MMGM (7/30/2018) Classic Critique: Watership Down by Richard Adams
Update (4/2/2022): I typically participate in blogging groups that review kids’ books, but sometimes, I do end up reading adult books like this one. In the past, I have typically labeled those books as MG or YA when I review them, primarily because I still want my typically blogging audiences to see them! However, this has become confusing, so I have decided to re-label these books as adult books, while leaving the reviews in their original format. Thank you for your consideration!
- The plot is exciting. If you've already read Watership Down, you know that the rabbits' search for a new warren to live in is a long one. After learning that a potential disaster will likely befall his existing warren, the levelheaded Hazel leads his fellow rabbits (such as the aggressive Bigwig, intelligent Blackberry, and supernaturally prophetic Fiver) through a host of adventures. They break rabbits out of human captivity, discover the horrifying conditions of other warrens, and try to stay together and stay alive. For a book published in 1972, the plot moves surprisingly fast, with minimal florid prose allowing the book to hold readers' attention.
- The novel shows humans' negative impacts on animals. Watership Down serves as a bit of a commentary on how humans treat animals. The rabbits encounter humans who are destroying their habitats, trying (and often succeeding) to hunt them for food, or keep them as pets in lonesome, depressing conditions. By showing readers what sorts of cruelty humans inflict on animals, the novel has helped generations of people keep the needs of other species in mind.
- Hazel shows what it means to be a great leader (usually). Many books today feature either a single protagonist or several who are all competent enough to work together. However, in the real world, most people have to shepherd others in order to accomplish a given goal, and Watership Down acknowledges this fact. Hazel is forced to analyze the other rabbits' personalities and figure out how to keep their self-esteem high (such as by comforting or encouraging them). He also has to decide when to use his own smarts and when to rely on the help of others, making his leadership something that many people should learn from.
- Characters fall flat at times. Too many characters in Watership Down serve as placeholders who exist simply to make Hazel's party larger (Acorn, Speedwell, Hawkbit, Silver, the list goes on). Having these characters not only annoys readers who expect many developed characters, but also leaves the story with only a few characters who even have personalities, much less backstories and complex motives. Although the story still manages to remain interesting due to characters such as Hazel, readers will wonder how much better the book would have been with a better cast.
- A concerning amount of sexism is present. If Watership Down had been written today, although it might not have had the charm of an older novel, it at least would not have been so filled with sexism. There are no female main characters (which ends up serving as a plot device when the rabbits want to reproduce and have to find female rabbits), and the male rabbits that make up the book's cast consider the female rabbits to just be a means for reproduction. Characters that might have been thought once as kind and considerate (such as Hazel) fall apart when they start discussing whether or not the female rabbits will be able to reproduce (ignoring whether or not those rabbits will want to). Like some of the male rabbits, the female rabbits are also never displayed with any personality but the consequences in their case are more grim: the males are given the perfect opportunity to objectify the females. Read the section on the novel's Wikipedia page entitled "Criticism of gender roles" and you'll see this issue is well-known and well-acknowledged, severely dropping the book's status in my view.