Lessons From Books: The Brutal Realism of Rabbit, Run

In Rabbit, Run, we follow Harry Angstrom, otherwise known as Rabbit. He is 26 years old former high school basketball star who now sells gadgets to make a living. His wife, Janice, is pregnant with their second child, and a 2-year-old son, Nelson. The Angstroms seem like a stereotypical family at first, but it is clear right away that Harry is disappointed with his life. It has not turned out as he wished and feels the need to escape, to find something worthwhile, to find new meaning. The pursuit to fill this hole in his life, he hits the road, abandoning his wife and kid in the process as he searches for purpose.

It is easy to say that Harry Angstrom is a despicable man. He is not a role model, however, he can be seen as a model of reality. How unforgiving life can be and the lack of care it has for your wants and needs. Harry had his own vision of life in which he had never imagined himself running away from his family and yet, he does because life rarely turns out the way we imagine. John Updike paints a brutally realistic image of what happens when a man is without meaning and the hurt that can cause to everyone around him.

Lessons:

Your Accomplishments Mean Nothing

Rabbit is a high school basketball star. Even has a clipping of the newspaper article that was printed after he set the country record for points. At that time of his life, when he was a high schooler, the world must have seemed like a pretty little thing on which he’ll leave his mark. However, the story starts off with these young kids who have no clue who he is. It has only been a handful of years since his high school days and his accomplishments are already forgotten. 

They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later, that is, four years ago.

At the moment, we may think what we accomplish is meaningful, but the meaning erodes with time. That accomplishment only mattered for that specific moment. It makes you think then: What do accomplishments really mean?

What makes us feel good, makes us feel special will become meaningless with time and you’ll be left to chase the memories of that thing or else, try to recreate it in the present, knowing well enough that it will be temporary.

What Should Have Happened, Won’t Happen

Somehow Rabbit can’t tear his attention from where the ball should have gone, the little ideal napkin of clipped green pinked with a pretty flag. His eyes can’t keep with where it did go.

This sums up Rabbit’s mindset. He is always focused on what should have happened, where he should have gone, how life should have turned out, and can’t see clearly what happened and, in turn, isn’t able to improve it.

Rabbit had dreamt of a better future for himself while he was in high school, but that future didn’t come true. Instead, it took a turn when he got his high school sweetheart pregnant. How much control do you really have over your life? Can you really will your life towards a specific future or are you just being pulled along with the tide of life, having to submit, submerge yourself, and fully accept whatever life brings you? Otherwise, you could live a life full of shame and regret. The two feelings permeate through Rabbit’s pores as he wishes for more. 

Two feelings that live in the heart of many people.

Your Life Is Not Yours

Sticking with the tide analogy, you have to be careful of who you give your obligation to. For who you take on responsibility. To who you commit yourself and your time to, otherwise, you might drown with the tides of life. 

I don’t know, it seemed like I was glued in with a lot of busted toys and empty glasses and television going and meals late and no way of getting out.

Rabbit lived his life passively. He went along with what happened and in doing so, found himself committed and obliged to things that he did not want. One of them being his wife. But he is tethered to her. Tethered in place through his son and his soon-to-be-born daughter. He tries several times to run away from that life, to start afresh, but he cannot do it. He comes crawling back each time.

He wants to go south, down, down the map into orange groves and smoking rivers and barefoot women. It seems simple enough, drive all night through the dawn through the morning through the noon park on a beach take off your shoes and fall asleep by the Gulf of Mexico. Wake up with stars above perfectly spaced in perfect health.

Your obligations can give you a sense of meaning in your life. If you are obligated to the things you don’t care about, then your meaning for life will be something you don’t care about, and that’s what happened to Harry. His passivity has led him to live a life which he doesn’t care about and so he cannot find peace.

External Change Doesn’t Bring Meaning 

The land refuses to change. The more he drives the more the region resembles the country around Mt. Judge. The scruff on the embankments, the same weathered billboards for the same products you wondered anybody would ever want to buy. At the upper edge of his headlight beams the make tree-twigs make the same net. Indeed the net seems thicker now.

Much of the novel is Rabbit’s search for meaning. He doesn’t find meaning in his job. Nor does he find meaning through the family. The only thing that really gave him self-worth is his basketball dreams and with those gone, he has nothing concrete he can hang his hat on and say to himself that he did something good. 

This blind search, mainly external, leads him to Ruth, with whom he starts a relationship. 

He was happy just hanging around her place at night, her reading mysteries and him running down to the delicatessen for dinner ale and some nights going to a movie but nothing like this.

At first, the relationship gives him pleasure. Makes him feel good, but the more he stays, the more guilt he feels. The external change did not help him because internally he was still the same man. A man who gets jealous, who is petty, who is dissatisfied.

His real happiness is a ladder from whose top rung he keeps trying to jump still higher, because he knows he should.

How Little Control You Have In Life

Lovely life eclipsed by lovey death.

The theme of control is evident throughout the novel, but there is a singular moment that encapsulates it at the end. The death of his infant daughter. There are things he could have done to prevent it from happening, but you have to wonder how far in his life he would have to go in order to change the cause-and-effect link that led to his daughter’s death. 

How much control do you really have over what happens around you? You may be able to control yourself, your habits, your emotions, and your feelings, but what can you do about the drunk driver that swerves and crashes into you? There is a level of absurdity to life because so much of it just happens. It’s random. Out of control. Chaotic. You can do your best to bring order, but you cannot control life.

She lifts the living thing into air and hugs it against her sopping chest. Water pours off them onto the bathroom tiles. The little weightless body flops against her neck and a quick look of relief at the baby’s face gives a fantastic clotted impression […] Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knock sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

Epiphanies Aren’t Real

After all that happens: leaving his wife, meeting Ruth, leaving her to go back to his wife, the understanding gained from the Pastor, the birth of his daughter, the death of his daughter, after these things, the book ends the same way it starts, with Rabbit running away from responsibility. 

He sees that among the heads even his own mother is horrified, a blank with shock, a wall against him; she asks him what have they done to him and then she does it too. A suffocating sense of injustice blinds him. He turns and runs.

Uphill exultantly. He doges among gravestones. Dandelions grow bright as butter among the graves. Behind him his name is called in Eccles’ voice: ‘Harry! Harry!’

Running away from his life. This strikes at the heart of human beings. It is difficult to change who we are. We can change our habits and routines, but it is difficult to change our nature. And Rabbit’s nature doesn’t change. He has not found peace.

His hand lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah; runs. Runs.

Need To Have A Why

The whole novel Rabbit is searching for a reason. 

‘Well I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all of this’—he gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood half-brick one-and-a-half-stories in little flat bulldozed yards holding tricycles and spindly three-year-old tress, the un-grandest landscape in the world—‘there’s something that wants me to find it.’

A reason to live. A reason to accept life. A reason that makes sense of the world. A reason to justify his feelings and beliefs. 

Without meaning, your actions and beliefs seem bland, like a grey sky imprisoning the sunlight. There is no light in Harry’s life. He walks around in the dark, hoping for something to turn up that will improve his life. He doesn’t know what he wants, why he does the things he does, what will make him actually happy and so, we are left with a character who is ultimately dissatisfied with life which is slowly breaking him down and there is nothing he can do about it. 

That’s what you have, Harry: life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.

Finding the ‘Why’ for your life then becomes the meaning for life.

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