Choosing what to read next is a pretty random process: I picked this book off the shelf in my local library because I liked the spine. It turns out it is an international bestseller that has been translated into over a dozen languages and sold over 2 million copies, so I feel slightly ashamed of never having heard of the author or the book. A fable suitable for both children and adults, it is written in deceptively simple prose and accompanied by delicate line drawings. It tells the story of a hen named Sprout who escapes from her cage, seeking freedom and dreaming of hatching an egg that she will be allowed to keep for herself.
At one level this story is a comment on the cruelty of intensive farming. The chickens are crammed into the cage, expected to produce eggs day after day, and ruthlessly culled when they are no longer productive. When Sprout escapes and revels in performing normal hen behaviour it is touching:
Sprout spent the entire day in the fields. She snacked on caterpillars, scratched at the dirt, and took a refreshing snooze on her stomach. There was so much more to do than she had imagined.
However, it is also an allegory about how human societies can constrain and control individuals. I immediately began thinking of the cage as being totalitarian North Korea, and the adjacent yard where the free-range hens roam as being South Korea. The cage is obviously a horrendous place. I thought when I first started reading that once Sprout escaped to the yard everything would be okay. But it turns out the yard is no utopia either. They have a strict social hierarchy (literally a pecking order) and are cruel and contemptuous to outsiders. Most significantly of all, the resident ducks have their wings clipped to prevent them escaping. The yard is not Sprout’s final destination: she flees further, to the fields outside the farmyard. In fact, the original Korean title translates as The hen that came out of the yard.
So is it meant to be social criticism of South Korea? The author was unable to go to school because of her family’s poverty, so she obviously has some experience of the worst aspects of her country. Or is it simply saying all civilisations constrain the individual? It seems not to be an allegory in the same way that for example Animal Farm is (where individual characters and events can be clearly matched to their historical counterparts) but more an idealistic general allegory in favour of nature over civilisation. The message is that it’s better to have autonomy than compromise yourself for material comfort.
Even when it comes to nature, there are ambiguities. Nature is not portrayed as an idyllic paradise: struggling to survive, predation and competition, and ultimately death are an inherent part of the natural order:
Suddenly a ruckus started up in the reed fields, and the brace rose up at once. Greentop ran to the edge of the slope. “A hunt!” Sprout and Greentop listened attentively to the brief scream that pierced the darkness. The weasels would be full tonight. A sacrificed life meant a peaceful night for the group.
I realise this makes the book sound heavy. But it’s really not. It’s a gentle, humorous story full of uplifting ideas about freedom, friendship, parental love and the bravery of non-conformity. it’s also very short. I read it in a couple of hours, but was thinking about it for days afterwards.