‘The wolf in the bed, whatever else he may mean […]’ (Nicholas Tucker). Discuss ideas of the animal within Children’s Literature

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2384

I will begin my reading from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In Chapter Eleven, the text states (in the words of Toad), “I’ve only broken out of the strongest prison in England, that’s all! And captured a railway train and escaped on it that’s all!”[1] Both of these things required Toad to interact with humans, and therefore shows the instability of the human and animal categories in the perspective. Another thing which shows instability between animals and humans in the perspective is the fact that Toad knows what these things are. The text states knowledge of “England”; but in the text, the animals never refer to the outside world as such, and in other editions of The Wind in the Willows, there is a map in the cover which refers to the outside world as “To the Town”. Yet Toad knows what “England” is in this text. This shows a shift in perspective, and a shift in the category of animal and human; there is no reason given in the text as to why Toad suddenly knows what “England” is. Somehow, within the perspective, he just does.

This knowledge of the outside world showing a shift in perspective, and a shift between the animal and human state, is also shown on the back cover blurb of the book. It reads: “Join in the delights and disasters on the riverbank with Mole and his new friends, Ratty, Badger, and fun-loving Toad. There’s never a dull moment!” I read the word “riverbank” to be the strongest implication of animal-like tendencies in this piece of text, as that is a place where it is not surprising to find animals. However, it is important to acknowledge that I view it as that because of my knowledge of the world; the text is not bound to adhere to the rules of the outside world, and therefore in this text “riverbank” does not necessarily have more animal-like connotations than any other word. The key thing about this quotation, though, is that there is no shift in perspective within the way the animals are portrayed – it is said that there are both “delights and disasters”, but the actual text itself remains in the present tense, with the animals portrayed as a constant.

One of the strongest examples in the text of the shift between animals and humans is in Chapter Ten, where the text states that Toad is with humans in a motor car, and they say “she is better already. The fresh air is doing her good.” The words “she” and “her” are very human words, and these words lead me to read this as the men perceiving Toad as a human woman. This is further backed up a few lines later, where the text states, “What a very sensible woman!” The word “woman”, just as with “she” and “her”, I read to be the men perceiving Toad as a human woman. Within this perspective, the line between animal and human is blurred; in the world I live in, I would immediately be able to tell the difference between a woman and a Toad. However, the text only has to answer to itself, and therefore the rules are different. If the perspective states that a Toad can be perceived as a human woman, then no further explanation is needed – that is simply the perspective within the text that the text puts on itself.

On the next page, the text states how Toad is driving the car, and the men say, “Be careful, washerwoman!” At this point in the text, the men still perceive Toad to be a woman, by literally calling Toad a word with “woman” in it. Toad responds with “Washerwoman indeed! […] I am the Toad”, and it is only at this point that the men realise Toad is not in fact a woman, saying “seize the Toad, the wicked animal who stole our car!” This shows a massive shift in perspective and is a huge example of how the categories of human and animal are constantly shifting in the text of this book. The men in the text go from calling the Toad “ma’am” to being a “wicked animal”. Within the text, I read this to mean that humans view the animals as inferior to them, specifically through the word “wicked”. I personally think there is irony in this, as the humans in the text view the animals as inferior, but it is the animals who can distinguish between animals and humans, and who create that shift. There is not one instance in the text of a human pretending to be an animal, but Toad fools several people in the text into believing that he is a human woman, which to me shows that he actually has a higher level of intelligence than the humans – all within the constraints of the text of course. This is simply how I read it; but the perspective itself does not outright claim this. It simply shows the shift in perspective in the text between human and animal, and how the two categories are not as stable as it may initially seem.

Whilst speaking of Toad fooling several people into believing he is a human woman, but humans never pretending to be an animal, it is important to point out that within the text itself it is never actually clarified what attributes make animal behaviour and what attributes make human behaviour within the text. There are examples of the animals rowing a boat, riding a carriage, and driving a car, which I perceive as quite human characteristics; however, I cannot put those human-viewed attributes into my reading of the text, as the text itself does not have to adhere to the rules of the world outside the text. The fact is that the text never actually defines what is normal for animals – it speaks of “animal etiquette”, but it is never truly clarified what that is. I read the fact that Toad is only defined as an animal when he says he is to show that, within the text itself, the natural behaviours of animals and humans are not actually that different, hence there is a constant blurring between the two.

In Chapter Seven, the text introduces “The Willow-Wren”. Through the word “The”, the perspective is making a claim of singularity – it is not “A” Willow-Wren, it is “The” Willow-Wren. This implication makes it seem as though this is the only Willow-Wren. The perspective also makes this claim of singularity through “Willow-Wren” beginning with capitals. The capitals make it seem like a name – it is not just an animal which happens to be a willow-wren. Willow-Wren is also its name in the perspective.

This claim to singularity happens elsewhere in the text too. Frequently, the characters are referred to as “the Rat” and “the Mole”, for example. As with “The Willow-Wren”, the word “the” before the capital at the beginning of the name gives a sense of singularity, ownership, and name. However, whilst the character of Otter is referred to as “the Otter” in the text, the text itself states that he is not the only otter – Otter’s son, Portly, is proof of that. Similarly, “the Badger” is referred to, but “badgers” are also mentioned, and defined as a group that “the Badger” is not part of. The word “the” and the capital at the beginning of the name definitely gives a sense of singularity, but the text itself contradicts this.

