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Rabbit, Run | Context

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The American Dream

The contradictions of the 1950s are embodied in the juxtaposition of the Cold War's (1947–91, non-combat ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation) threat of nuclear annihilation with a set of ideals known popularly as the American dream. This image has its roots in the Declaration of Independence's assertion of the "unalienable rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The philosophy behind the dream is that happiness is freely available to anyone who works hard enough. Society is not a fixed hierarchy but a flexible one, and American self-reliance can carry anyone to the top, regardless of the economic or social position of their birth. The expectation for each generation was greater prosperity and economic success than the previous one.

In the 1950s this translated into the possibility of a comfortable, middle-class life for everyone: home and car ownership, access to higher education, and job security with good benefits. Because the American dream equates happiness with economic prosperity, the road to happiness is the embrace of consumer capitalism (economic system characterized by private ownership of goods). Rabbit scoffs at this notion in Part 1, Section 1, when Jimmy the Mousketeer comes on the television and tells the children watching that self-knowledge is the road to happiness. Rabbit knows that this is merely a pretense and that the real message of his culture is to achieve happiness through materialism: "Fraud makes the world go round. The basis of our economy," he reflects cynically before connecting his own employment as a demonstrator of the MagiPeel kitchen gadget with the fraudulent idea of materialistic happiness: "Vitaconomy, the modern housewife's password, the one-word expression for economizing vitamins by the MagiPeel Method."

Though Rabbit rejects this materialistic American dream even as he takes part in it, the government and the business sector worked hand-in-hand to construct the infrastructure that would make it possible, shifting both the American landscape and way of life. In 1956 President Eisenhower signed a bill that would create a 41,000 mile-long system of interstate highways. At the same time, automobile manufacturers began turning out passenger cars in record numbers, and by 1960 the number of two-car families had risen to 20 percent. Suburbs began to appear at the edges of cities, filled with quickly built, cheap tract housing meant to bring home ownership to the average American. These conditions are all reflected in the text of Rabbit, Run. The town of Mt. Judge is a suburb of the city of Brewer, and Rabbit lives with Janice in a tract house there. Additionally, Rabbit's spur-of-the-moment road trip in Part 1, Section 1, is made possible by the rise of the interstate highway system and the increasing prevalence of private car ownership.

This increase in construction and manufacturing led to a rise in employment and wages. In this new prosperity, Americans had more access to disposable income to buy consumer goods—such as the television that Janice Springer turns to for comfort and the MagiPeel kitchen gadget that Rabbit promotes for a living. Rising prosperity also meant a rise in birth rates and a subsequent emphasis on youth culture. The rise of consumerism, mass media and advertising, and youth culture are elements of Rabbit, Run. On his road trip, Rabbit listens to the radio and is exposed to many catchy advertisements for consumer goods as well as domestic and international news reports. In the opening pages of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit and Janice watch The Mickey Mouse Club, a children's variety program begun in 1955 that featured a group of adult and child actors known as "Mouseketeers." Updike shows the children's program as a means of promoting the American dream of material comfort and rising social status to the younger generation. The fact that Janice and Rabbit watch a children's show reflects their individual idealization of their own lost youth—a major theme in the novel.

Social Repression in 1959

McCarthyism

As the United States and the Soviet Union vied to develop the most devastating nuclear weapons during the Cold War, anxiety penetrated the lives of ordinary Americans, manifesting itself in the Red Scare of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. With its groundless accusations and hearings conducted against those accused of Communist subversion against Americans, McCarthyism created an attitude of paranoia, while advocating conformity as a safe social choice.

In 1957, two years before Rabbit, Run takes place, American anxiety sharpened when the Soviets sent a satellite into outer space. The release of the satellite Sputnik seemed to indicate the Soviets led the United States in nuclear capabilities. These political conditions were presented to the American public alongside the message that a stable, traditional, nuclear family, with traditional gender roles firmly in place, was the root of national security. The anxiety and meaninglessness that permeates Rabbit Angstrom's life reflects the national mood of paranoia, as does the condemnation that Rabbit, Janice, and Ruth face by others for failing to uphold the patriotic norm of the nuclear family. Unable to conform, Rabbit deals with his anxiety by running—literally and figuratively.

Gender Relations

Despite the emphasis on the nuclear family, postwar conditions gave rise to new patterns of gender relations and sexuality. Premarital sex and birth rates rose as a consequence of easier access to automobiles. Teenagers could drive away from their homes and engage in sexual behaviors in the privacy of cars. Rabbit Angstrom stumbles across one such "lovers' lane" during his trip to West Virginia.

Although the prevailing cultural message was that women should be happy homemakers, one third of the labor force was made up of women, many of whom had chosen to keep their jobs after the birth of their children. For those women whose daily lives were tied to domesticity, the image of the happy housewife often fell flat—and painfully so. These expectations, and the consequences of both conforming to them and failing to conform to them, are seen in the characters of Janice Springer and Ruth Leonard. In Part 2, Section 10, Janice Springer's internal monologue reflects her disappointed expectations that moving out of her critical mother's house into her own home with her own family would bring her a sense of security: "She thought when she got a husband it would be all over ... She would be a woman with a house on her own," but in reality, "she was still little clumsy dark-complected Janice Springer and her husband was a conceited lunk who wasn't good for anything."

The sexual politics of the period are especially evident in the character of Ruth Leonard. Unmarried and childless, Ruth loses her job as a stenographer after rumors about her sexuality spread. To support herself, she begins accepting money from men in exchange for sex. Though Ruth is one of the more moral characters in the novel, she is judged harshly, even by those who enjoy her sexuality, such as Rabbit, who asks her, "Were you really a whore?"

