Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The idea of home resurfaces again and again throughout Watership Down. The rabbits leave their warren in search of a new home not only because they believe Fiver when he tells them that something terrible will happen to the warren, but also because they think they can make a better home somewhere else. Fiver's only dream is for them to reach Watership Down, where he believes things will be better. But home is not merely the place where the rabbits live. They reach the down relatively early on, but something is missing. They need does, because home also means family and community. Home has permanence; it is not some sort of temporary shelter, which is all it could ever be if it were inhabited solely by bucks.
Moreover, there are several different versions of home in the novel. The rabbits in the warren of the snares think that they are at home, but their strange and melancholy behavior shows that they have not truly found a home. A true home is a place where the rabbits can live in harmony with nature. In this sense, Efrafa is not a true home, because Woundwort attempts to dominate nature. At the end of the novel, when Hazel looks back at his warren, just after he has left his body, what he sees is home. He sees many rabbits running and playing and enjoying themselves. Home is a place in which to take pleasure, not just a place that provides protection or food. Watership Down provides the aesthetic of home, and once the rabbits find does and create a community, it actually is a home.
Hazel, the protagonist of Watership Down, is also the leader of the rabbits, and his ability to lead is continually tested by their adventures. Leadership is a subtle quality. Although Bigwig is stronger and bigger than Hazel, Hazel makes a much better leader because he has the ability to think for the group. He sees immediately how to utilize each member of the group in order to best benefit them all. With a good leader, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hazel does not let anything interfere with the goals of the warren, and as its leader, he decides what those goals are. Cowslip seems to be the leader of the warren of the snares, but they cannot really have a leader because no one can offer them protection from the dangers they face. Woundwort is clearly the leader of Efrafa, but he rules like a dictator, and his military regime leaves the majority of his subjects unhappy. Woundwort leads through example only in warfare, and otherwise his power is maintained through fear and force. Hazel, however, manages to do things differently. He is a true leader, unafraid to let others come up with ideas, yet himself often figuring out what should be done. The other rabbits respect Hazel, and after a while their faith in him is unshakable, simply because he acts swiftly and confidently and keeps the entire group in mind when he does so.
Nature plays a very prominent role in the novel. Hazel and his rabbits find the warren of the snares unnatural, and they would say the same about Efrafa. Living naturally is the goal of these rabbits, and they cannot comprehend how others could want to live any other way. They want to be free to roam and eat outside and do the things that rabbits have always done. Of course there will always be predators, but no protection from a predator is worth the loss of the chance to live a normal rabbit life. Woundwort wants to make Efrafa invisible, and he destroys the lives of most of the rabbits there in the process. Fiver acts naturally all the time, never losing sight of who he is or what he wants. Because of this, Fiver sees the warren of the snares for what it is.
The rabbits are repeatedly forced to adapt to situations that they could have never anticipated, and, to their credit, they do so quite well. Sometimes Fiver helps them when they are afraid of the unknown; at other times Hazel or Blackberry figures out how to deal with the situation. What is important is that one or two members of the group are always prepared to look at things in a different way and figure out how they will do what they need to do. They take a boat ride, befriend other animals, and dig out their own warren—all things that other rabbits have not done, but things that they must do in order to survive.
El-ahrairah provides the model for rabbit trickery, but Hazel and his rabbits do their best to compete with him. Trickery is often considered wrong because it is deceitful, but for the rabbits it is a matter of survival. Bigwig tricks the Efrafa into believing that he is acting alone and then he escapes with the does. Hazel tricks a cat into attacking he and Pipkin so that they can escape. Trickery does not mean unnecessary deceit; rather, it means using one's wits to escape a situation that is otherwise inescapable. It involves finding a method other than force because sometimes force is not an option.
Humans play a large role in Watership Down, and for the most part this role is a detrimental one. Humans alone, of all the creatures in the world, break certain rules that the rest of nature follows. Humans kill at a whim rather than out of necessity. They decimate populations rather than kill a few at a time. In building up their own habitats, they destroy the very living space that other animals need to survive. However, when the little girl saves Hazel in the end, we see that humans are not unequivocally bad. They are a step apart from the rest of nature, and they do have tremendous power to destroy, but they can also step in and help in ways that no other creatures in nature can.
The Rabbit Warren
The different rabbit warrens in the novel can be seen as different versions of human government. The warren of the snares could be considered socialist, as all the rabbits there are equal and no one has anything more than anyone else. The Efrafan warren represents a totalitarian regime, as Woundwort and a handful of others rule with an iron fist while all the rest are trod upon and abused. Hazel's warren represents a democracy, as it has a leader whom everyone wants making decisions based upon the will of the group. This symbolism clearly carries with it some degree of value judgment, as the first two regimes clearly fail while the third is a smashing success. Adams suggests that democracy—or at least some form of government in which the leader is chosen by the people and acts according to the will of the people—is the best way to organize society.
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