Today I’m here to discuss a rather unlikely Classic Couple (this one made of two classics!): The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1885) and The Wind in the Willows (1908). As most American students who have been assigned to read Huck Finn in English class will know, this classic novel is about a white boy and black slave who sail the Mississippi River on a raft in search of freedom. The Wind in the Willows, on the other hand, is about the misadventures of Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad in the English countryside. About a third of the way through reading the latter novel I couldn’t get the former novel out of my head and knew that I would have to pair them up in a Classic Couple eventually. Although these two novels may seem distinctly different, they actually share several surprising similarities.
River = freedom.
Reading about Mole and Rat’s trip down the river early on in The Wind in the Willows was what first made me think about Huck Finn. Mole quickly becomes enamored with the beautiful splendor of the river and decides to leave his home behind and live with Rat. Here, the river represents a break from Mole’s prior understanding of “normal
society or life (living near water instead of living underground). In Huck Finn, Huck and Jim’s raft on the Mississippi River also becomes a liminal space in which the norms of society are challenged. Specifically, race relations in the American South are broken down (kind of) as Huck and Jim take on different roles on the raft. Although Jim is still racialized as a character, he also becomes a sort of mother figure for Huck. In this way, transportation on rivers becomes an important catalyst for and symbol of freedom in both novels.
As a slave, Jim views the North almost as a foreign country, an idyllic place where the chackles of the peculiar instituation will no longer weigh him down. However, the reality of race dynamics in the North–or anywhere in the United States, for that matter–was (and is) never that simple. As he travels, Jim realizes that racism still exists wherever he goes. The misleading “world” in The Wind in the Willows is more positive: the Wild Wood that Rat warns Mole about ends up being okay once Mole realizes that Badger lives there. Badger’s hole in the ground reminds Mole of his own home, immediately making the Wild Wood seem like a more inviting place after all. In both cases, these unfamiliar territories don’t meet the characters’ initial expectations of them
Disguises, pranks, and jokes.
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are well known for their pranks and schemes, and they come across many tricksters in their travels. One notable example is the Duke and the King, two swindlers that Huck and Jim meet along their journey. I was reminded of these schemes in Huck Finn when I read about Toad’s adventures in The Wind in the Willows. Toad steals motorcars and crashes them recklessly, breaks out of jail, disguises himself as a washerwoman, and tricks a bunch of people into giving him rides back to Toad Hall. I think Huck, Tom, and Toad would get along just fine.
The theme of leaving and escape.
So many characters run from, leave, or move on from a plethora of situations in these two novels. Huck leaves home to escape his abusive father; Jim joins Huck on the raft to try to escape slavery in the South; Toad seeks a sense of exhilaration and escape from ordinary life by speeding in motorcars, and then breaks out of prison when he gets caught; The Wind in the Willows begins with Mole leaving his home, only to return later for a brief visit with Rat when he realizes how much he misses it. Few characters, like Rat or Badger, seem content with their current situation. Perhaps this says something about people (and toads, apparently) in general?
This Classic Couple was so interesting and fun to write about! I love connecting the dots between books that one would never ordinarily think about together. As always, you can check out my other Classic Couple posts here.
What are your thoughts on either/both of these novels? What other books share these similarities? What classics would you like me to feature in the future? Let me know in the comments section below!