A Race to Find Happiness
There is something extraordinarily powerful about the euphoria associated with happiness. What causes this and where does it come from? Some say it has to do with a completeness in one’s self, a sense of well being and understanding. It also comes from living for the present, and living for the future; from making others happy, and from enjoying our enemies’ misery; from being with others, and from living in peaceful solitude. Different people experience different exhilarating emotions that are played through the acts of living. It is from this that we open our eyes to see what is fresh, for one’s state of happiness or unhappiness colors everything else.
People who are happy perceive the world as safer, make decisions more easily, rate job applicants more favorably, and report greater satisfaction with their whole lives. When your mood is gloomy, life as a whole seems depressing. Let your mood brighten, and suddenly your relationships, your self-image, and your hopes for the future all seem more promising. In John Updike’s novel, rabbit, run, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is a man who wants constant change. He hasn’t found his happiness so he runs away from what he knows as life to something new, in hopes that he can find his answer. For some people happiness is a walk in the woods, a sunny view of a waterfall, or some other experience of the tranquility and beauty of unspoiled places. Such settings may free us from stress that triggers bad moods or may put us in touch with a place in ourselves that is beyond unhappiness. For Rabbit it seems to be women and sexual compatibility and being in control.
Rabbit’s passions flowed along the path of lust and sexual fulfillment. When he was with Ruth, everything seemed to be about being pleased sexually and having it whenever he was in need. He thought merely of himself and not of the desires that Ruth might have, or what she might want in their relationship. He barely even noticed how sick she had gotten and failed to realize that it was because she was pregnant. He wanted sex and he would take it anyway he could. In the time period that this took place, his desires posed as a problem. Elaine Tyler May quotes in Sex, Women and the Bomb, “Sexual ‘deviants’ were allegedly security risks because they could be easily seduced, blackmailed, or tempted to join subversive organizations, since they lacked the will and moral stamina to resist.” (May, 95). For Rabbit he couldn’t say, “no” and wouldn’t say, “no”. Sex was his way out; it was the cure to his problems and it made him happy. He did not think about his family and what running away would do to them. He was not the typical 1950’s family man that everyone watched on TV. That is not what Updike was trying to get across.
The 1950’s were a funny decade in regards to family values and the way a family should be run. Though at the time it seemed natural. The woman ran the house in the sense of the children and raising them properly. The wives did the cooking, the cleaning, the yard work, and the bussing of the children, while the men took on a job to bring in the income. It was the wife’s job to make sure that dinner was on the table when the father came home from work. Television during this time period exemplified the priorities in a women’s life by showing programs such as Father Knows Best, and The Life of Riley. Steven Mintz said in his chapter Families of the Fifties, “Television programs conveyed cultural images as strong and as influential on the viewer as the commercials which financed the new medium. Each night on TV, screen stars projected conceptions of masculinity and femininity, parenthood, and childhood and adolescence to millions of viewers.” Though this still happens in today’s world, TV was more of an influence during the 50’s, only because TV was brand new to most families. It gave the idea that marriage and family was the most important part of a person’s life. Marriage was a sacrament that everyone needed to make.
The 1950’s brought about many ideas of what marriage should be. They felt that marriages would bring about happiness. “Young adults of the 1950’s married in unprecedented numbers. They married earlier than other twentieth-century Americans, and they had more children and bore them faster.” (Mintz, 178). People felt that if you didn’t get married right away then you were doomed to be alone and unhappy for the rest of your life, there must be something wrong with you if you weren’t married by your mid twenties. “During the postwar period, marriage was seen as an essential ingredient for a full and happy life. Fewer than one American in ten believed that an unmarried person could be happy.” (Mintz, 180). Maybe that is a partial reason why Rabbit married Janice. “He married relatively late, when he was twenty-three and she was two years out of high school.” (Updike, 11). In his decade, 23 years old was supposedly late to get married. Today that’s the age that people are finally getting there lives in order, and for most people today that’s not even close to the age of marriage.
So we ask why then did Rabbit finally decide to get married at such a “late” age? It was getting Janice pregnant that finally pushed the button. But he was happy about it, for that gave him his reason to get married. It was the right thing to do, but it was also a way out of where his life was leading. “Husbands, especially fathers, wore the badge of “family man” as a sign of virility and patriotism. There is no question that the social pressure to appear mature, responsible, “normal” and patriotic, contributed to the rush into marriage.” (May, 98). He could turn himself into that “family man” that everyone looked up to and respected. He got the job that would give him a good image selling a MagiPeel Peeler to local five and dime stores. It would be his responsibility to bring in the dough while Janice became the housewife.
