I just started rereading Watership Down by Richard Adams last night. Normally I wait to write about the books on my Classics Club list until after I’ve finished them, but I’m also rereading Elain Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person In Love and I was struck by a connection between the two books.
In her research on high sensitivity (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity), Aron discovered that it’s found in 15 to 20% of the population. And it’s not just humans. The trait “can be observed in all higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, [and] monkeys” at about the same percentage. I’m going to add rabbits to the list as well.
Research on HSPs had barely started by the 1970s, so I doubt Richard Adams would have been familiar with it as a scientifically validated trait when he published Watership Down in 1972. I think he was writing about it anyway, though, with his character Fiver.
When publisher Rex Collins acquired the book, he wrote to a friend saying, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fiver’s insights do go beyond simply being a highly sensitive rabbit, but it’s also true that Fiver would pass the HSP test. Easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Check. Aware of subtleties in the environment? Double check. Made uncomfortable by loud noises, startles easily, has a nervous system that feels frazzled, and so on down the list.
He was small, with side, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle boom behind him he jumped and spun round with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes (Fiver’s introduction, Watership Down)
As a Highly Sensitive Person myself, I know that feeling all too well. The heightened awareness of the smallest noise. The tension so familiar you barely notice it until an unexpected sound startles you out of your chair (in fact, right after writing this sentence I jumped at a Facebook notification on my phone). And it’s kind of nice to see a character like that in a book, especially one with friends who don’t tell him he needs to change. They accept him for who he is, work with his weaknesses, and appreciate his unique strengths.
Can you think of any other HSP characters in fiction?
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