- The Rabbit Tetralogy:From Solitude to Society to Solitude Again
Frederick R. Karl in his Exhaustive Survey of postwar American fiction has little to say about novel sequences because, he claims, in comparison to Britain, there is a "paucity of sequential novels" in America.1 Our "social expectations" and "our need for movement and escape" militate against novel sequences, which, of necessity, imply "limited options." The relative scarcity of this form, he argues, is "tied to our optimism, [and] our desire to break from predetermined forms, to free ourselves from the historical past, emerging into that purer atmosphere of pastoral, which promises liberation" (252). The predominant "predetermined form" from which American writers have attempted to liberate their characters has always been that of society, which, as Richard Poirier pointed out in discussing Huck Finn, has been previously conceived of [End Page 5] "as nothing but artifice, tricks, games, and disguise" (194). Poirier concludes that Huck Finn "discovers that the consciousness it values most cannot expand within the environment it provides, that the self cannot come to fuller life through social drama" (195). All that self can do is to escape, and, like so many other American male protagonists, Huck flees society, women, and history, and Twain's inability late in his career to imagine a subsequent life for Huck is evidence, as Fitzgerald claimed, that in America there are no second acts. Having once escaped, the characters have no imaginable social milieu within which to exist.
Against Karl's model of interpretation, I am going to offer John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy as a paradigm of how American novel sequences, in the postwar years, instead of rejecting, embrace "predetermined forms," in particular familial and social connections, and how Updike's main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, comes to "fuller life through social drama." Over the course of these four novels, Updike transforms Rabbit from the traditional solitary American male character fleeing society and women as representatives of that society to a man integrated into society and surrounded, almost comically, by women; the final novel, Rabbit At Rest, transforms him again into a man isolated from his family and society, but his isolation is not a return to an earlier mode of being because Harry has developed an almost acute historical consciousness. In these novels, Updike has been exploring a long-term tension in American experience, the kind of tension that Emerson articulated in "Solitude and Society": "[N]ature delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line. Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other. The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy" (Complete Works VII, 15). The tetralogy executes, I will argue, a complicated interplay between these "extreme antagonisms." Moving from the solitude of the fleeing young man to the solitude of the death-saturated older man, the sequence tacks between solitude and society (and achieves a momentary balance in Rabbit Is Rich), only to have that moment inevitably destroyed by Rabbit's dwindling toward death. Within this interplay, the sequence also reveals an increasing awareness of history, which becomes a subject, almost obsessively, in the guise of contemporary events, and which is transformed in the final novel into a historical consciousness within Harry Angstrom.
In broad national terms, the first novel, Rabbit, Run, is the least impinged upon by contemporary history and "takes . . . little account of the public terms of life in its time" (Edwards 94). Although Rabbit was in the army during the Korean war, he served stateside, and apart from the dim memory of this period, his world is largely innocent of anything outside of Brewer, Pennsylvania, the insulated setting of the series. That [End Page 6] very limitation, however, makes the novel typical of what Robert Lowell called the "tranquilized Fifties" (85): a time of conformity and of national somnolence. It was also a time that saw the beginnings of the revolt against that conformity, as seen in the Beat movement, but Rabbit (like the country one could almost say) is so...