Housewives during this time period found their happiness in completing the family by adding that bit of picture perfect homemaking. “At the same time, women had to turn their energies toward the family in healthy ways. As long as they were subordinate to their husbands, sexually and otherwise, they would be contented and fulfilled wives devoting themselves to expert childbearing and professionalized homemaking. As loving, erotic mates, they would prevent their husbands from straying from the straight-and-narrow. And they would raise healthy children to be strong, vital citizens.” (May, 97). As one would find from rabbit, run, Janice was not the perfect housewife. She let her husband stray because she became a drunk who showed no interest in her family and keeping them together. She killed her newborn baby by drowning her in a bathtub on accident, due to her drinking problem. “Women’s magazines pictured housewives as happy with their tasks and depicted career women as neurotic, unhappy, and dissatisfied.” (Mintz, 181). For Janice, she was an unhappy housewife who only found happiness in her drinking. This caused a problem in forming that complete family. What Updike is trying to illustrate in his novel is that not every family can be like what we watched on TV, perfect.
The perfect family does not exist in rabbit, run; yet it tries to exist in Rabbit himself. Rabbit strives to be best at everything he does and when he feels that he’s not, he runs. “I once did something right. I played first-rate basketball. I really did. And after you’re first-rate at something, no matter what, it kind of takes the kick out of being second-rate. And that little thing Janice and I had going, boy, it was really second-rate.” (Updike, 92) Since his life wasn’t the “first-rate” that he wanted it to be, Rabbit decided to leave his wife in search of becoming complete again, happy. Updike isn’t trying to make his book like a TV sitcom. He’s leading us through the trials and tribulations that Rabbit, and most “normal” people experience during their journey to find themselves. Rabbit ran because his wife wasn’t making him complete. She was a drunk and he had no way to help her.
Rabbit was a very self-indulged person, and helping someone would probably not even cross his mind. “That was the thing about him, he just lived in his skin and didn’t give a thought to the consequences of anything. Tell him about the candy bars and feeling sleepy he’ll probably get scared and off he’ll go, him and his good clean piece and his cute little God and his cute little minister playing golf every Tuesday.” (Updike, 128) Even Ruth saw that Rabbit was out for himself. That is why he had to run away from his wife, he needed to do things for himself first. “To divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self The life where a man must go until he is beat where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforeseen situations which beset his day.” (Mailer, 95). This is what leads us to believe that happiness can’t be found with others until it is found within thy self.
It’s not just in the 1950’s that one wants to find happiness through marriage and through themselves. It’s a normal feeling to have for anyone at anytime. Everyone has values, they were just geared towards different things in the fifties. For Rabbit, his values were sex, being in control, having someone in his life that understood him, and finding himself and his true meaning in life. “What is consequent therefore is the divorce of man from his values, the liberation of the self from the Super-Ego of society. The only hip morality is to do what one feels wherever and whenever it is possible.” (Mailer, 100). This would explain why Rabbit keeps on running from situations instead of dealing with them as they happen. He is the hipster of the fifties with no where to go but backwards or forwards, Ruth or Janice. Marry one and sleep with the other. Propose to Ruth because it’s an escape route; stay with Janice because it’s what he knows. “Whether you are a man or a woman, the family is the unit to which you must genuinely belong, the family is the center of your living. If it isn’t, you’ve gone far astray.” (Mintz, 180). Marriage is a game for Rabbit, and this makes him loose his ideal vision of being the “family man.” He fears what commitment could bring him, and where it would lead him.
As Norman Mailer said in The White Negro, “A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve. The only courage, with rare exceptions, that we have been witness to, has only been the isolated courage of isolated people.” (p 95). Janice was isolated in her home, by her parents, and by Rabbit. She drank as a way out, maybe even a cry out. Her parents treated her as if she was still their little girl who would never experience real life. They didn’t try to help her with her drinking problem, but only pushed her to drink more. She didn’t get a long with her mother that well, because she wasn’t what her mother wanted her to be. Rabbit isolated her by never being there for her and not talking to her like she was a real person. “Deprived of stimulating contacts with other adults, the lives of suburban housewives were characterized by isolation, boredom, and loneliness.” (Mintz, 184). Maybe if Janice’s mother was more of a role model to her child, then Janice could’ve lived a more stable and happy life.
