Rabbit at Rest
is a 1990 novel by American author and art and literary critic John Updike. The fourth and last novel of his Rabbit Angstrom
series, it chronicles the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom just before the turn of the 1990s. Now an old man, Rabbit struggles with the challenges of late life while retreating annually from Pennsylvania to Florida. His internal struggles manifest in tensions between his wife, son, and friends, which he ultimately strives to repair. Like the other books in the series, Rabbit at Rest
is an ironic
take on the individual’s dissatisfaction with the constraints imposed by his social world, his era, and his mortality. The novel won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was followed by a 2001 novella, Rabbit Remembered
, which is set after Rabbit’s death.
The novel begins in 1988, four decades after Rabbit is first introduced as a high schooler. No longer is he the basketball star of his youth; nor is he struggling to keep a low-paying sales job for a boring kitchen appliance firm. He is now in retirement with his wife, Janice, whom he met in his twenties. During the winter, they retreat to Florida, but Rabbit finds the climate insufficient in restoring his health or spirits. He is chronically depressed, overweight, and pessimistic about what remains for him out in the world. One afternoon, Rabbit’s health issues culminate in a scare when he has a heart attack during a fishing excursion with his young granddaughter, Judy. The moment evokes a tragic moment in the series’ first book, Rabbit, Run
, in which Rabbit lost his baby daughter Rebecca in an accidental drowning. This time, he summons the strength to save Judy from drowning even while succumbing to his failing heart, redeeming his earlier failure.
Rabbit also deals with his son, Nelson, who is addicted to drugs. Janice has enabled much of Nelson’s behavior by misusing her ownership of the family’s car dealership to transfer ownership to Nelson. Nelson takes advantage of the firm, siphoning off funds to fuel his addiction. Eventually, he loses the family’s dealership. Rabbit copes by spending time with Judy, whom he believes is starting to resemble himself as a child. He resonates less with Judy’s younger brother, Roy, in whom he sees a young Nelson.
As Rabbit recovers from heart surgery, he notices that one of his nurses, Annabelle Byer, has an uncanny resemblance to Ruth, his old girlfriend. He knows that he had an illegitimate child with Ruth, and suspects that Annabelle may be her. He tries to get to know Annabelle without divulging his suspicion. Not long after, he hears about the death of the woman with whom he carried out a years-long affair, Thelma Harrison, who was married to his enemy from high school, Ron. At Thelma’s funeral, Ron reveals that he knows about their affair; later, they agree to play golf together and make amends. Also at the funeral, Rabbit runs into a woman he lusted after a decade earlier, Cindy Murkett. He is surprised to see that her marriage and life outlook have taken an unfortunate turn.
Janice starts a new job as a real estate broker; Nelson returns from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. The family is immediately destabilized once again when Janice and Nelson learn that Rabbit hooked up with Nelson’s wife, Pru, the same day he got out of the hospital. Janice is both angry and distraught, struggling to understand why Rabbit has cheated on her. Instead of remaining with her, in a display of cowardice that is not totally out of character, Rabbit flees to Florida. While he hides there, he tries to regain an ordinary life and recapture some of his youth. His attempt to repress the pain he has inflicted on his family soon backfires. In a karmic accident, Rabbit suffers a heart attack right after winning a basketball match against a local kid. The event alludes ironically to a scene in Rabbit, Run
– one of the very first scenes in Rabbit’s life story – in which a twenty-six-year-old Rabbit inserts himself in a neighborhood basketball match between teenagers. Janice and Nelson rush to his deathbed before he passes, and have enough time to speak with him. Janice forgives him for cheating on her, and he and Nelson express their acceptance of each other. Rabbit dies peacefully, having repaired his most intimate relationships.Rabbit at Rest
makes no final moral judgment of its characters; rather, its plot evolves through their failures and insufficiencies, suggesting that they are intrinsic to one’s effort to furnish a good life. In the end, Rabbit and his friends and family are satisfied because they have clung to the virtues of courage, kindness, and humility despite their knowledge of each other’s mistakes.