Today I’ll be discussing a particularly four-legged Classic Couple: Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945) and Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972). Although these books may both be considered “classics” at times, they are rarely considered alongside one another. While Animal Farm is known for being an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917, Adams wrote in his Introduction that he wrote Watership Down as a simple story about rabbits without intending any allegory or deeper meaning (although as I argue in this post, that endeavor is a bit futile). Despite these differences, these two novels share many fascinating similarities.
Animals as animals.
Sometimes when animals are personified in fiction or given the ability to speak, attention to their lives as animals is forgone. I think it’s fascinating how the distinction animals and humans is widened in these novels (the ending of Animal Farm notwithstanding) by the authors’ emphasis on specific animal attributes. In Animal Farm, this emphasis is perhaps most apparent in the feeding habits of the animals that are often mentioned. In Watership Down, Adams repeatedly talks about rabbits going “tharn”–that frozen, “deer in headlights” look that happens when some animals are frightened or surprised. Such details add a strange “realistic” quality to these novels–not in the sense that you believe animals would do what they do in these novels, but that the animals are portrayed as realistically as possible while still being unrealistic (if that makes any sense at all…). It’s a weird balance, but Orwell and Adams have both nailed it.
Violent and unsettling.
Growing up, I always associated books involving animals with cute stories that were peaceful and that had happy endings. Perhaps this is a reflection of how Disney-fied many stories are, or of just how much I loved adorable animals. Either way, I was taken aback by how violent and unsettling these two novels are. When the pig started walking on its hind legs at the end of Animal Farm I literally gasped and reread it over and over again to make sure I was understanding it correctly (I was reading the Spanish translation). So creepy! So conniving! So unsettling! Likewise, I initially read Watership Down because I wanted a light, fun, whimsical story about rabbits. HA. HA. HA. What I actually read was a novel in which a bunch of male rabbits start a war with another warren because they’re so desperate to have sex with the other warren’s female rabbits. Cute. What is it with classics about animals being so strangely unsettling?!?!
Like I mentioned earlier in this post, Animal Farm is well known for being an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Although Adams claims that Watership Down wasn’t written with any allegory in mind, I can’t help but view the story in a social context. Different rabbit warrens fighting over territory, unfamiliar customs, and women’s bodies–doesn’t this all seem a bit familiar? How can this not be a reflection of human society? I might be looking too far into this, but if I am I think it’s justified.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Classic Couple! As always, you can check out my other Classic Couple posts here.
What are your thoughts on either/both of these novels? What other books share these similarities? What classics would you like me to feature in the future? Let me know in the comments section below!