The Wind in the Willows Criticism
by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows book cover
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Animals That Behave Like Humans?

(Novels for Students)

Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is one of the first English examples of a novel using animals as protagonists. Using animals that talk and behave like humans in storytelling is by no means unique to Grahame; the tradition of using anthropomorphized animals dates back thousands of years, appearing in the mythology and tales of many ancient cultures. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published more that forty years earlier, Carroll had a talking rabbit and a talking cat, among others. However, Grahame’s novel is distinct from Carroll’s in that the animals are the protagonists, with well-developed, complex personalities. They are the ones who move the plot along.

The lack of predecessors to rely on or imitate begs the question of why he chose to write such a book. What tools or advantages does he gain when it comes to the reader’s perception of the text? Kuznets, in her article, “Kenneth Grahame and Father Nature,” quotes Grahame as once saying that he wanted to write a novel “free of problems, clear of the clash of sex.” Many scholars argue that Grahame did not succeed in this regard, saying that there are still underlying class conflicts, age conflicts, as well as sex conflicts, despite the fact that there are very few characters specified as female and no major female characters. Bonnie Gaarden describes her initial reaction to this scholarship in “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows”:

The small but emphatic voice of my childhood reading insisted that these characters were like nothing so pedestrian as adult human males; they were the Rat, the Mole, the Toad, and the Badger—ageless, timeless, genderless.

Indeed, it is difficult for most readers to deny a certain light-hearted feel to The Wind in the Willows, even when Mole is lost in the woods, Toad is sentenced to jail, or the four main characters fight to liberate Toad Hall. The prose is free of many of the burdensome issues that come with having human protagonists. Kuznets, in her biography, Kenneth Grahame, writes, “Grahame derives from the [anthropomorphic] tradition a . . . sense of the possibilities of eluding both internal and external censors in using animals rather than humans.” The use of animal protagonists suppresses a reader’s tendency to question the credulity or quality of the work when certain inconsistencies and improbabilities occur, such as those relating to sex, age, and size. Grahame, however, does more than just fool our censors; he uses the advantages that these characters have as animals as well.

It would be scholastically irresponsible to say that the dearth of female characters in The Wind in the Willows is not noticeable. A substantial amount of criticism has been written addressing that very issue (and no doubt casual readers have also noticed this). I would venture, however, that it is less noticeable because the large majority of the characters are animals. Gaarden, writing in “The Inner Family of The Wind in the Willows,” proffers the following reason:

Grahame’s refusal to so much as name any female animal until the very last page of the book does not obliterate the feminine. Rather, it circumvents the reader’s habit of classifying individuals primarily by sex, and leads us to differentiate, instead, by species.

The casual observer generally cannot identify the sex of most animals. With some it is more obvious, but certainly not with Rats, Moles, Badgers, and Toads, especially if they are solitary, i.e., without the opposite sex with which to compare. This can lead to an impression that animals are sexless as well as a tendency to give animals a default gender. It the case of The Wind in the Willows, it is male.

There are a number of inconsistencies having to do with age throughout the text. Rat, for example, is usually portrayed as an adult, but not always, as when Toad remarks, “My! won’t he catch it when the Badger gets back!” This puts Badger in the role of the father figure, and...

(The entire section is 12,239 words.)