Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135
Hospitality comes naturally to many of the characters in The Wind in the Willows. The text is filled with occurrences of one animal offering food and/or shelter to another. At times it is merely a casual exchange among friends, like Rat’s long standing engagement of going to the Otters’ for dinner, or Rat paying a call on Toad and introducing his friend Mole. At other times, there is a specific need, as when Badger brings Rat and Mole out of the cold of a snowstorm, followed by a pair of lost hedgehogs the next morning. The novel’s most impressive example of hospitality is that of Rat taking Mole into his home, which ends up lasting at least a year, having only met Mole that day. There is neither discussion of payment nor any sort of anticipation that Mole will return the favor. It is simply accepted. Shortly after Mole is invited to stay at Rat’s, the text reads, “When they got home, the Rat made a bright fire in the parlor. . . .” It does not say “when they got to Rat’s home” because it is now home to them both.
Forgiveness comes quickly and easily in The Wind in the Willows, regardless of the size the offense. When Mole apologizes to Rat for taking the sculls away from him in the boat, which leads to Mole and the luncheon basket going overboard, Rat immediately responds with “That’s all right, bless you!” He then goes on to invite Mole to stay with him awhile so that he can learn to row and swim.
Toad is forgiven several times throughout the book for much more serious misconduct. Even four Weasels, taken prisoner during the recapture of Toad Hall, are treated kindly when they demonstrate contrition: “They were very penitent, and said they were extremely sorry. . . . So I [Mole] gave them a roll apiece, and let them out at the back, and off they ran.” Toad is also able to let bygones be bygones when one of the Weasels returns to Toad Hall looking to be of service. It is only with the slightest condescension that he pats the Weasel on the head and gives him an errand to run.
While there are not obvious examples of humility throughout the text, it is a major theme because it is a virtue that one of the principle characters, Toad, clearly does not possess but clearly needs to learn. His friends are very patient with him as he, time and time again, embarrasses them by making a fool of himself. As Rat says, “Do you suppose it is any pleasure for me . . . to hear animals saying . . . that I’m the chap that keeps company with jailbirds?”
In the end, after a series of trying circumstances that Toad manages to fare only through the kindness of strangers and the loyalty of his friends, he is finally able to humble himself. Even when Otter encourages him during the celebration of the recapture of Toad Hall, Toad responds with “I merely served in the ranks and did little or nothing.”
The events of The Wind in the Willows are often shaped by characters helping other characters. Toad is most frequently the person in need of assistance. His friends Badger, Mole, and Rat are always there for him, whether they are locking him in a room in order to cure him of his automobile craze or putting together a plan to drive the Stoats and Weasels out of Toad Hall. Toad’s escape from prison would have been impossible if it wasn’t for the kindness of complete strangers. The jailor’s daughter takes pity on Toad merely because she hates to see animals suffer. The engine driver helps Toad upon their first meeting, both when he thinks Toad is a washerwoman and when he is aware that he is a Toad on the run from the law. The gentlemen that Toad steals the car from are a little too angry to help Toad as Toad, but they do not hesitate to help him when he is disguised as the washerwoman.
Toad is not the only one who gets himself into trouble. As soon as Rat realizes that Mole has gotten himself lost in the Wild Wood, he starts out after him. When Rat and Mole both end up lost in the snowstorm, Badger keeps them from freezing by taking them into his home. Otter, also worried about Rat and Mole, comes to find them at Badger’s and offers to guide them home. Rat and Mole are able to return the favor when they find Otter’s son Portly when he goes missing.
A tension exists in The Wind in the Willows between the desire to stay near the comforts of home and the urge to see and explore new places. In the very beginning, Mole, tired of spring-cleaning, decides to leave his home. “Something up above was calling him imperiously.” For nearly all of the rest of the novel, Mole lives away from his underground dwelling, returning only once, again, at the beckon of an overwhelming urge: “the wafts from his old home pleaded, whispered, conjured, and finally claimed him imperiously.” The same word is used to describe both urges—“imperiously”—possibly to indicate the parallel strength of their call.
Rat also struggles within this dichotomy. He is generally a person that enjoys being home; both on the cart trip with Toad and when visiting Badger’s house, his desire to return to his hole in the riverbank is explicitly indicated. Nonetheless, in the chapter entitled “Wayfarers All,” he is determined to partake of the adventures described by the Sea Rat. It is only by force that he is he prevented from leaving.
As demonstrated by the recapture of Toad Hall, home is something worth fighting for. Yet Toad, probably more than any of the principle characters, is afflicted by a powerful wanderlust, which is apparent when he coaxes Rat before the cart trip:
You surely don’t mean to stick to your dull fusty old river all your life, and just live in a hole in a bank, and boat? I want to show you the world! I’m going to make an animal of you, my boy!
By the end of the book, there is no reason to believe that Rat, Toad, and Badger have not returned to their homes. As for Mole, it is not specified whether he continues to live with Rat or goes back to his own quaint lodgings. The “joy and contentment” they all find is not contingent on whether they live near or far away from their home. The Wind in the Willows shows the appeal of either possibility but not which one to choose.