Class identity in "The Wind in the Willows"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Class Identity in The Wind in the Willows
1. Introduction of author Kenneth Grahame
2. Indicators of Class Identity in The Wind in the Willows
2.1. Locations
2.1.1. The River and the River Bank
2.1.2. Toad Hall
2.1.3. The Open Road
2.1.4. The Wild Wood
2.2. Characters
2.2.1. Mole
2.2.2. Rat
2.2.3. Toad
2.2.4. Badger
2.2.5. Otter
2.2.6. Creatures of the Wild Wood
2.2.7. Female figures
2.3. Language
2.4. Narrative Devices

III. Conclusion

IV. Works Cited

I. Introduction

Having been published in 1908, a time of social unrest, anarchy and revolution in England (Carpenter 1985, 165), The Wind in the Willows is now over one hundred years old and has become a canonical and popular work of literature, beloved by adults and children alike.

The plot of the novel is based on two interlocked narratives: the Bildungsroman of Mole, who is initiated into the well-established, domestic society of the River-Bankers and the story of the adventurous, over-excessive, nouveau-riche Toad who is brought to reason by his friends in the end. The values of the dusty highway and the wide world are contrasted with the warmth of the homely riverbank so that preferences among the audience are inclined to emerge. Mendelson (1988, 127) declares that adults tend to prefer the coziness of the riverbank and the fellowship between Mole, Rat and Badger and that children on the other hand love the adventures of Toad.

In contrast to the reality in Britain at the time of the novel's publishing, the world of the River-Bankers is an idyllic bachelors' Arcadia free of sorrows, death and sex. It represents an insulated society that is protected from the Wide World and has its own unquestioned hierarchical social arrangements. However, as Carpenter states it, “there is little evidence that Grahame took [this] kind of interest in current social events“, even though Peter Green (in his biography of Kenneth Grahame) argues that the story has “an unmistakable social symbolism” (Carpenter, 165). He is inclined to see it as accidental coloring acquired because of the time the novel was written in rather than the author's specific purpose. As it is a very complex piece of literature, many different readings as well as interpretations exist, not only with regard to underlying second meanings. There is a lot of speculation about the precise social status of every figure of the novel, which understandably can not be discussed in this term paper in every detail. While it is very important to keep popular research papers and opinions in mind in order to be able to form an own opinion, this term paper will try to explore how class identity in The Wind in The Willows is created in the actual book by looking at the descriptions of locations, the behavior of the animals, their language and the narrative technique.

II. Class Identity in The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows can be interpreted as a social parable demonstrating the social unrest and the threat to the stability and values of the English middle class (Carpenter 1985, 163). In the book's paternalistic society, the different members of a certain class are completely aware of their social position and the overall social order. Everybody behaves according to their own social code. At some points of the story however not only the size of the animals, but also their power and class perspectives change (Hunt 1988, 159).

1. Introduction of author Kenneth Grahame

Born into the secure, stable and economically strong world of Victorian England, Kenneth Grahame grew up believing that power in this male-dominated society lies with the old families and in the possession of land and agriculture (Hunt 1994, 3). His childhood was suddenly disrupted by the death of his mother and the disappearance of his father as well as the social changes happening in Britain at that time. The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, when the secure world he had known was falling apart and the Empire was shaken with social unrest. The social and political order and male hegemony came under challenge with members of working and middle class as well as women gaining more and more influence. Also the rural life which symbolized piece and stability was being destroyed by rapid industrialization, suburbanization, noise and pollution of automobiles and railways. Grahame spent his working life at the Bank of England, the symbolic center of the commercial world (Hunt 1994, 4-7). Having been rejected the chance to attend Oxford University, he never had the chance to become a real member of the inner circle of the upper class society of England to which he aspired, even though he was constantly involved with them due to his high professional status (Hunt 1994, 57).

It is suggested that Mole represents the author in a quest for self-discovery, as he also preferred to live by the River Thames in an upper middle class suburban area and used to roam leisurely by the riverside with his male friends during summertime (Hunt 1994, 77).

2. Indicators of Class Identity in The Wind in the Willows

Besides the (estimated) age, size and behavior of the animals, the locations in the book as well as the language are determinators of social background and class affiliation. As soon as the social order is in danger to lose its stability, e.g. by Mole, the social climber, or Toad's overindulgent personality, everything is undertaken to stabilize and normalize the social status quo.

