In his novel, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame tells the story of a group of forestry animals who embark on a number of adventures together. Throughout the novel, Grahame presents his characters as following their instincts which, as animals, one would assume are carefully attuned to their environment and survival. However, animals or not, the characters are heavily anthropomorphised which removes any immediate suggestion that the characters rely upon their animal instincts. Equally, the behaviour which could be described as instinctive often either displays a sense of wisdom or it induces a feeling of unhappiness. The purpose of this essay is to discuss Grahame’s presentation of ‘instinct’ through the novel whilst focusing on whether the animals use it wisely or behave erratically.
In terms of any discussion focusing on behaving instinctively and, indeed, impulsively, then it would be foolhardy to not discuss the character of Toad. The reader is quickly presented with his character through the use of words and phrases such as: “Toad is rather rich” (Grahame 27) and “’Finest house on the whole river!’ cried Toad, boisterously, ‘Or anywhere else for that matter’ he could not help adding.” (Grahame 29). He is immediately presented as being a ‘larger than life’ character with a sort of childish pride: the reader can automatically picture a character that is loud, slightly outrageous and bordering on immature and irritating. Toad’s behaviour leads him to crash six cars and to be taken to hospital three times and has had to pay countless fines due to his behaviour (Grahame 75). As a result, his friends take an intervention-style stand and refuse to let him go out driving any more. After much berating and discussion, Badger finally requests of Toad that he apologise to his friends and admit the error of his ways. But, Toad doesn’t: “’No!’ he said, a little sullenly, but stoutly; ‘I’m not sorry. And it wasn’t folly at all! It was simply glorious!’” (Grahame 127). Instead of adhering to his sensible friends, Toad allows his instincts to kick in and he stubbornly refuses to accept that he is at fault. After his friends attempt to guard him and curb his behaviour, Toad creates a diversion by leading them to think he is ill and then seizes his chance and escapes through his bedroom window (Grahame 134-5). His instincts to escape lead him to getting into more trouble with the police and eventually being sent to prison. In this sense, Toad is the most instinctive of all the characters and he personifies the erratic nature of instinct and its potential downfall.
Grahame seems keen to present instinctive actions as being a foolish way of conducting oneself. This is never more so the case than when Toad escapes: “the miles were eaten up under him as he sped he knew not whither, fulfilling his instincts, living his hour, reckless of what might come to him.” (Grahame 139). The key word there is ‘reckless’ – a word which denotes a lack of care and a marked nonchalance to the regard of his own or others’ well-being. However, by contrast, Toad’s three friends – Badger, Ratty and Mole – all instinctively recognise that Toad is on a destructive path and choose to take action: “he’s a hopelessly bad driver, and quite regardless of law and order. Killed or ruined – it’s got to be one of the two things, sooner or later. Badger! We’re his friends – oughtn’t we to do something?” (Grahame 75-6). In this statement, Ratty is relying upon his instinctive feel of the situation to evaluate and hypothesise how Toad’s reckless behaviour will conclude: in this instance, instincts are presented as being good, helpful things. The friends clearly care about Toad and by instinctively recognising that Toad’s behaviour is bad, leading them to try and help him.
Grahame presents instincts in one of two lights: as reckless abandon and as a preventative tool. Toad’s character is erratic, boisterous and gregarious meaning that his instincts are to follow the fun and adrenaline – in a sense, he becomes addicted to the speed of his car and this affects his instincts and his ability to make a rational decision. However, Ratty, Mole and Badger all seem calmer and more sedate – they are not addicted to anything which is tainting their perception and so their instincts which include their love for Toad and their ability to rationally perceive his behaviour as dangerous, lead them to instinctively try to protect their friend from himself. Animal instincts are, traditionally, associated with survival in the wild and despite the characters’ anthropomorphism, their instincts are still in place to protect themselves and their loved ones. As in many children’s stories, the concept of ‘instincts’ has been shown as being a double-edged sword, presumably with the intended lesson of encouraging children to recognise their instincts but to also carefully consider them before acting. Grahame presents his characters’ instincts as being both wild and troublesome, and wise and sane: the moral of the story being that your instincts are not always right.
Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Print.