I recently began re-reading The Wind in the Willows for the umpteenth time, and, as classic novels are wont to do, it communicated to me in an entirely different way than it has before. I’ve been struck over the years by a lot of wonderful things in this little book, from Mole’s once-earned-never-lost loyalty, to Rat’s effortless hospitality, and Badger’s deep and abiding self-confidence. But one thing I hadn’t realized until now is that Mr. Toad and I are remarkably similar.
I’d be lying if I said this didn’t please me a little at first.
He is, after all, incorrigibly positive, happy, boisterous, loving, generous, and all in all the consummate bon viveur. Who wouldn’t want to be like Toad!? But, like any fully orbed character, Toad is a mixed bag.
He’s selfish. He’s insensitive to the emotions of the people around him. He’s unknowingly, and thus unabashedly, guileless in his attempts to use his friends to gratify his desires. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s frantic to affirm each of his many and ever shifting “lifelong” interests as the new most important thing that has ever happened to him. Among all the rest, this last trait is one with which I heartily, if not happily, identify.
You see, Toad and I share a particular weakness: as confident, daring, garrulous, loquacious, hospitable, warm, and optimistic as we are, Toad and I are also hopelessly insecure. Beneath our veneer of exuberance, there lies a deep well of need, devoid entirely of steadiness. And in the moment, neither of us are sure about where we ought to turn for something to fill that void. So we teeter along, waggling willy-nilly from one interest to another, wildly proclaiming “at last! I’ve found it!” with each passing fancy.
What is it that we think we've found, Toad and I? What makes us call “at last!” when we light upon a new hobby or stitch a new idea into our intellectual security blanket?
The more I read Grahame’s novel, the more I’m convinced that Toad is on the hunt for something far more meaningful than a way to spend a long summer afternoon. He’s on the hunt for an identity.
This becomes clear in the immediate aftermath of the gypsy cart episode. Toad and his friends have just been run off the road, nearly leveled by a reckless driver, who destroys the “canary-coloured cart” beyond repair, and leaves the trio stranded. Toad’s response, however, is far from righteously indignant. Rather, he seems enthralled by the prospect of another obsession. His first instinct is to viciously ridicule the mere idea of ever having been interested in anything but motorcars!
“‘The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! … And to think I never knew!’ went on the Toad in a dreamy monotone. ‘All those wasted years that lie behind me, I never knew, never even dreamt! But now—but now that I know, now that I fully realize! O what a flowery track lies spread before me, henceforth! What dust clouds shall spring up behind me as I speed on my reckless way! What carts I shall fling carelessly into the ditch in the wake of my magnificent onset! Horrid little carts – common carts – canary-coloured carts!’” (Grahame, The Open Road)
This is patently ridiculous behavior, and unless we read carefully, it would seem to prove nothing but Toad's silliness and inconstancy. The problem is, I don’t believe Toad is silly, nor do I think that Grahame writes any of his scenes or characters for superfluous or shallow reasons.
The vitriol leveled at the cart here reminds me of the way it feels to remember a poor decision, or an immature conversational gaffe in my own past. All it takes is the memory of having made a fool of oneself to sicken the stomach, and produce a need to distance the present version of you from the past. The present self, after all, would never have spoken, thought, or acted in such a foolish way. Indeed, the present self has grown so much, matured so dramatically that the past self wasn’t really the same person, and the present self cannot be held responsible for any of the past self’s youthful behavior.
Note the hyperbole in every line of the quote above: “real, only, dreamt.” With every description of this new idea, Toad grasps for the most important and dramatic word he can think of, almost as though he is desperate to convince everyone, including himself, that this new experience has changed him fundamentally. He is no longer the silly, foolish Toad of a week ago: he is remade. He is sophisticated. He is better. In this context, the revulsion he feels toward the cart has an obvious, and much darker object: himself.
The rubber meets the road as we realize that Toad knows himself better than it appears he does. He feels exposed, as we all do, in his loudness and drama, a raw nerve, skittish and terrified that at any moment he will be discovered a fraud. He is convinced in his heart that his only hope is to save himself by alighting at last on a “real” passion that will prove him to be who he wishes to be: respectable, strong, good-natured, steady, and honest.
Toad’s fear, and mine, is that we aren’t masters of our own fate, and we are justified in this fear. On a soul-level, we cannot choose for ourselves a personality, a set of interests, or a range of honest feelings and instincts that will make us acceptable to those around us, least of all ourselves.
A brief examination of the rest of the story proves that this question is indeed a preoccupation of Grahame’s. Mole, too, yearns for something or someone to tell him who he is. Even the Water Rat, nearly as unruffled and steady as Mr. Badger, spends half a chapter wild with need for some new stimulus to distract him from the ordinary, to pump vigor back into his life. I read these needs not as dissatisfaction with the life in front of them, but instead as the wounds we all carry by virtue of our fallen-ness. We do not, in fact, know who we are, and what’s more, we cannot tell ourselves! We are impotent entirely when it comes to creating an identity for ourselves.
Happily, however, Grahame doesn’t abandon Toad and me in this revelation of our emptiness. Instead, he points the way toward a counterintuitive truth. Insufficiency is a pre-requisite for real relationships of all sorts. It isn’t on our best days, when we glance in the mirror and nod approvingly at what we see, that we are most aware of the love and compassion surrounding us on all sides. It is instead when our armor is completely stripped away; when the specter of our past and true selves is all we can see.
Toad’s salvation never does come from cleaning himself up, choosing the right hobby, and convincing himself that he’s good enough. It is snatched from the jaws of actual ruin by the firm love and dedication of his friends. Which brings me to the best part of all.
In The Wind in the Willows, we watch Toad reject and squander any attempts by his community to love him as himself, pursuing instead a vision of who he could and should be. The ultimate reason for this is that Toad has absolutely no grace for himself, past or present. His standards for his own character are far too high to be satisfied by undeserved affection. But in the end, Toad has no choice. No conversational bluster, or retroactive gilding of his story can present to him a version of himself that he feels comfortable applauding. So, at last, he surrenders.
With characteristic ease, Grahame draws a sharp comparison between the Toad we have grown accustomed to reading about and the Toad who appears in the dining room in the final scene. Toad stands at his dressing table, physically adjusting his appearance in the mirror, and singing himself a song which recasts the battle with the stoats and weasels as a great triumph, conceived by and led by he, himself, Mr. Toad. It seems he’s at it again! He’s rewriting his memories, protecting himself from reality, preparing to put his best foot forward to the adoring public. But: “Then he heaved a deep sigh; a long, long, long sigh. Then he dipped his hairbrush in the water-jug, parted his hair down the middle, and plastered it down very straight and very sleek on each side of his face; and, unlocking the door, went quietly down the stairs to greet his guests…”
Toad never enters a room quietly. For the rest of the evening, not only does Toad refuse to accept the accolades of his gathered guests, but he also praises Badger, and Rat, and Mole to no end! Whenever someone asks him to relate the story of the battle, he gently refuses, and instead inquires as to the health of their families.
Having been forced, at last, to stare himself in the face, and to accept the real state of his own character, Toad’s worst fears no longer compel him to hide. He has been outed a cad, and yet his friends still love him! Having been shown a grace as large and powerful as that, Toad seems to have drifted down to earth, and once down there on the ground he finds that people there are needy just as he is, and that his position equips him uniquely to lend them confidence by simply paying them attention.
In the end, it is acknowledging his emptiness that frees Toad to be filled by his community, and to fill them in return. In painting this for us, Grahame tells a truth that has the capacity to fill our real lives with a kind of hope we cannot claim for ourselves. We are not enough! And we were never intended to be enough. But we are also not alone.