John Updike and Rabbit Angstrom
In John Updike's series of works about Rabbit Angstrom, we find an interesting relationship between a character and his (and Updike's) historical context. Each of the Rabbit stories locates its events in a precise moment in American history, and features characters trying to navigate through that moment. The influence of the culture on both Updike and Rabbit seems most natural in the first novel, Rabbit, Run (1960). The book began as part of a parallel with The Centaur, in an attempt to "illustrate the polarity between running and plodding."1 The context of the late 1950s U.S. seems to have contributed to the content and message. Updike says, "the price society pays for unrestrained motion was on my mind."2 The historical context guided Updike's theme, but did not determine it.
Rabbit Redux (1971), however, seems to slip a little due to the forced insertion of the late 60s and early 70s. In trying to capture an America of the time, Updike loses control of his main character, who proves to be far less licentious than this novel would have us believe. Rabbit's actions are forced into the 60s milieu--which is really what Updike is writing about--and the characters are somewhat formulaically manipulated to fit in to an exposition on the cultural upheaval. The novel is weak at times mostly due to this manipulation, but the work draws its strength largely from its ties to its context, and to Updike's urgency in engaging this context. He explains that "the perpetual presentness of my former hero beckoned as a relief."3
The last three works in the series have varying degrees of success in relating a character to his context. Rabbit is Rich (1981) relates a consistent version of Rabbit most effectively to his time, while "Rabbit Remembered" (2001) does so least effectively, and especially strains over Y2K concerns. This introduction, I hope, provides a useful means of thinking about the determinative effects of context on a literary work.
1Updike, John. Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 849.
2Updike, p. 850.
3Updike, p. 858.