The Freedom of the Home

In defending the home and family as “something as wild and elemental as a cabbage”, Chesterton acknowledges the sovereign freedoms that govern life in a family: “the home is the only place of liberty” where men and women reign like kings and queens. The home transcends narrow rules and oppressive regulations:

Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment, or indulge in a whim. Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter.

Sometimes he is not allowed even to sit down in bars; and sometimes he is not allowed to sing in the music-halls. Hotels may be defined as places where you are forced to dress; and theatres may be defined as places where you are forbidden to dress. A man can only picnic at home.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows especially portrays the glorious freedom of the domestic realm where a man’s home is his castle. Homes are depicted in the novel as “worlds” rather than as cells, boxes, or prisons.

wind-in-the-willows-2In referring to his home on the river, Water Rat testifies that his modest life by the water, the place that has always been his home, is truly a kingdom: “It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing . . . . Whether in winter or summer, spring or autumn, it’s always got its fun and its excitements.” As Mole discovers in his visit to Water Rat’s home, this world encompasses such diverse pleasures as a delightful boat ride on the river, a sumptuous picnic of delicious fare such as cold chicken and ham, French rolls, and lemonade, a comfortable chair by a cheerful fire in the parlor at night, and an evening of conversation and story telling in an atmosphere of warm friendship and hospitality. Mole’s visit to Water Rat’s home leaves him overwhelmed at the richness of Water Rat’s world as he exclaims, “What a jolly life!” and “What a day I’m having!” and “O stop, stop . . . This is too much!” Mole never imagined that an outing on the river in the company of a good friend on an a spring day could reap such a fullness of joy. That a simple, modest home could be so profuse in generosity and hospitality does not cease to amaze Mole. Rat’s home on the river is indeed a “world” because there is no end of things to do in the course of the year and no end of simple pleasures to enjoy in the course of an ordinary day.

The home of Badger is also as copious a world as Water Rat’s abode. As Mole and Water Rat are traveling through the vast, dark, trackless realm of the Wild Wood–a place that resembles the big metropolitan city in its impersonal coldness and monstrous size–they find refuge in Mr. Badger’s home where “at once they found themselves in all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen.” The two friends marvel at the abundance of provisions hanging from the rafters–hams, onions, herbs, and eggs: “The badger’s winter stores, which indeed were visible everywhere, took up half the room–piles of apples, turnips, and potatoes, baskets full of nuts, and jars of honey.” The guests feel like heroes welcomed home to a feast after a victory. Badger’s welcome not only refreshes the tired, hungry body but also cheers the spirit and lifts the heart–the hospitable home providing for all of man’s human needs, offering peace of mind as well as gladness to the heart, delightful conversation as food for the mind and delicious food as nourishment for the body: “how jolly it was to be sitting up so late, and so independent, and so full.” Badger’s home is a place of expansive freedom where Mole and Rat relax in slippers and gowns, keep late hours, eat to their heart’s content, and open their hearts in conversation with friends.

In the midst of the callous, uncaring world represented by the Wild Wood–a cold, unfeeling place epitomized by the indifference of the rabbit to the plight of the mole lost in the forest (” ‘What, us?’ he merely said: ‘do something? us rabbits?’ “), Badger’s home provides a place of safety and security in a hostile, dangerous world and offers a sense of belonging that overcomes the feeling of alienation. Located underground beneath a sturdy tree, Badger’s home reflects the permanence, stability, and rootedness of homes which humanize the world and value the importance of each person. Badger’s home is as much a “world” or kingdom unto itself as the river is to Rat–a world which has room for all his guests, which provides for all of his friends’ needs, which is well-stocked with nature’s cornucopia, and which offers a permanent refuge or “safe anchorage” for travelers in all seasons. With all of its tunnel-like passages, “passages mysterious and without end,” and with all its dishes on the shelves, “rows of spotless plates,” Badger’s home is a kind of universe.

Another glimpse into the deep peacefulness and quiet contentment of homes which reveals a world of happiness occurs on Rat and Mole’s journey from Badger’s home to the river. Traveling through a village, Rat and Mole glance through one of the windows where they see family members gathered around a tea table, some talking, some sewing, someone stroking a sleepy cat, a sleepy child carried off to bed, and a man enjoying his pipe:

Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates, gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture–the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.

In this scene the home provides a large world, which has room for everyone: adults, children, and pets. It accommodates the individual tastes and particular needs of each person, whether it is tea for refreshment, a pipe for relaxation, conversation for sociability, sleep for a child, or a shelter for a pet. The home embraces a variety of activities, many comforts and pleasures, and human nature in all of its diversity–the window without blinds or curtains appearing as a stage for a theatrical performance of the pageant of life and the actors playing their parts with the “happy grace” of natural ability. Rat and Mole’s glance at this domestic scene is a glimpse into the larger universe of the home which Grahame calls “the little curtained world within walls,” a drama which, like Shakespeare’s plays, offers God’s plenty and infinite variety.

Mole’s observation of this peaceful domestic scene overwhelms him with a pang of homesickness. A rush of fond old memories brings tears to his eyes as he pines for a return to the home he has been absent from for a long time: “It’s my home, my old home! I’ve just come across the smell of it, and it’s close by here, really quite close. And I must go to it, I must! I must!” When Rat agrees to a visit, he is charmed by the intimate personal history reflected in Mole’s home. Every item in the house has a story associated with it, and each object becomes a conversation piece. Rat hears “how this was planned, and how that was thought out, and how this was got through a windfall from an aunt, and that was a wonderful find and a bargain, and the other thing was bought out of laborious savings and a certain amount of  ‘going without’.” Rat acts as if he has discovered a treasure-trove, finding captain’s biscuits, German sausage, and bottles of beer: “He was running here and there, opening doors, inspecting rooms and cupboards, and lighting lamps and candles and sticking them up everywhere.” Curious about the prints that decorate the home and the labels on the bottles of beer he finds in the cellar, Rat marvels that such a compact, small house contains so many objects of interest: “Everything here and everything in its place!” Thus the tiny home of the mole, remarkable for its “narrow, meager dimensions,” represents a world of discovery for Rat who receives an education in his visit, learning about Gothic lettering, plaster statuary, fore-courts, and garden-seats.  Mole’s old home and old possessions embody a colorful history and a world of meaning, filling his heart with “great joy and contentment” as he feasts his eyes on all these “familiar and friendly things” which seem to welcome him: “But it was good to think he had come back to this, this place which was his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.” Mole’s home offers many sources of happiness from its beautiful charm to its rich history to its cheerful hospitality to its storehouse of memories. It is indeed a “world,” not because of its size or proportions, but because of its depth: it is a collection of all the happy moments, most cherished memories, and exquisite pleasures of a whole lifetime–the sum of little things which is the secret of happiness.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell: