Rabbit Redux

John Updike

Rabbit Redux

John Updike

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The second novel in John Updike's "Rabbit" series, Rabbit Redux reintroduces former high school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in his middle age. His glory days behind him and his marriage to Janice falling apart, Rabbit seeks out solace in drugs and cultural exploration. This novel takes place ten years after its prequel, Rabbit Run, in which Rabbit abandoned his marriage in pursuit of his past athletic career, then returned after his wife's fatal negligence of their second child. Alfred A. Knopf published the work in 1971.

As the story opens, Rabbit is 36. He sees himself as similar to his steadily declining hometown of Brewer, Pennsylvania. He works at his father's company as a typesetter, an occupation which threatens to be rendered irrelevant with the advancement of technology.

Set during the "Summer of Love" in the 1960s, Rabbit is only vaguely aware of the cultural issues that appear on his television. Racial tensions, the Apollo Eleven moon landing, and the Vietnam War all occur outside his bored, humdrum existence.

Rabbit and Janice have been married for 12 years. Janice meets a car salesman, a Greek man named Charlie Stavros, at her father's car dealership and the two begin an affair. Janice decides to leave Rabbit and their teenage son for Charlie.

Attempting to help Rabbit forget his relationship issues, Buchanan, one of Rabbit's black coworkers, invites him to a bar. There, he introduces Rabbit to Jill, a young, runaway hippie from an affluent Connecticut family. The text implies that Jill has been selling herself behind the bar for drugs. Rabbit offers Jill a place to stay with him and his son, Nelson. Rabbit and Jill immediately start up a sexual relationship. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Nelson is smitten with Jill, treating her as his first love.

Not long after Jill moves in, her drug dealer, Skeeter, is on the run from law enforcement and moves in as well.  Skeeter is a black Vietnam veteran and intellectual whose radical views verge on messianic. He is sometimes even referred to as "black Jesus." The three form a commune of sorts, with both men becoming sexually involved with Jill and the three of them participating in substance abuse. In their pot-smoking sessions, Skeeter rants about the current political climate, opening Rabbit up to the cultural shift that's happening in America, specifically focusing on Afro-American history. Rabbit is resistant to these new ideas, as he is in favor of the Vietnam war and clings to some racist tendencies.

Rabbit's neighbors have noticed Skeeter and Jill around the house and are concerned. One of the neighbors sets fire to Rabbit's house while Jill is in a heroin-induced stupor, and Jill burns to death. No one else is harmed during the fire. When Rabbit speaks to a policeman at the scene of the fire, he's told that whoever was in the house is "cooked," and Nelson vomits. Skeeter encourages Rabbit to think nothing of the terrible event, but Rabbit is worried about Nelson.

Meanwhile, Janice's lover, Charlie, suffers a heart attack. Janice manages to save him, but the incident causes the pair to reconsider what they want. Janice returns to Rabbit and Nelson, and the three try to repair their broken family, though Rabbit sometimes imagines that Jill comes to him in his sleep.

Freedom is a prominent theme in the text. Rabbit feels trapped by his dead-end job and by domesticity in general. His wife, too, feels trapped and unappreciated and seeks her freedom in an affair. Unathletic Nelson wants to be free from his father's overbearing expectations, and Jill runs away to be free from her strict parents and their affluent life. Skeeter wants freedom from the oppressive social construct of race and from the police.

Updike also presents in his characters several sides of a contentious subject. In Rabbit, we find a nationalist who blindly sides with his country without giving the matter much thought. Conversely, Skeeter is a product of the war and articulates why he opposes it. In much the same way, Rabbit exemplifies many of the societal attitudes on race, calling blacks "smelly" and "obnoxious," and is only somewhat enlightened when Skeeter and Jill move into his home.

Rabbit Redux and the other Rabbit books received positive reviews, with Time Magazine calling Updike a "rare verbal genius" and The New York Times calling Rabbit Redux "a great achievement, by far the most audacious and successful book Updike has written." Updike was also praised highly for his prose. Joyce Carol Oates said of the Rabbit series, "The being that most illuminates the Rabbit quartet is not finally Rabbit Angstrom himself but the world through which he moves in his slow downward slide, meticulously recorded by one of the most gifted American realists..." As recently as 2015, Rabbit Redux was included in The Guardian's list of "100 Best Novels," ranking 88.
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