The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
Scottish novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows (1908). See also Kenneth Grahame Criticism.
Published in 1908, The Wind in the Willows is regarded as a classic children's novel. Originating from a series of bedtime stories Grahame told his son, Alastair, the book chronicles the adventures of a group of plucky animals, led by the impulsive and childish Mr. Toad. The Wind in the Willows remains one of the most popular books for children in England and the United States and has been translated into several different languages. In addition, it has been adapted for film, television, and the stage many times and inspired several sequels written by different authors.
Plot and Major Characters
The Wind in the Willows focuses on the adventures of a group of four animal friends that exhibit human behavior: Mole, Badger, Rat, and Toad. Commentators note that the book consists of three narratives placed together: the adventures of Toad, the tale of the friendship of Rat and Mole, and the two lyrical chapters on nature entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “Wayfarers All.” The story begins when Mole abandons the spring cleaning of his underground home to take a walk along the riverbank. He meets Rat, and the two become friends. Mole also becomes friends with Toad, the rich owner of Toad Hall. Toad convinces Rat and Mole to take a trip on his gypsy caravan, but during the ride they are forced off the road by a speeding automobile. Entranced, Toad abandons the caravan to follow the car. Rat and Mole return home. Later, Mole gets lost exploring the area across the river known as the Wild Wood. Rat rescues him, and the two find refuge in the safe and warm home of the Badger. Meanwhile, Toad has become obsessed with automobiles and has crashed several cars. Concerned about his young friend, Badger asks Rat and Mole to help him convince Toad to be more responsible. Their appeal to him fails, and Toad is caught stealing a car and is sentenced to twenty years in jail. Toad escapes jail and has many adventures on his trip home. When he finally arrives back at Toad Hall, he finds it overrun with weasels, stoats, and ferrets from the Wild Wood. With the help of his friends, they are able to run the squatters out of the house and enjoy a celebratory banquet. The story ends with Toad resolving to reform.
Commentators have identified one of the major thematic concerns of The Wind of Willows as the journey; in the story, various characters feel the pull of wanderlust and the need to explore space outside of their home region. Yet most of these journeys result in danger and homesickness. Several critics perceive The Wind in the Willows as nostalgic for a long-ago England, before industrialization began to alter the British landscape and customs. Grahame's antagonism toward industrialism has also been detected in Toad's dangerous obsession with automobiles. Toad's pretentiousness and foolishness is a ripe subject for Grahame's humor; therefore, the story is viewed as a comment on England's rigid class system. The beauty of the natural world is another dominant theme in The Wind in the Willows. Reviewers have examined the anthropomorphic nature of the characters: Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger are archetypal character types who act like human beings.
Crticial response to The Wind in the Willows was mixed, but opinion eventually improved as a result of its surprising and enduring popularity with children. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed by the novel at first, but when his children urged a second reading, he became a fan of The Wind in the Willows. Many critics praised the stylistic variation, slang-filled dialogue, and the repeated comic devices in the story. Commentators maintained that the foolishness and charismatic appeal of Mr. Toad, whose adventures are broken into short sequences, was effective for small children. Reviewers discussed the satire in the novel, particularly the mock-heroic epic section “The Return of Ulysses,” which satirizes the Greek epic poem The Odyssey. They also commended Grahame's attention to detail and power of description, and considered the appeal of Grahame's novel as universal and timeless. The Wind in the Willows remains one of the most beloved children's books in the world.