I first read Watership Down by Richard Adams as a sixth grader, the book was a gift from a houseguest. I loved it immediately and since then it has been my favorite book. Once, several years later I looked up the Wikipedia page (and the Sparknotes, which notably has errors) and found that there was an accusation that the book was anti-feminist in nature. Being young and not knowing what feminism was really about, I became incensed. That was ridiculous, the does (female rabbits) are valuable characters and the only human girl is intelligent and kind. There was nothing inherently anti-woman about it. The article referenced a segment where the author explained that the bucks (male rabbits) did not see the females of their kind in the same light as human men see human women, that they had no real understanding or use for romance and could view the does as breeding stock. Not that this keeps them from being very devoted to their mate of choice, including grieving their deaths. So basically the author sets it up that their relationships are more straight forward with less froofy, stupid romance.
However, now that I know more about feminism and having read the novel at least a dozen times, I can see it is in fact anti-feminist. Not because of that passage though. It’s because it embraces the idea of gender roles and that women are happier when fulfilling their traditional roles of homemaker and mother. Let’s take a look at a few passages.
The yellowhammer sang, high on the thorn.
He sang near a litter that the doe brought out to play,
He sang in the wind and the kittens played below.
Their time slipped by all under the elder bloom.
But the bird flew away and now my heart is dark
And time will never play in the fields again.
The orange beetles clung to the rye-grass stems
The windy grass was waving. A buck and doe
Ran through the meadow. They scratched a hole in the bank,
They did what they pleased all under the hazel leaves.
But the beetles died in the frost and my heart is dark;
And I shall never choose a mate again.
The frost is falling, the frost falls into my body.
My nostrils, my ears are torpid under the frost.
The swift will come in the spring, crying “News! News!
Does, dig holes and flow with milk for your litters.”
I shall not hear. The embryos return
Into my dulled body. Across my sleep
There runs a wire to imprison the wind.
I shall never feel the wind blowing again.” (Adams, pg 321-322)
This is a poem spoken by one of the does, Hyzenthlay, who is an intelligent doe who recognizes the issues of the totalitarian, overcrowded warren she is in. But let’s ignore the narrative for a moment and look at the poem as it applies to life in the modern Anglosphere.
The first stanza conjures the image of a mother with her children playing outside. Not something anyone sees much anymore. These days it is unusual to see children playing outside at all. Why is that? Well, first there is an obsession with helicopter parenting, so parents aren’t about to let their children do anything without supervision. Add to this the fact that both parents tend to be at work and you have a bunch of kids who are trapped in school and daycare because their parents aren’t home to supervise them. Mothers are not home to raise their own children, they are not there to read to, play with, and love on their children. This leads to a certain amount of frustration. You don’t have to look far to find polls that show that mothers would rather work less and care for their children more.
The second stanza conjures the image of a happy couple that is beginning their life together, doing as they please, but also approaching the relationship in a dedicated manner. It’s certainly still possible to do that, but at the same time it is unusual. You don’t have to be an expert on relationships to know that the divorce rate is high and the never married group is growing quickly. More and more children are being born out of wedlock because their mothers are simply choosing not to get married, citing “no good men” as their reasoning. Women who want to marry get cautioned by their parents and peers that they need a career “just in case he leaves”. Essentially no one operates under the assumption that marriages will last…or should. After all, people have divorce parties these days.
The final stanza can be looked at from a two perspectives. It could speak the truth about the damage done to women who choose to have abortions. It could also speak to those trapped in the late marriage and abstinence conundrum. These are the two options that most women face these days. While the former is more feminist than the latter, they both have the mark of feminism on them. Both are damaging to a woman’s psyche, in quite similar ways. Delaying or outright destroying children is unnatural, and if a woman makes the mistake of delaying too long only to find herself permanently childless, the heartache is incredible. I’ve seen it in women I know, that grief and the attempt to accept that they will never have a child of their own. It’s bad enough to watch. I can’t imagine what it is like to experience. One way or the other, the final stanza speaks to the truth that most women long for children of their own, that being a mother is what her heart cries out for.
Let’s look at another passage.
“Biwig realized that he had stumbled, quite unexpectedly, upon what he needed most of all: a strong sensible friend who would think on her own account and help bear his burden.” (Adams, pg 330)
The “her” being spoken of here is Hyzenthlay again. Bigwig has been given a seemingly impossible task of liberating some does, until he decides to approach the task by bringing a doe in to help him with the plan. In this small phrase we see the incredible importance of the wife in a man’s life. She gives him a place to come and rest, a confidant who will listen to him and help him. She gives him a concrete reason to do what he is doing and when he calms her fears, he calms his own. This single sentence embraces the idea that a man and a woman can do more together than apart.
Another small, subtle piece:
“”But you’re Efrafan. Do you think like that, too?”
“I’m a doe,” said Hyzenthlay.” (Adams, pg 390)
Men and women are different. They think differently, they act differently, they need different things. All summed up in one matter of fact statement from Hyzenthlay. I’m starting to think I should do a write up on Hyzenthlay as a feminine role model.
One final, longer passage:
“The warren was thriving at last and Hazel could sit basking on the bank and count their blessings. Above and under ground, the rabbits fell naturally into a quiet, undisturbed rhythm of feeding, digging and sleeping. Several fresh runs and burrows were made. The does, who had never dug in their lives before, enjoyed the work. Both Hyzenthlay and Thethuthinnang told Hazel that they had no idea how much of their frustration and unhappiness in Efrafa had been due simply to not being allowed to dig. Even Clover and Haystack found that they could manage pretty well and boasted that they would bear the warren’s first litters in burrows that they had dug themselves… The contentment of the does spread to everyone else,” (Adams, pg 395-396)
Before analyzing I will quickly note that earlier in the book it is established that does are the ones that dig the tunnels of warrens and bucks don’t much care for the task. Not that this needs much analysis, it’s written rather plainly as it is. The warren thrives because the bucks and does are living in interdependency as they were meant to. The does are happy because they can carry out their natural roles. Homemaking and being mothers are marks of pride. The scene painted here is the very thing that feminists have selfishly set out to destroy. So yes, Watership Down is in fact, an anti-feminist novel and I’m proud to call it my favorite.
All quotes are taken from the 2001 Perennial Classics edition of the book.