Literature Study GuidesRabbit RunPart 1 Section 1 Summary

Rabbit, Run | Study Guide

John Updike

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Rabbit, Run | Part 1, Section 1 | Summary



Set in Brewer, Pennsylvania (a fictional version of Reading), and its fictional suburb Mt. Judge, Rabbit, Run begins in the spring of 1959. Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a 26 year-old man living a dreary life in a depressing suburban apartment, is a former high school basketball star. After setting county scoring records, now already broken, he earns a small living demonstrating a kitchen gadget called the MagiPeel. One Friday evening, the day before the spring equinox, Rabbit watches six boys playing basketball in the street. They reluctantly let him join in, and Rabbit is "elated" to realize he still has his skill as well as the ability, he hopes, to access some freedom, ease, and mastery on the court. Rabbit runs home to find his heavily pregnant wife Janice drinking and watching The Mickey Mouse Club on television. Rabbit quarrels with her, irritated by her drinking, his conception of her as "dumb," and his neglected home, whose "continual crisscrossing mess clings to his back like a tightening net." Feeling stifled and trapped by his surroundings, Rabbit thinks back to his and Janice's courtship and marriage—she was already pregnant—and then leaves. Instead of picking up their son and car and returning home as he is expected to do, he finds himself driving down the highway, suddenly deciding to drive to the Gulf of Mexico.

When Rabbit asks a gas station attendant for a map, both men realize Rabbit doesn't know where he's going. The attendant tells him "the only way to get somewhere ... is to figure out where you're going before you go there." Annoyed, Rabbit disagrees and drives straight. Down the road he buys a map. However, Rabbit's route keeps shifting to match his unreliable instincts and unstable emotions. He drives through parts of Pennsylvania's Amish country, Maryland, and West Virginia listening to popular music and commercials on the radio. Stopping in a West Virginia café, Rabbit has a strong sensation of separation and difference. At the same time, "the more he drives, the more the region resembles the country around Mt. Judge." Rabbit tears up the map, throws it out of the window, and, fearful and confused about what he's doing, drives back toward Brewer. He sleeps in his car outside the local Sunshine Athletic Club, where he hopes to see his old coach, Marty Tothero.


Rabbit's past and present, his values and desires, and his pattern of crisis, flight, and return are all established in this section. These are the key plot elements in the novel, which focuses on Rabbit's existential crises and how his self-centered pursuit of meaning and satisfaction affects the people in his life. Updike builds Rabbit's character, creates tension, advances plot, and enhances thematic meaning by structuring these elements through repetition and juxtaposition—placing dissimilar elements together so a contrast and a fragmented unity both arise.

Rabbit's dissatisfaction with his adult life is rooted in its unfavorable contrast with his childhood and adolescence. His identity is rooted in his past as an adored big brother of a younger sister, a beloved son with no serious responsibilities, and a champion basketball player. Now he is an adult who feels victimized and trapped by family—the result of marrying his pregnant girlfriend who has disappointed him—and boring, unfulfilling work. Juxtaposed with the elation he felt moments earlier playing basketball, his messy home and routine chores are intolerable to him. Because Rabbit values only his own experience and sees other people in terms of his own needs, he drives away without a stab of his conscience. Moreover, with the emotional maturity of an adolescent, Rabbit lacks the self-awareness to realize he is leaving, even at the moment he does it. Basketball taught Rabbit he was superior to others, even infallible, in a kind of game he could dominate. Now he sees Janice as the reason for his abandoning her. Similarly he blames his failed trip to the Gulf of Mexico on the man at the gas station for not having the map Rabbit wanted.

Also significant are the names introduced at the beginning of the novel. First, the nickname Rabbit represents speed and the joy of running. As an adult Rabbit has kept his adolescent nickname—implying he is still an adolescent at 26—but it now reflects the rabbit-like quality of fear: rabbits run from predators for they have few defenses. It also suggests Rabbit's tendency to be possessed by lust and to indulge in sexual promiscuity. As an adult Rabbit seems incapable of dealing with unpleasantness or responsibility except by running from it. Rabbit's surname, Angstrom, contains the word angst, meaning "anxiety, fear, foreboding, dread" in German. All of these are part of Rabbit's character and bring him back from his attempts at escape. Former coach Tothero's name is significant as well. He is a "hero" to "tots," meaning he seemed heroic to the basketball players he coached, but the respect does not come from adults, given his questionable behavior and uselessness when truly needed as a confidante and mentor.
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