Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels

Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels

Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels

Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels

Synopsis

O'Connell examines the role of socially constructed masculinity in Updike's Rabbit tetralogy - Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest - convincingly arguing that the four novels comprise the longest and most comprehensive representation of masculinity in American literature and place Updike firmly with the precursors of the contemporary movement among men to reevaluate their cultural inheritance. A disturbing element exists, O'Connell determines, in both the texts of the Rabbit novels and in the critical community that examines them. In the novels, O'Connell finds substantial evidence to demonstrate patterns of psychological and physical abuse toward women, citing as the culminating example the mounting toll of literally or metaphorically dead women in the texts. Critics who view Updike as a nonviolent writer and strangely overlook Rabbit's repressive and violent behaviors avoid a discomforting but crucial aspect of the characterization. Although she examines negative aspects of Rabbit's behavior, O'Connell avoids the oversimplification of labeling Updike a misogynist. Instead, she looks closely at the forces shaping Rabbit's gender identity as well as at the ways he experiences masculinity and the ways his gender identity affects his personal and spiritual development, his relationships, and, ultimately, his society. As she discusses these issues, O'Connell uses the term patriarchy in its broadest sense to refer to the practice of centralizing the male and marginalizing the female in all areas of human life. Patriarchal ideology - the assumptions, values, ideas, and patterns of thought that perpetuate the arrangement - is written as hidden text, permeating everyaspect of culture, particularly language, from which it spreads to other signifying systems. Contrary to conventional critical wisdom, the Rabbit tetralogy is not a straightforward chronicle; the novels create meaning by chal

Excerpt

This "RE-VISION" grew out of a sense that something disturbing was occurring both in the texts of the first three Rabbit novels and in the critical community. Although at that time, I was unaware of Judith Fetterley's excellent work in The Resisting Reader (1978), I nevertheless felt that a woman reader was being asked to identify with a protagonist whose behavior toward women was sometimes clearly abusive. Such an identification, as Fetterley demonstrates, involves a self-negation that women readers need to defend themselves against, especially when the victims of abuse are portrayed as deserving the treatment they receive. Six women (Ruth, Janice, Rebecca, Jill, Mary, and Peggy), all of them characters that Rabbit has loved, die literally or metaphorically in the first three novels. Rebecca and Jill die as a result of Rabbit's carelessness; Janice and Ruth are depersonalized, reduced to silence, and left as if dead; Mary dies naturally but in mysterious fulfillment of her son's wish; and Peggy dies of breast cancer, in seeming retribution for her outspokenness. As I discovered that most critics fail either to notice the mounting death toll or to explore its implications and that critics generally characterize Updike as a nonviolent writer, I realized that something within the text or within the culture, or both, prevented us from seeing those bodies and therefore prevented us from identifying the homicidal pattern that emerged.

From a critical perspective, I wanted to reopen and review the texts. From a political perspective, I was also interested in the pop-

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