It’s the parents’ job to be that proper role model for their children. That way their children can grow up feeling loved and secure and be ready to take on the world. The children who don’t have supportive parents, sometimes grow up confused and lost in the real world. Janice and her mother didn’t have a great relationship. Her mother was always trying to push Janice to be more like her instead of guiding her to be who she was meant to be. “‘Children raised in loving families want to learn, want to conform, want to grow up. If the relationships are good, they don’t have to be forced to eat, forced to learn to use the toilet.’ The ideal mother did not attempt to mold her children or rigidly structure their environment. Instead she sought to meet her children’s need for love, attention, and maternal care; and in fulfilling the needs of her children, she, in turn, would find fulfillment.” (Mintz, 188). Janice, in turn, was not a responsible mother for her children. She tried to be a loving mother, but drank too much and couldn’t take control of her situation. So whom should we blame for the misfortunes that occurred through Janice’s life? Surely not Rabbit. He did everything that he felt was right.
He felt that leaving Janice in her time of need was the right thing to do. But it was the right thing to do for himself. He was selfish and he played on that. He didn’t want to have to deal with Janice because she got in his way. She was wrong in his life and he was going to try to fix that by running instead of staying to turn their marriage around. “Well Jesus Janice. All you did was watch television and drink all the time. I mean I’m not saying I wasn’t wrong, but it felt like I had to. You get the feeling you’re in your coffin before they’ve taken your blood out.” (Updike, 185) Now where is the happiness in that? His marriage was empty and Janice wasn’t making him happy. He admits he was wrong by leaving, but that doesn’t solve his problems. “Right and wrong aren’t dropped from the sky. We We make them. Against misery. Invariably, Harry, invariably misery follow their disobedience. Not our own, often at first not our own. Now you’ve had an example of that in your life.” (Updike, 240) These were the words of Rabbit’s wise coach Tothero, who knew from the beginning that Rabbit running away was the wrong thing to do.
But as time passed on in Rabbit’s race to find happiness, he began to realize that Janice was an important part in his life because they created two beautiful children. He knew that he was suppose to be there for her and that eventually they could be happy again. He longed to touch her and be with her sexually and this ended up driving her to drink again. “She becomes a liability that painfully weights the knot below his chest. This is the wild woman he must steer with care down a lifelong path, away from Monday morning.” (Updike, 244) Although he goes back to Janice, he fails to help and understand her. He becomes blamed for the death of their child, and he is shunned in everyone’s eyes, including his own mother. He thought that by returning home to Janice he could fix things and start a new job and they would become the happy family that he always longed to have. But life isn’t always meant to flow along that course of happiness, and Rabbit begins to hate himself. “Hate suits him better than forgiveness. Immersed in hate he doesn’t have to do anything; he can be paralyzed, the rigidity of hatred makes a kind of shelter for him” (Updike, 245). Still looking for a way out, he runs again to escape this hatred and to get away from all the fingers pointing to him. If only he was a better father and husband, maybe this hatred wouldn’t be burning a hole through his body and mind.
It was his mind that was telling him to run, and it was his body that was leading him away. He wasn’t the typical “family man” and he wasn’t going to be. Too many things were portrayed during the fifties and it was what you paid attention to that geared your life. The time period said that the father was to be the one who would hold the job and run the family at the same time. But for Rabbit, he couldn’t be in twenty places at once. How was he to raise a family when he had to bring in the money? Maybe that is why his wife went down hill. Janice just couldn’t handle all of the priorities of a housewife, and Rabbit couldn’t handle the responsibilities of a husband. “According to the popular stereotype, families in the suburbs were child-centered and female dominated. Because of the demands of commuting, a father had little time to spend with his family. Being so preoccupied with his role as a breadwinner, he was unable to be the paternal authority and caring father to his children.” (Mintz, 184). Rabbit is supposed to be giving life to his family as well as financial support. But he can’t give life when he doesn’t even know where he wants his life to go.
Life should be about happiness, and it should be about love. Without either, then what are you living towards? Some people live towards making money and being successful. To them, that is their happiness. Other people live for a loved one and their family, and they will struggle through everything, yet always try to make the best out of it. In the end, Rabbit gave someone life. He helped to bring back joy into Mrs. Smith’s life and gave her a reason for living. “You kept me alive, Harry; it’s the truth; you did. All winter I was fighting the grave and then in April I looked out the window and here was this tall young man burning my old stalks and I knew life hadn’t left me. That’s what you have, Harry: life. It’s a strange gift and I don’t know how we’re supposed to use it but I know it’s the only gift we get and it’s a good one.” (Updike, 192). As long as Rabbit keeps these words in the back of his mind, then maybe he’ll realize where he’s suppose to be. He brought happiness to at least one soul during his tribulations, and that is the key to life. A happy ending is what everyone is looking for, and the only way to find it, is to stick with what you know best and eventually it will come. Giving up is not the idea here. One step at a time is where to start. “The 1950’s stand out as the golden age of the American Family.” (Mintz, 178). And when Rabbit realizes this, then he can begin to devote his life to making his family happy too.
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