Fag: ENG 2305 Literature and Society in the U.S. and Canada

Oppgavetype: Muntlig foredrag

Tidspunkt: Våren 2004



9. “Whatever one might feel about Harry’s potentially suicidal behavior, there can be no doubt that the theme of death permeates the novel, from the beginning to the end.” Present some of the episodes and images of the novel that can substantiate such an argument.

            Rabbit At Rest ends with the last heart attack and resulting death of its protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. This, however, should come as no surprise to us as readers, as the novel again and again deals with the subject of death. It keeps building up a feeling of doom and destruction until its culmination on the basketball field in Florida. I will try to illustrate how the novel handles this theme by pointing to episodes, people and images that are relevant in this context.

            Right from the start, at the airport, we hear about Harry’s “pronged sense of doom” which is referred to throughout this opening episode and also mentioned later in the novel. We are also reminded of Rebecca, the daughter Janice accidentally drowned thirty years ago. To quote from the novel, “[T]heir dead child lives on with them as a silent glue of guilt and shame, an inexpungeable sourness at the bottom of things.” Thus, already from the beginning, an underlying sensation of disaster and death has been established. Contributing to this sensation is the precursory heart attack Harry suffers when he is out at sea with his granddaughter Judy that concludes the first part of the novel. A precursor is a thing (or a person) that comes before another of the same kind, and that gives a signal of and anticipates something forthcoming. This narrative technique is rather common, especially in horror fiction, where it is widely used to create suspense. To call Rabbit At Rest horror fiction is far-fetched, of course, but the incident nonetheless creates suspense and also serves as a kind of omen of what is to come. Even though we know (or should know) that Harry is not going to die because of this heart attack, since this occurs nowhere near the end of the novel, the episode brutally sets the fashion and points out the direction of the story.

            Second, there is the way Harry behaves both before and even after he has had the heart attack and his doctor has instructed him how to eat and live. His behavior and attitude almost border on self-destruction, at least they are far from the opposite. He disregards the doctor’s instructions on how to eat, continuing to enjoy salty snacks, nuts, ice cream, bacon and so on. There are many detailed descriptions of how he enjoys the way the food plays in his mouth, it is almost as if the “forbidden fruit” angle gives him even more pleasure. He does not exercise more, in fact he virtually gives up what little exercise he engaged in before the heart attack. And he refuses to have the bypass operation recommended by the doctors, since he is disgusted by and probably scared of the way this procedure is performed. Instead he goes for the less drastic incision of angioplasty, which one doctor refers to as a “Micky Mouse” operation. This, as we know, turns out to be a very fatal decision. Harry’s apparent recklessness and carelessness with his body, both before and after the first heart attack, makes him hedonistic and/or opportunistic rather than suicidal, I think. His general problem seems to be that he cannot say no to instant pleasure, be it a macadamia nut or intercourse with his daughter-in-law, even though the consequences of these actions may be terrible, both for himself and his family. And with an disposition like this, his demise seems inevitable, and also more than a bit deserved. It would be wrong to say that he cannot control himself, and by this falsely ignore his own responsibility for himself. Harry has a choice, and he simply makes the wrong choices.

            Third, there are the many accidents that occur around the world that Harry notices. There is a Pan Am crash in Scotland that is referred to over and over again. There are congressmen dying, a pregnant woman shot to deat, a perverted kidnapper/rapist/killer and many more. In short, the media are packed with death. Society is packed with death. And even Harry’s immediate surroundings are full of it. He mentions friends and lovers who have died over the years, like Peggy Foshnacht and Jill, and he also mentions the prostitute with whom he had his first sexual experience that may or may not still be alive. Furthermore, Nelson has hired a homosexual accountant called Lyle to work for Springer Motors. He is very ill all the time, since he suffers from AIDS, and even seems to be in the last stages of this disease. His case easily relates to the general growing AIDS problem in America in the late 80s, when the consequences of the two last decades’ sexual revolution and liberation became evident. This lethal illness became a national and international fear, and linked sexuality and death in a morbid way previously unknown. The most important thing that happens in this respect, however, is probably the lupus and consequent death of Thelma Harrison, who has been part of a long-standing love affair with Harry and is even younger than him. He seems to be truly sorry for her death, at least in his own way. All these events and episodes relate to a more profound aspect of Harry’s thinking that must be discussed in this respect, which is that he seems to think that virtually everything was better in the old days. And he is probably right about this, seen from his perspective, because now everything is falling apart, both the world, his surroundings and ultimately himself.

            Finally, I would like to comment on the symbolism of Valhalla Village. Being a Swede, Harry naturally descends from the vikings. Valhalla is the place of Norse mythology where the vikings would go to spend their afterlife, doing nothing but battling and drinking all day long. The name is ironically used in this context, since the place is used as a satire on American retirement living. Although Harry and Janice and the other people who live there are not physically dead, Updike uses this name to suggest that their existence in Florida is a sort of death. But they are as far from fighting warriors as imaginable. They have no real obligations, and they while away the hours with mildly amusing activities and errands. The fact that Janice later in the novel seems to wish to spend less time at their Florida home because of her real estate job, while Harry seems to be going in the opposite direction, indicates how Janice has entered a new spring in her life, while Harry has entered the autumn and winter of his.