The discussions between Rabbit and Ruth regarding birth control and abortion reflect the controversy and typical male attitudes surrounding them during the 1950s. Rabbit's attitude is anti-birth control and anti-abortion, though he lacks the financial means or social position to responsibly raise a child with Ruth. Rabbit's attitudes are congruent with the laws and norms of the day, which Updike criticizes through his handling of the sexuality of Janice, Ruth, and Rabbit. In her first sexual encounter with Rabbit, Ruth attempts to use a diaphragm to protect herself from disease and pregnancy, but she refrains from doing so after Rabbit's vehement protest against the "alien" device. The diaphragm rose to popularity in the late 1930s, after a 50-year federal ban on birth control was lifted. The birth control pill, which would allow women to control their reproductive capacities without their partners' knowledge or consent, was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until 1960, and access to it was not federally protected until 1972. As a consequence of not using her diaphragm, Ruth becomes pregnant and schedules—but does not undergo—an abortion. Abortion had been a legal and common procedure until it was banned in 1880. Between then and the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal at a federal level, women who could afford to do so continued to have abortions, but often in unsafe conditions, either self-administered or done by incompetent physicians.

Racism

The American dream was not in fact meant for everyone. Some people were excluded due to the widespread racism and gathering discontent that erupted as the Civil Rights movement (1954–68, struggle for justice and equality under the law for African-Americans). While standards of living rose for both whites and blacks, wages for blacks remained half of what they were for whites. In Rabbit, Run racist language and ideas are sometimes embedded into Rabbit's thoughts as well as into the speech of Marty Tothero, reflecting prevailing attitudes of white Americans and the underlying inequality that marked the lives of blacks and other minorities.

At the Chinese restaurant, Tothero refers to the Chinese waiter as "our young Confucian," language that today would be considered inappropriate and offensive but that goes unnoticed by Tothero's companions. Later, Rabbit doesn't want to go to Club Castanet, because of its location on "the Italian-Negro-Polish side" of Brewer. He feels that it is inappropriate for his sister Miriam to be there and tells her so. Additionally, Janice Springer, a white woman, suffers from her mother's disapproval and her own self-loathing because of her supposedly too-dark complexion. By having the immoral characters Rabbit and Tothero subtly convey racist assumptions, and by making the color of Janice's skin a source of conflict with her cruel mother, Updike illustrates, and thereby criticizes, the thorough penetration of racist ideas into the American psyche.

Religiosity in the 1950s

The characters in Rabbit, Run reflect a variety of religious and spiritual orientations, from Ruth Leonard's atheism to Rabbit Angstrom's noncommittal flirtations with Christianity to Lutheran minister Kruppenbach's deep devotion to his orthodox faith. Updike's use of religious and spiritual elements in the text reflects the strong presence of religion in American culture during the decade and also the author's own attitudes toward religion. In the 1950s church attendance was packaged as part of the ideal of family values and normalcy. Toward the end of the decade, roughly half of all Americans were in church on any given Sunday.

Following his first night with Ruth Leonard, Rabbit Angstrom looks out her window and wistfully watches the churchgoers entering the church in their fine Sunday clothes. He longs to be a part of that comforting group. Even as church attendance rose, religious expression itself had become increasingly secularized. Mainstream values were concerned with participation in religion rather than the inner transformation of the individual through faith. This is demonstrated in the character of Jack Eccles, the minister who himself does not believe, but who maintains active social involvement in the lives of his parishioners, as well as in Rabbit's judgment about the social value of various denominations: "the Springers were Episcopalians, more of the old bastard's social climbing, everyone else was Lutheran or Reformed if they were anything." Updike criticizes religion's failure to adequately address human spirituality and to provide a meaningful, compelling framework for understanding through these elements, as well as by portraying Rabbit as bored, irritated, and distracted during his sole instance of church attendance.

Updike's Style in Rabbit, Run

In Rabbit, Run, meaning is conveyed not just through content, but through Updike's style. Style and content often mirror each other, with sentence length reflecting the action or emotional state of a character. Updike uses long sentences composed of numerous run-on clauses as Rabbit's excitement builds. These are often followed by short, terse statements, as the episode is resolved or Rabbit's judgment is put forth. For example, remembering his encounter with a Texas prostitute, Rabbit's thoughts run into one another, the sensory details spilling out between the commas: "So that when it was over he was hurt to learn, from the creases of completion at the sides of her lips and the hard way she wouldn't keep lying beside him but got up and sat on the edge of the metal-frame bed looking out the dark window at the green night sky, that she hadn't meant her half." The terse resolution, which contains an ironic judgment, follows: "Sweet woman, she was money."

Another notable stylistic element is the shifts in narrative perspective. Part 1 of the text is narrated in the third person, but entirely from Rabbit's perspective. In Part 2, however, the perspectives of other major characters—Jack Eccles, Ruth Leonard, and Janice Springer—are put forth. This shift creates complexity in the novel by placing Rabbit's crisis, which is the novel's subject, in its social context. Additionally, there are occasional narrative shifts into the second person. One such shift occurs shortly after the novel opens, in Part 1, Section 1, as Rabbit recalls playing basketball as a youth: "You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers." This reflects Rabbit's distance from but also emotional attachment to the subject of his thoughts, lending it the authenticity of internal monologue.

In Part 2, Section 10, Updike gives the reader a sentence that is not only exceedingly long, but one that shifts back and forth from a third-person presentation of Janice Springer's internal monologue to second person. The 90-word sentence reveals Janice's anger, hurt, and disgust following being sexually violated by Rabbit: "You can feel in their fingers if they're thinking about you and tonight Harry was at first and that's why she let him go on." In this sentence, which is nearly bare of punctuation, Updike conveys not only the fact that Janice is drunk, but that she is wrestling with complex and distressing emotions.

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