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Watership Down | Themes

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At the start of every chapter in Watership Down, Richard Adams includes a quotation from a literary or informational text related to the theme of the chapter. These quotations not only foreshadow what will happen in the chapter but also provide the reader with an insight into Adam's influences and resources.

Survival of the Group

Rabbits live in colonies, with specific roles for each member of the colony. They look out for one another, and their ways of life are geared toward survival of their species. Adams uses this instinct to inform his story. Hazel's reason for leaving the Sandleford warren is to save the group, and this instinct for survival of the entire community is what drives most of Hazel's actions.

Hazel leads the group to Cowslip's warren, and the immediate availability of living space and food without a lot of work makes Hazel think it a good place to stay. However, Fiver's visions are what really direct the group's future actions. Hazel tries to act for the good of the group, but when he doesn't include Fiver in his calculations, the group suffers. They also suffer when Hazel thinks too much about his own pride, as he does when Holly goes to Efrafa and Hazel is left behind.

Hazel's overarching reason for heading to Nuthanger Farm to steal does is the survival of the group, which is his reason for sending Holly to Efrafa, but Hazel goes to the farm to ease his own discomfort about not being the one to save the group. He ends up being badly hurt in the process. The next time the group goes to Efrafa, however, Hazel structures the plan so that each rabbit's strengths are used to the maximum to reach their goal of bringing back does. Everything Hazel does after this point is for the good of the group, not for his own personal gain.

Individual Freedom

Efrafa restricts the freedom of their rabbits to an extreme degree, with the belief that Woundwort's rigid system will make sure the warren survives. However, the survival of a group involves allowing for some individual freedom as well. It is a balance, but General Woundwort doesn't understand this, or doesn't want to, given his hunger for personal power. The rabbits in Efrafa are so used to threats of death if they don't do as they are asked that they have become brainwashed to forget unpleasant events. The rabbits in Cowslip's warren are similar in that they sacrifice their individual freedom for food and a warren supposedly free of elil, evil. However, in reality, they have no individual freedom at all, because the man who owns the property is the one who decides if they live or die. They refuse to speak of rabbits who have disappeared from the warren, and Cowslip gets violent when confronted with rabbits who threaten what he views as his security and freedom. As for Efrafa, the freedom is an illusion.

In the warren on Watership Down the rabbits are free to choose most things, but they act for the good of the group overall. Still, they have more freedom than any of the other groups who are supposedly ensuring their food supply or their safety. Hazel understands that to have a well-functioning warren does need to be able to choose their mates; they need to have the freedom to feed when they want to; and their cooperation with each other allows them to have this kind of individual liberty.

Fear

"Elil" is anything evil in the rabbits' world, in the form of men, predators, and disease. Rabbits, as Adams explains, live in near-constant fear of the world around them. He says that when the rabbits are tired, it is not because they have traveled so far, but because their nerves are frayed, and they are exhausted by fear. If a rabbit is too overwhelmed by fear, it will go "tharn," standing still, unable to move. When Hazel has to move the Nuthanger Farm rabbits away from the farm as fast as possible, he has to leave Laurel behind because Laurel is frozen with fear and can't move. It is too dangerous to go back and get Laurel to move, and it is already difficult for the other hutch rabbits to overcome their fear enough to keep running. Fear gets in the way of their looking out for their own safety.

The same is true of the Efrafan rabbits, who are all kept in line by fear of harm from the Owsla and from General Woundwort. They have reached a point of overcrowding that is so bad, their does can't get pregnant. However, the does are unable to fight through their fear in order to escape, and once Bigwig helps them get out of Efrafa, their fear is what makes it difficult to run fast enough to the boat to escape. The sight of Woundwort makes them run in the opposite direction, so eventually their fear helps them get to safety.

Loyalty

The Owsla captain at the Sandleford warren expects total loyalty from his officers, as does the Chief Rabbit. When Bigwig breaks rank and decides he is going to leave, he breaks his oath of loyalty. However, his loyalty to Hazel becomes stronger than any Owsla oath, as he sees how devoted Hazel is to making sure the entire group survives, leaving no one behind. General Woundwort also demands total loyalty from his officers, but they are loyal to him out of fear rather than out of respect. When their lives are threatened by the dog, Woundwort's officers run away as fast as they can, even though Woundwort tells them to stay. A leader like Hazel is a rabbit that is worth going back to find and bring home, which Fiver does when Hazel has been shot. All of the rabbits under Hazel's leadership remain loyal to him because it is clear he wants what is best for all of them. Former leaders like Holly end up being loyal to Hazel as their leader because of his integrity and intelligent leadership.

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