Exploring the art of prose


Never Rush a Rabbit: Prey Animals & Choices in Fiction

alt text: image is a color photograph of a rabbit with its identity obscured by a black bar; title card for Lee Upton's new craft essay "Never Rush a Rabbit"


By Lee Upton •

Probably like many writers I’m protective toward my characters—even though I put them in impossible situations or give them unfulfillable longings. I pretty much pickle them in vulnerability. Sometimes I let them avoid any action to save themselves—until they have to confront what they fear or attempt to escape and suffer new consequences. Most often my characters are doing everything they can to avoid being subordinate to dominant personalities—sometimes inadvertently hurting others along the way.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about prey animals and how their characteristics might illuminate choices in fiction; how, because we’re human animals, our moment-to-moment interactions are felt on our nerves, on the pathways of instinct. This train of thought arrived because I’m living with a prey animal. We found the little being lying in our driveway, directly across from our front door. The creature was clearly a pet, with plump cheeks and huge eyes. Given that a fox, hawks, and feral cats frequent our neighborhood, what else could we do but bring the defenseless rabbit inside our home?

Because I knew nothing about bunnies, I called a pet store to find out how to care for him until his owner showed up. I learned that I needed hay and pellets—and then, within a week, the bunny began needing more: toys and a play tunnel and plenty of room to roam and a place for his supplies. (I had no idea how much space ten pounds of hay takes up.) Weeks later, when no owner appeared despite our repeated postings, it became apparent that the bunny had been abandoned. By then we were in love with the bunny. He is a Rex bunny, an orange Creamsicle color. The shaggy hair on his front feet flows over his toes—much like a Clydesdale’s hooves if you could shrink each hoof down to the size of a quarter.

The bunny requires gentleness and patience and careful attention. As I told a friend, it’s delightful to hear him chew and to see him yawn. (His yawn is about the size and shape of an eraser on the end of a pencil.) He stirs every protective instinct. In fact, someone recently referred to rabbits as “dumb bunnies” and I felt insulted on our bunny’s behalf. (Notice I’m not even telling the bunny’s name—to protect his privacy, which sounds absurd, but there you have it.)

As prey animals, rabbits are escape artists; they know how to hide and dig and burrow and run evasively. Or they may engage in “tonic immobility”—remaining unmoving to avoid attracting a predator. And rabbits are delicate. You can pick up a rabbit in the wrong way and the back legs may kick so violently that the bunny can snap its own spine. There are stories of bunnies dying of fright after hearing extremely loud noises, their bodies paralyzed by stroke or their hearts ravaged. It can be difficult to tell when a rabbit is in pain or distress—unlike my cats who yowl on the way to the vet or when they want extra treats. A rabbit is quiet unless terrified and then it may scream.

All this is to say that this new addition to my life has made me think more about how humans are prey animals and also predators—both in their relationships to one another and to themselves. My characters may be trapped by bad jobs, by the court system, by addiction, by a perplexing memory that haunts them, by their own naivete or self-disgust. They may be victims to narrow, rigid, and essentializing cultural ideologies, to tides of shame, to corrosive gossip. They may try to negotiate their way out of their vulnerable situations, and some may prey upon the even-more vulnerable. Predators, it’s clear, depend on prey. In one of my stories a writer is surely a predator of sorts, taking out her rage on a younger woman at a writing retreat. Yet the older writer excuses her depredations as her reward for having endured years of professional abuse.

It’s not an accident that after the bunny appeared I reread Muriel Spark’s brilliant short novel, The Girls of Slender Means. Spark often wrote about how we may become prey to strong personalities. She’s still best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in which a reckless teacher’s flirtation with fascism leads to a child’s death. Her less well-known novel, The Girls of Slender Means, first published in 1963, focuses on the inhabitants of the May of Teck Club, a hostel designed “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years.” The novel is set in 1945 after the war at a time when “all the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.”

The inhabitants of the May of Teck Club are truly girls of slender means. Much can be made of their slim rations; how their class and culture define them; how their only hope may be marriage or a life of, at best, genteel poverty; how they must endure being condescended to by those who presume to be their betters. They’ve survived the trauma of war and are attempting, despite few opportunities, to return to a world where they can hope for normality and once again be high-spirited and desired.

When an unexploded bomb goes off in the garden, a cluster of women are trapped on the hostel’s top floor. Their only hope for escape is through a narrow window. The title of the novel is literalized as are conventions about women’s bodily worth; only the most slender women can manage to slither through the window to safety. As fire travels to the top story and the building is about to crumble, those in the smoke-filled washroom who can’t fit through the window await their fate. In the midst of her terror, a trapped woman relies on the beauty and radiance of language: the recitation of a psalm. Later, we learn that her country rector father has no idea of his daughter’s care for others in this little community of women, or of her essential and transcendent goodness.

In the fourth paragraph before the final sentence of The Girls of Slender Means, when we expect the novel to grow quiet and release us, a scene of sudden and overt violence occurs. Amid the roar of the oblivious, surging crowd celebrating VJ Day, a man knifes a woman. Unmistakably, a predator executes his prey.

We’re human animals—and we may, like Spark’s girls of slender means, find that some threats are very difficult or even impossible to escape, and that our sense of vulnerability may be heightened along with our need for one another. The predicaments for our fictional characters may not always be life-threatening but become, almost always, a crisis for the inner life.

I’m now working through the first sketchy draft of a new novel manuscript, attempting to find the points of weakness and of strength in characters, to determine how they may defend themselves and how—given that I don’t write about saints—they may also summon offensive strategies. At this stage it continues to be helpful to think of prey animals—how my narrator needs to be hyperalert, how she has to grasp that those who seem to wish her well may have a less-savory reason for extending an invitation to her, how her strategies of avoidance probably need to be revised, and how, first, she needs to realize how vulnerable she actually is. She has instincts and must use them. The trouble is, she’s used to ignoring her animal instincts—the way her skin crawls in certain situations, how her stomach twists, how she has been conditioned to beat back flickering warning signals from the nerves. Denial of danger is often her strategy—but that’s not how prey animals manage to survive.

I try to remind myself that I should be patient while creating characters, letting them escape my own first inclinations, the harness of my initial ideas, trusting that the story will grow without my pushing too hard in any direction. As I figure out my characters, I want to treat them with respect, trusting that the contours of their needs will emerge. Patience. That’s one of the things a rabbit, like an evolving character, needs. Never rush a rabbit. Or, in fiction, the creation of a complex character. I don’t want to dominate my characters; they have too much to tell me, if I can approach them with care and empathy.

As for the bunny at my home, he now follows my husband and me at our heels, hops three feet in the air when he’s especially happy, zooms on the rug he’s turned into a high-speed runway, and after his exertions, flops down beside us to be petted. Just as often, he enjoys ignoring us. But the hyperalertness never entirely goes away—the world holds too many dangers even for a house bunny. Today I set down a laundry basket, quietly, quietly, and even so this big new blue interloper must have seemed like a torture instrument to the little guy.

The bunny pounded the floor with his hind legs. It’s a surprise, the thump that bunnies execute when frightened—how loud it is for a little being about the size and weight of a pineapple. That hard thump is a warning to other bunnies that danger is near, that somewhere there’s a predator, and it’s time to hide.


LEE UPTON’s most recent book is Visitations: Stories. Her seventh book of poetry, The Day Every Day Is, won the 2021 Saturnalia Prize and is forthcoming in 2023.