Gender Trouble in Arcadia or a World of Multigendered Possibility? Intersubjectivity and Gender in the Wind in the Willows

By Walsh, Claire | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Gender Trouble in Arcadia or a World of Multigendered Possibility? Intersubjectivity and Gender in the Wind in the Willows


Walsh, Claire, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


'Liberal' feminist readings: Misogynistic overtones in The Wind in the Willows

According to Peter Green, sex (and more particularly puberty/adolescence) is one of the 'great enemies' in Kenneth Grahame's world because it signals the end of childhood innocence, and 'breaks up the ideal pattern' (1982, p.117). Grahame himself claimed that by using anthropomorphized characters, instead of humans for The Wind in the Willows, he avoided 'weary sex problems' (cited in Green 1982, p.117). In a letter to his publishers at Charles Scribner's, Grahame's insistence that The Wind in the Willows was 'free of problems, clear of the clash of sex' (cited in Kuznets 1988, p.175) further suggests that he wanted to stay away from issues of sex and gender in his book. However, as various critics' (Kuznets 1988; Gaarden 1994) charges of misogyny indicate, Grahame does not manage to avoid issues of sex, and the text arguably contains misogynistic overtones. For example, both Rat and Mole make derogatory comments to Toad about women. Rat criticizes Toad for being 'flung into the water--by a woman too!' (Grahame 1983, p.172), and Mole suggests to Toad that being locked in his bedroom is preferable to spending time in hospital 'being ordered about by female nurses' (p.93). Moreover, in an exchange between Toad and the Bargewoman, 'girls' are referred to as 'little hussies', and 'idle trollops' (p.153). Thus, Grahame's claim to Teddy Roosevelt that the text contained 'no problems, no sex, no second meaning' (cited in Kuznets 1988, p.175), reveals that perhaps Grahame was frankly ignorant of the misogynistic overtones pervading his book or he wrote from the perspective of 'a male who finds women inconsequential' (Marshall 1994, p.62).

For some feminist critics, such as Lois Kuznets, Grahame's insistence that the text is free from the 'clash of sex', evades the fact that 'beneath its Arcadian surface lie deeply buried and complex concerns' (1988, p.175). Bonnie Gaarden has argued that:

  the putative maleness of all the animal characters is nullified by
  their singularity and by the lack of female characters, and so the
  four main characters are, in effect, genderless or androgynous.

  (Gaarden 1994, p.57)

If I understand Gaarden's position correctly, she is arguing that without the presence of the opposing category of 'female(ness)', the supposed 'maleness' of the main characters is cancelled out. The result is that Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad are rendered 'genderless'. In a similar vein, Lois Kuznets had earlier argued that male characters' fulfilment of traditional 'female values' reflected an 'androgyny of nurturing males ... that can postulate no similar androgyny for females' (1988, p.179). Kuznets contends that 'males rather than females dispense the hospitality, create the welcoming atmosphere, and share the oral delights of food and drink' (1988, p.176). For Kuznets, therefore, Grahame marginalised females in his book by appropriating their 'traditional nurturing functions' (1988, p.176) into his male characters.

While Kuznets' and Gaarden's readings offer a valuable entry point for critiquing the role of gender in The Wind and the Willows, in this paper I demonstrate an alternative approach using Jessica Benjamin's psychoanalytic feminist theory of intersubjectivity and gender development. First I outline Benjamin's 'postconventional' (1995, p.76) approach to gender, and then follow with an 'intersubjective' reading of The Wind in the Willows that unsettles 'fixed' notions of gender identity, replacing the 'discourse of identity' with the notion of 'plural identifications' (Benjamin 1995, p.75). Integral to this paper is Benjamin's idea that the subject can maintain plural identifications by managing an awareness of both 'sameness' and 'difference' in a intersubjective state of tension, and not as mutually exclusive oppositions conceptualised as 'either/or'.

Jessica Benjamin's 'overinclusive' approach to gender

According to Benjamin, there is a fundamental problem with adhering to a logic of gender which constructs masculinity and femininity as 'binary opposites', and thus negates the possibility of positions or identifications 'outside' (1995, p. …

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