beneath her: a category that includes everyone she knows. Their home is commodious, but Rabbit feels claustrophobic there — unable to “breathe absolutely his own air.” Janice now substitutes Campari for Old-fashioneds and soap operas for the Mickey Mouse Show, and Rebecca Springer wraps her legs in a heftier brand of bandage.

Vacations are “family” affairs; Rabbit, Janice, and “Ma” Springer spend Augusts in the Poconos, playing pinochle in ghastly three-way symbiosis. As entwined as they are, Rebecca Springer still dwells on the chasm of social difference that separates her from the Angstroms. The mention of Mary Angstrom incenses her. “Too tall for her sex and too big for her britches,” is how she describes this dead nemesis: the only person immune to her intimidations, who identified Mrs. Fred Springer as a mercenary parvenu. Indeed, Mrs. Springer contrives to fire Springer Motors’ finest employee, a senior salesman named Charlie Stavros. Her excuse? Stavros has no wife. “I never liked that about Charlie, that he was unwilling to get married. It bothered Fred too,” she explains. Social scientists are just beginning to grasp the extent to which unwed American’s lives are valued less than those of their married counterparts, conceptually and financially. Updike understood this discrepancy and showed it with great insistence. The firing of a devoted worker would illustrate his point: far from being the wellspring of morality, the married household is the wellspring of money-love.  He went farther, making Charlie Stavros Rabbit’s only real friend. The dealership provides space for that relationship; work hours are their time together. Since neither man has the skills to pursue friendship, their bond seems destined to evaporate. And though Charlie has no spouse, an eldercare situation makes his income necessary. Never-married people are not without responsibilities, Updike reminds us.

Rabbit has become “a person-and-a-half” in terms of girth and a spiritual fraction of his former self. He’s morphed into a bloated, garrulous car salesman who pressures shoppers to take test-drives. Recalling the winged runner with divinely coordinated movements, we wince at this middle-aged iteration, who pontificates about automobile brands at work and at home rejects his wife’s advances with the canned phrase, “Honey, it’s been a long day.”

Rabbit’s reading is limited to issues of Consumer Report; books make him nervous. Janice’s interests have broadened to include tennis. Anyone who grew up in a northeastern suburb recognizes the type; she spends afternoons at their country club, guzzling gin-and-tonics, playing women’s doubles, and obsessing about her serve. She enjoys dominion there, as a businessman’s daughter and a rich man’s wife. Again, Updike doesn’t take the easy road of exclusive vilification but shows Rabbit’s complicity. Janice’s complacency annoys him, but her leisure bolsters his sense of masculinity. She’s indifferent to him; he fantasizes about killing her. Binding them is not the sex she callously demands but cognizance of assets left by Mr. Springer, which Updike describes as “a form of sex, comfortable and sly.” They’re as palpable as coitus; Rabbit used to fill silences with knee-jerk “I love yous.” He no longer does. They both concede that he married both her and an automotive empire, choosing his own fate. “Mother and I didn’t give it six months, the way she trapped you,” Miriam Angstrom admits during a visit. “Maybe I trapped myself,” he replies. Crude social novels show powerless characters controlled by external forces, but Updike is subtler. He demonstrates the synergy between individuals and institutions; people select the prisons they live inside, and in so doing, fortify them.

Periodically guilty about his inattentiveness, Rabbit reflects, philosophically, that “he doesn’t fuck her enough, his poor dumb moneybags.” Falling asleep beside her, he hears the hiss of a ghostly voice addressing him with his boyhood nickname: “Hassy.” From beyond the grave, Mary Angstrom seems to be repeating the first novel’s message, imploring Rabbit to escape. But the early impetus is gone. He too much enjoys having a non-working spouse who wears snazzy tennis dresses and languishes at a club Updike names “The Flying Eagle,” again signaling social ascent underscored by misery. On display at the pool, Janice symbolizes Rabbit’s success. He was her trophy initially; now she’s become his.

Updike shows how the whole sad system works. Cementing it is the notion — stressed by advice-writers since the eighteenth century — of spousal oneness. Because he’s not intellectually vigilant, Rabbit sometimes thinks of Janice as his other half. When he relaxes and confides hopes, memories, or fantasies, she reacts coldly. Should we miss his point, Updike’s narrator explains the ideal of conjugal unity as “a mistake married people sometimes make.” It’s easy to see why. Since, he was a child visiting the Jersey Shore, Rabbit itched to leave Brewer: “He would look at the little girls on the sidewalk…wondering which one of them he would marry, for his idea of destiny was to move away and marry a girl from another town.” The sudden shift to sing-song, children’s book language is deliberate. It seems that the happily-ever-after fairy tales offered little boys resemble those fed to little girls, and they produce the same obedience to custom. Sadly, Rabbit remembers his life as a scorecard of deference: “He was a good boy to his mother and then a good boy to the crowds at the basketball games, a good boy to Tothero…” As Updike demonstrates the process, good boys get engaged and proceed to unfulfilling lives. Nothing could more clearly indict the ideal of coupledness.

Updike parts company with conservative theorists of his time by insisting that figures of social authority — husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, homeowners, ministers, coaches, businessmen – tend to lack the wisdom on which their status rests. Virtually each post-war category of influence is called into question. Toward this end, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s story spans four novels and a novella. Stacey Olster, editor of the Cambridge Companion to John Updike, has come up with the most fitting description I know of these books: “a form of layered realism wherein what is visible suggests what is invisible.” Visible, everywhere in Updike’s corpus, is unhappy marriage. Invisible in Rabbit, Run, is anything better. John Updike was original and learned enough to imagine other social arrangements, but his everyman, Harry Angstrom, is not. Rabbit, Run unsettles the marriage imperative by showing that where there is no precedent, most people cannot envision better options. It is the absence of non-marital community that damages America’s Harry Angstrom and probably hurt those of his generation, encouraging complicity in a system that appears beneficial to no one.


That complicity was a post-war phenomenon, right? This is an easy assumption to make. [Read the rest of this essay at the Living Single blog at Psychology Today: “How Today’s Marriage Mentality Is Still a Lot Like What John Updike Described in 1960.”]

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