Chapter 1 - "The River Bank"
The novel opens during springtime, while Mole is conducting his annual spring cleaning around his underground burrow home. Suddenly, he is struck by a feeling of discontent, and immediately tunnels his way out of the earth and up into the middle of a field. Hearing the birds chirp and feeling the sunshine on his fur, he realizes that he has spent too much time underground, especially during this recent good weather.
He decides to explore his surroundings, and soon arrives at a hedge. Several rabbits block the pathway, and demand he pay money in order to pass through to their private path. Mole, however, barrels through the rabbits with brute force, muttering to himself about the absurdity of their request.
He keeps traveling farther and farther away from home, across meadows and fields, until he finally reaches a wide river. Mole has never seen a river before, and is awe-struck by its depth and beauty.
Something on the opposite riverbank catches Mole’s eye, and he discerns a small hole just above the waterline. He wonders about living in that hole, but then Water Rat pops out. Being a friendly animal, Rat brings his personal rowboat to Mole, and invites him for a picnic on the river. Mole is excited, having never been in a boat, and joins Rat down the stream to a small clearing.
After Mole unpacks the basket, they discuss life on the river, which Rat loves above all else. Suddenly, Otter comes into the clearing, slightly upset that he had not been invited to the picnic. He settles down quickly, though, and he and Rat begin talking about Toad and Badger, two other animals in their circle. Mole listens to their information about the community with great interest.
Once Otter leaves to chase a mayfly, Rat ends the picnic. Mole insists on packing the basket himself, but fails to do it correctly. After a few tries, he and Rat finally get in the boat and head back to Rat’s home.
Mole asks Rat if he can try steering the boat. Amused, Rat insists it is harder than it looks, and promises to later give Mole lessons. Mole is upset by Rat's refusal, and tries to prove his strength by pushing Rat out of the way so he can steer the boat himself. Rat was correct about the difficulty, though, and the boat flips over. Mole drags himself to land, embarrassed of how rudely he acted towards his new friend. However, after diving to fetch all his supplies, Rat forgives the younger animal, and invites Mole to live with him as long as he likes.
It is no accident that the novel opens with Mole. On the contrary, Mole is the perfect vehicle to introduce us to the novel's world, since his adventure and desires immediately establish one of Grahame's primary points: the desire to be immersed in nature is a primal part of everyone. Though we do not learn until later that Mole's home is near a large town, we can immediately discern that Mole is rarely around nature, instead choosing to stay close to the familiarity of his own domestic life. Thus, his urge to stray from that comfortable life is important. It is also important that Mole leaves his home not for any rational reason, but solely on impulse. The idea is that we are naturally drawn towards nature - we must be willing to follow that impulse, however, if we want to find the happiness it affords.
Historically, Grahame never felt more alive than when he lived in the countryside. He lived in London during his adult years, however, so felt a kinship to Mole, who on instinct leaves everything behind to search for a more pastoral living. This is a common theme that winds through The Wind in the Willows. Grahame wants to show his readers about the freedom and beauty that can be obtained by leaving stuffy cities and finding comfort in the land. The prose used to describe the countryside is ornately bucolic. This tactic helps the reader feel that same yearning Grahame and Mole experienced.
Though it is not explicitly stated in the novel, each of the characters portrays a specific age group and state of life. Mole, with his restless nature and need to exert his authority, can be described as a young man trying to make his place in the world. Rat, on the other hand, is more established, with a community of friends close to him. These characteristics signify that he is more stable, adjusted, and older than Mole.
Mole’s youth is almost immediately apparent. When the rabbits demand money for the use of their passageway, Mole barges through without even an apology. Whereas a gentleman might deal with the situation maturely, Mole is defined by childish behavior. This behavior is mirrored near the end of the chapter, when Mole gets jealous of Rat's steering. Rather than believing Rat’s assertion that steering is hard work, Mole insists on proving himself unnecessarily. What happens, though, is almost predictable. When Mole’s pride gets in the way, his inexperience causes the vehicle to flip.
From the beginning of their relationship, Rat takes Mole under his wing. This aligns with the idea that he is older, and hence willing to mentor the younger animal. He shows Mole the countryside and introduces him to new experiences, like riverside picnics and riding in boats. He also promises to teach Mole how to drive a boat, which in some ways represents the ability to navigate the world.
The relationship is solidified when Rat jovially casts aside Mole’s brash actions and forgives him. He knows that Mole is ashamed of his behavior, and that anger will benefit nobody. This forgiveness marks a turning point for Mole, who now sees Rat as a mentor who can guide his maturity in the right direction. From this point in the novel, Mole works to gain Rat’s approval because he wants to impress his mentor. The implicit suggestion is that we learn how to live from others.
The Wind in the Willows is an example of extreme anthropomorphism and personification (giving human characteristics to animals or inanimate objects). Most of the characters are animals who walk, talk, and behave like humans. They exhibit proper English manners and etiquette, wear clothes, and follow meal guidelines. While it is a book that has entertained young readers for over 100 years, Grahame’s children’s novel is not intended simply as entertainment. Instead, he also hopes to instruct children about proper manners and etiquette. For instance, note Rat's warning about venturing into the Wild Woods. In summarizing the dangerous animals who live there, he is warning a younger friend about being conscious of his surroundings. Of course, the younger Mole remains curious, which reflects his youth.
Grahame often includes asides which help to solidify this educational purpose. In this chapter, he notes that dwelling on troubles ahead is against animal etiquette, and that Mole follows this silent rule due to his good manners. It is a minor guide on domesticity, a tidbit on proper etiquette that could hopefully serve as a model for children. We see this same type of interjection when Mole wants Rat to talk about Badger more, but does not pursue the topic because talking about someone after they have just left is improper.
When Otter and Rat discuss Badger, Grahame gives the reader a precursory glimpse into their personalities. After Badger abruptly leaves the picnic, neither Rat nor Otter are surprised by his behavior. Already, we can see that Badger is a more solitary character, as opposed to the three animals in the scene who enjoy ample company and lively conversation.
In this conversation, they also introduce the novel's arguably most famous character: Mr. Toad. We learn from them that Toad has a habit of picking up hobbies and dropping them once he grows bored with the activity. Otter remarks that Toad has no stability, and it is a telling line that gives immense insight and foreshadowing into the type of character we will meet in a few chapters.