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John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy:
Mastered Irony in Motion
Boswell, Marshall. John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001. xi + 253 pp.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Marshall Boswell's critical achievement here. His goal is to explain Updike's literary vision in constructing [End Page 505] the Rabbit tetralogy, "a dialectical vision" that he calls "an interdependent matrix of ethical precepts, theological beliefs, and aesthetic principles—less a creed than a versatile formal device; it is, in effect the scaffold on which Updike has built the entire tetralogy." Indeed, it seems fair to say that henceforth no commentator on the Updike tetralogy will be able to avoid coming to terms with Boswell's brilliantly penetrating interpretation.
The four chapters analyzing the four Rabbit novels are excellent examples of careful reading translated into very readable prose. Students and general readers will find much of value in those chapters, as each novel is taken not only on its own terms, but also as an expression of the overall tetralogy vision. The introduction lays out in careful detail the assumptions Boswell brings to this task. The key interpretive assumptions are taken from Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth—Kierkegaard providing the philosophical concept of mastered irony, which presumes an author's vision "emerges indirectly via the unresolved tension produced by the interplay of that thematic dialectic," and Barth providing the theological metaphysics of the "dialectic of evil, the concept of 'something and nothingness,' [and] the argument for a serenely unproveable God."
Those who take issue with Boswell's approach will likely do so at the point where he assumes that the vision of the Rabbit tetralogy represents the entire Updikean picture of subjective human consciousness as religious. Most careful readers will readily agree that God as a positive Creator vs. God as a negative Destroyer is the balanced dialectic the overall tetralogy thematizes, implying thus there is no human way beyond that existentially paralyzing realization. Life mixes exhilarating, wild happiness and inexpressible, inscrutable misery in ways that leave us utterly unclear about any "ultimate" positive meaning to it all as we face the trauma of our death. Nothing makes this more evident than the passage Boswell skillfully quotes from Rabbit at Rest when, sharp pains spreading through his arms and legs, Harry recalls once telling "someone, a prying clergyman, somewhere behind all this there's something that wants me to find it," followed then immediately by the narrator's comment, "Whatever itis, it has found him, and is working him over." Boswell's conclusion about this grand mega-novel is painfully accurate: "The final truth imprinted by the book is the truth of ambiguity, whereby dialectical disunities are left unreconciled." [End Page 506]
What Boswell acknowledges but too hastily disregards in his interpretation of Updike the writer are Kierkegaard's intention to move us through the angst of acknowledged uncertainty to a religious decision by the ironic use of narrative dialectic, and Barth's view that such an existential conundrum in human consciousness is precisely what personal religious decision presumably answers in response to divine revelation. The issue is not that the tetralogy provides this "answer"—it intentionally does not—but that the Updikean "vision" here and elsewhere pointedly presumes the possibility of such an "answer"—for example, the famous "holes in the ceiling" trope to which Boswell directs our attention repeatedly in the tetralogy. In short, Boswell is right about the strategy of the tetralogy, but incautious in assuming that Updike's total vision of human possibilities is exhausted by the darkly unrelieved ambiguities we are given there.
Updike's firmly avowed strategy, underscored accurately by Boswell, is not to write literature as salvation tracts, but to show why the subjective longing for clarity—here in the classic mode of Harry Angstrom, for example—is so pervasive and traumatizing in human consciousness as confronted by moral evil and physical death. Indeed, Updike has clearly acknowledged that "Rabbit is...