This becomes yet more complicated when the text is not consistent in the way the characters are named – “the Badger” is also referred to as just “Badger”, and the same happens with other creatures; “the Toad” is referred to as “Toad”, “the Mole” is referred to as “Mole”, and “the Rat” is referred to as “Rat”. The removal of the word “the” shows a shift in perspective in the text – the implication of singularity is no longer there, as the word “the” is what created the sense of singularity and ownership of the name. The capital letter is still there, so I still read these words to be names, but the removal of “the” definitely changes the perspective on these names.

As though this could not get more complicated, the text also shifts even these names – “Rat” is also referred to as “Ratty” and “Water Rat”. Whilst the text surrounding these alternative names may insinuate that all three of these Rat-like names are associated with the same rat, the perspective on names neither confirms nor denies this. Within the perspective, it is perfectly possible to have the view that these are three entirely different rats, or equally have the view that it is the same rat with different names. The perspective does not outright claim either of these things to be right – it simply presents a shift by referring to a rat under several names and presents these all in the past tense perspective.

In ‘Puppy’ in the book When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne, the text shows this same shifting between names and singularity as the text does in The Wind in the Willows. The text first refers to “a Horse”[2], which does not refer to singularity as such – the word “a” I read to mean that there are numerous of this Horse, it is simply one of these such things. However, by having a capital at the start of the word “Horse”, the text is doing the same thing as the text does to the characters in The Wind in the Willows – it makes the text seem to be identifying and naming the character. This becomes a further point as “a Horse” is then referred to as just “Horse” in the text, showing a shift in perspective; it is no longer one of many such kinds of Horse. I read this to be a shift in perspective of the name itself – the capital at the start of the word horse emphasises the name, and the lack of “a” prevents it from being one of many – it has become singular. After this, the perspective on “Horse” changes once again, to being referred to as “the Horse”. The word “the” absolutely clarifies singularity of “the Horse” in the text – and there is no surrounding text to contradict this. Therefore, I read this to mean this is the only “Horse”, and “Horse” is this singular animal’s name.

However, there is no evidence within the text to prove that these three different instances of “Horse” are in fact the same “Horse”; I can only claim in my reading that the last “Horse” mentioned is singular by use of the word “the”. This does not automatically mean that it is the same “Horse” as is mentioned as “a Horse” or “Horse” – the perspective does not clarify this at all. It simply presents these different kinds of “Horse” within the text, and shifts the perspective – and personally, I read the final “the Horse” to be a singular named animal.

The section ‘Puppy’ then moves on to talk about “Rabbits” in the text, and this presents yet another set of questions about perspective and names, and how this shifts the perception of animals. Immediately, this sets up a completely different set of questions to the perception of “Horse” in the text – and this is because “Rabbits” is plural, whereas “Horse” is singular. Even when applying the same logic of a capital at the start of the word potentially representing singularity or a name, this creates a problem with “Rabbits” because it cannot be the name in the same way “Horse” is a name, as “Horse” is singular whereas “Rabbits” is not singular.

Despite this, the perspective in the text still shifts, changing from “Rabbits” to “the Rabbits”. The word “the” in the text creates a sense of singularity – but “Rabbits” is a plural word. However, instead of “Rabbits” being the specific name of an individual, it could mean the name of a specific group of things. To use “the Rabbits” individualises this group and makes said group seem important; it gives them a name. This is then changed in the perspective once more, as the text changes to “some Rabbits”. The word “some” takes away any sense of individuality that the word “the” gives to the “Rabbits” – in the perspective, they were no longer the only ones of named individuals, but simply “some” named individuals.

‘Puppy’ ends with talking about a “Puppy”, and this goes through similar shifts as “Horse” and “Rabbits”, with movement in perspectives from singular to “a” to “the” – however, the text then creates a very big changes in perspective through the word “you”. The text reads, “I’ll come with you, Puppy.” Firstly, the “I’ll” is in italics, which I read to be as emphasis. The text is stating that the “I”, whoever that unnamed narrator may be, will do the action, and to emphasise this, italics are used, hence the “I’ll”. The larger thing that is used, however, is the “you” which changes the perspective to be a direct address on the “you”, whoever that unnamed “you” is. “Puppy” is still mentioned, but the perspective has changed from speaking about “Puppy” to then being a direct address. The word “with” I read to mean that the unnamed, unspecified narrator within the text wishes to accompany the “you”; but there is no specification over who or what the “you” is. The text cannot claim which “you” it is referring to; it can only state that the perspective is a direct address on the “you”.


Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (Oxford: Oxford Children’s Classics, 2014)

Milne, A. A., When We Were Very Young (London: Egmont, 2016)

[1] Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (Oxford: Oxford Children’s Classics, 2014)

[2] Milne, A. A., When We Were Very Young (London: Egmont, 2016)

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055