Like most children’s literature, The Wind in the Willows has a didactic purpose. In many ways, it works to impart an appreciation for domesticity and manners. Throughout the novel, characters are praised for their hospitality (as in the case of Rat or Badger), and criticized for their lack of it (as in the case of Toad). Additionally, Grahame wanted children to understand how to act towards others in certain situations. Sometimes Grahame speaks directly to the reader to comment on the importance of etiquette, whether table manners or honesty. Both through its plot and its writing style, The Wind in the Willows works hard to impart an appreciation for the manners deemed proper in early 20th century Britain.
Grahame does not shy away from his opinions concerning the superiority of country life over city life. The novel begins when Mole decides to leave his crowded home in order to live more in the country, and this idea continues to manifest throughout. On many occasions - such as the destructiveness of the motor car or the description of the city that became the Wild Wood once the humans abandoned it - Grahame criticizes the ugliness of industrial life. However, his best argument for the pastoral life arguably comes from his prose, which is rich in imagery relating the beauty of nature. He describes relaxing settings, and allows characters rustic picnics and peaceful treks down the river, all to contrast with the hectic, crowded city.
Grahame’s characters love adventures. Largely because they do not seem to work, they have occasion to go on visits, ride the river, take long picnics, and enjoy the open road. One benefit of these adventures - outside of the fun - is they are able to appreciate nature's beauty through exploration. Toad likes taking road trips, Mole explores the Wild Wood on his own, and even domesticated Rat feels momentarily like setting out for an ocean life. The lure towards adventure is a quality that pretty much every character in the novel shares.
Working in junction with the theme of adventure is the theme of home. While all these characters enjoy trekking out into the world, it is equally important that they can enjoy the stability of home once they return. The theme manifests in different ways for each character. Rat and Badger are more set in their domesticity, and prefer to stay close to home, while Mole and Toad want to see as much of the world as they can. However, Mole and Toad are also glad to have somewhere to call their own. It is no accident that the novel ends with a triumphant return to Toad Hall, since it closes the story by reaffirming the power of home.
Age and Stages of Life
As in most books, each of the main characters in The Wind in the Willows has his own personality. However, what is unique is that each character reflects a certain stage of a human's life. Badger acts the oldest and hence commands the most respect. Rat acts slightly younger than Badger - evidenced by how active he is around his home - but he still exhibits a sense of grounded maturity. Mole has the traits of a young man trying to make his way in the world; he is brave and daring, but also needs someone to guide him when he makes foolish decisions like heading into the Wild Wood alone. And finally, Toad’s behavior likens him to a spoiled, immature child. Overall, Grahame explores our progression through life by personifying each stage of life in his characters.
At the turn of the 20th century, young men would often find their place in the world through the mentorship of an older, more established gentleman. For Mole, Rat is an apt mentor to lead him into maturity. Their personalities mesh instantly, so Rat is able to polish Mole’s personality to turn him into a friendly and kind gentleman. His role in the final adventure at Toad Hall shows that Rat was successful. Toad, on the other hand, needs a stern hand, so only Badger can fill that mentorship role. It takes a while, but he ultimately helps Toad improve as well. Grahame clearly had a strong belief in the power of mentorship, as evidenced by the relationships he constructed in the novel.
Grahame clearly had a didactic purpose for The Wind in the Willows, best evidenced by the way characters have to face consequences for their actions. Both Mole and Toad make mistakes, and suffer for them. When Mole ventures into the woods after being warned against it, he soon finds himself in a terrifying, dangerous situation. Only the aid of his mentor Rat saves him. As for Toad, he is warned several times about his extravagant spending and reckless driving, and is eventually thrown in jail for ignoring those warnings. Even after his adventurous escape, he is forced to confront his behavior through Badger's strict mentorship. Ultimately, characters in this novel are flawed as we all are, but have to face consequences for those flaws in order to eventually grow.
The Wind in the Willows Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Wind in the Willows is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
There are actually two answers to this question. One, commonly used words were different in the early 1900s, when this book was written. Second, words like this expand the vocabulary.... they're educational.