Sunday, July 29, 2018

MMGM (7/30/2018) Classic Critique: Watership Down by Richard Adams

I'm back from my vacation, and this week, I have a Classic Critique for MMGM of Watership Down by Richard Adams. This famous novel tells the story of a group of rabbits that are forced to evacuate their warren and find a new home in a human-dominated world.




Pros:
  • 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.

Cons:
  • 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.

Verdict:
Some of you, if you are students, may be required to read this novel for school (like me), in which case you are in for a very flawed but ultimately pleasant read. If you are an adult who has never read it or a child who wants to read it for fun, however, the choice is more complex. The book's portrayal of its female characters could be so damaging to children's developing viewpoints that it makes it hard for me to recommend that they read it. Adults, however, might actually enjoy the novel's fast-moving plot, commentary on how humans treat animals, and display of good leadership, and they will definitely be more informed members of society for having read such a famous classic! Watership Down's positive and negative qualities paint a vivid picture of what was acceptable and enjoyed in the 1970s, and readers will finish the book with a broader understanding of how writing styles, archetypes, and cultural ideas have changed since then.

15 comments:

  1. Hope you had a fun vacation. I read this decades ago when I was a teen. I don't usually like animal stories but I liked this one. Though I might have similar cons now like you

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    1. I don't think the book aged very well. Thanks for reading my review!

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  2. I've read this book several times years ago and really enjoyed it, because of the details about the rabbits and the adventure. But now that you've made me think about this different perspective, it really annoys me and I can visualize what a better book it would be with more strong female characters. Someone needs to create a modern rabbit story!

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    1. I agree! If a non-sexist book like this one came out today, I would read it in a heartbeat!

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  3. This is one of my daughter's all time favorites; I'll have to ask her to reread and opine on the sexism! I don't like books with talking animals, so it wasn't my favorite, especially since I was trying to read all the books in my school library and had to read this after Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's series. I thought I would never make it. Glad you were able to enjoy the book but understand its difficulties.

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    1. This book is also one of my dad's favorites; I wonder what his opinion would be today! Also, reading all of the books in your school library sounds impossible—how did you do that?!

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  4. I've never heard of this book, but if it comes up in my kids' curriculum, I will keep these points in mind. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. I raised rabbits in 4-H as a kid but managed to avoid this book throughout my school years. Something deep down said I wouldn't like it. I might have to give it a try based on your thoughts—both positive and negative. Thanks for bringing this one back for discussion.

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    1. I'm glad you're interested in the book! Despite its flaws, I think it is still certainly entertaining and worth reading.

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  6. Thanks for sharing this book on MMGM today. I had to read this back in high school, and I remember distinctly how much I disliked it. The poignant insights you shared in the 'Verdict' section of your post reminded me of the issues that caused my negative feelings.

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    1. With its major flaws, the book certainly did not achieve "favorite" status for me either. I'm glad people agree with my thoughts on the book, though!

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  7. I never read this book, because I was in college when it came out. From your comments, I'm intrigued to check it out. The story reminds me a bit of The Secret of NIMH, but more complex. Enjoyed your review.

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    1. I hope you do try it—it's certainly interesting to analyze, at least! I'm glad you enjoyed my review!

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  8. I never read this book. It's good to know about it and I appreciate your review. I'm not sure I will make time for it, but I sure enjoyed reading your post.

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