2.1. Locations

In Britain, symbolic landscapes are highly associated with national identity, pride and culture. According to Ridgman (2006) the river and river bank, the surrounding meadows, the country house, the open road as well as the wild wood are “images of an authentic domestic England, marketed under the brand of Wind of the Willows idyll, rural tranquillity and nostalgia for an Edwardian land of lost content” (39). Also, the continuity and stability of the British countryside represent a “source of peaceful certainty in an ever-changing and uncertain modern world” (41). In order to influence and support the thematic structure as well as the character development, Kenneth Grahame puts a great emphasis on the picturesque description of locations (Kuznets 1987, 101).

2.1.1. The River and the River Bank

The River, namely the Thames, is both retreat and adventure. It is the natural, quiet habitat of Rat and it is Toad's playground. It is a symbol of the tension between cultural continuity and economic unsteadiness, as it flows through the idyllic countryside and is the river of commerce in London at the same time (Ridgman 2006, 47). This is how the Rat describes it in a very apt way: “It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having, and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing” (13). He clearly enjoys the existence among the River-Bankers, who represent the rich bourgeoisie of the society (Hunt 2006, 164) and would never want to live anywhere else. After their adventure in the Wild Wood, Otter, Rat and Mole make “swiftly for home, for firelight and the familiar things it played on, for the voice, sounding cheerily outside their window, of the river that they knew and trusted in all its moods, that never made them afraid with any amazement” (70).

2.1.2. Toad Hall

Toad Hall is described as a “handsome, dignified old house of mellowed red brick, with well-kept lawns reaching down to the water's edge” (25), a banqueting-hall, a boat-house and stables. Although his friends would “never admit as much to Toad”, it is “really one of the nicest houses in these parts” (25). Jeremy Ridgman (2006, 41) points out that Toad Hall as the archetypal English country house is “one of the most familiar and politically loaded symbols of national heritage”. It stands for a period of security, stability as well as order and it has been in Toad's family for more than one generation. Nevertheless, the reader gets the impression that Toad is not a member of the aristocracy by the right of birth.

The “symbolic crisis of cultural identity” (Ridgman 2006, 42) and struggle against the instability of the modern world is expressed in the battle over Toad Hall. After the Wild Wooders' defeat, peace and order are restored again.

2.1.3. The Open Road

The open road leads to the uncertain, the unexpected, the Wide World. According to Toad, the open road holds “real life […]. Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow! Travel, change, interest, excitement! The whole world before you, a horizon that's always changing!“ (27f.). This is why the River- bankers as creatures of habit prefer their river, as they are used to its comfort and stability (29). In the second chapter “The Open Road” Ratty thinks about his river all the time (31) while traveling with Mole and Toad and is feeling home-sick (34) all the time. For Toad on the other hand this road leads to the discovery of a new technology, the motor car, and in consequence to a journey into the Wide World filled with excitement, misadventures and challenging as well as dangerous events.

2.1.4. The Wild Wood

'What lies over there?' asked the Mole, waving a paw towards a background of woodland that darkly framed the water-meadows on one side of the river.

'That? O, that's just the Wild Wood,' said the Rat shortly. 'We don't go there very much, we river-bankers' (14).

When the Mole goes into the Wild Wood alone, it seems “low and threatening” and full of “little evil wedge-shaped face[s] […] fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp” (43). This description demonstrates the harsh difference between the warmth and comfort of the River Bank from the cold and dangerous Wild Wood. It is not a very safe place for little animals, as Mole has to be rescued by the armed Rat from the “Terror of the Wild Wood” (45). River-bankers tend to avoid this place and try to go there at least in pairs of two when they have to (47).

2.2. Characters

In The Wind in the Willows the animals are anthropomorphized and form a society with a defined hierarchical order. It consists of the upper class, i.e. the Squire Badger and the noble Otter, the rich bourgeoisie, e.g. Rat, Mole and the over-excessive Toad, and the proletarian Wild Wooders, who together with Toad unsettle the peace and harmony of the idyllic life on the river bank.

2.2.1. Mole

In the beginning Mole is described as a creature of routine who inhabits his “dark and lowly little house” (7), Dulce Domum in Mole End, and suddenly feels the urgent need to escape this life and leave spring cleaning and his underground home. “Up we go! Up we go!” (7) is not a simple exclamation but also a possible implication to his upcoming social advancement. When running across the meadows towards the river bank, he feels no “uneasy conscience pricking him and whispering 'Whitewash!'” (8) and being “the only idle dog among all these busy citizens” (9) feels great to him, which is a forecast to his change of social status at this early stage of his development.



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Title: Class identity in "The Wind in the Willows"