Stealing as a moral feature in animal stories

A comparative analysis of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "The Wind in the Willows"

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis of the stealing scenes in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Wind in the Willows
I. “Motivation” of the character
a. Motivation of Peter in The Tale of Peter Rabbit
b. Motivation of Toad in The Wind in the Willows
II. Consequences
a. Consequences for Peter in The Tale of Peter Rabbit
b. Consequences for Toad in The Wind in the Willows

3. Moral impact
I. Identification
II. Dissociation

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

You shall not steal. You shall not lie, neither shall any man deceive his neighbour.

(Leviticus 19, Douay-Rheims Bible)

This concept has not only long been a convention for religion but also a canon for society. Children have always been taught early that stealing is illegal. Representations can be found in several literary works as for example in Aesop’s fables. The issue of moral education was also a current subject during the Victorian era. Especially in the end of the century, when education was made available for nearly all social classes (“Children”), it came to special interest again. As Eric Hopkins argues, religious and moral education was needed “if the ever-growing numbers of boys and girls were to be disciplined and turned into conforming members of the new urban society” (Hopkins 37). Many books were used to convey a moral sense and works, which did not offer certain moral aspects or which dealt with “obscene” matters were censored or even banned (cp. Edelstein 1). Although there were no specified rules for censorship of all media, as Robert Justin Goldstein shows by the following quotation, “There are no principles that can be defined. I follow precedent.” (Goldstein 274), the government went on censoring books if they rated them immoral.

So far, most researchers, like Jane Darcy or Lois R. Kuznet, only deal with representations of nature or with nostalgia in Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows and like David J. Earp with genetic engineering of plants in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. With my research I want to look from a different angle on his literary work. To investigate further in the research of moral education in books during the late Victorian era, I compare the stealing scene in The Wind in the Willows (Grahame 110-114) to The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter since both extracts are of special interest for the subject of moralization.

During the analysis of the stealing scenes, I want to work on what motivation the characters Peter Rabbit and Toad have to steal and which consequences the characters have to face for their behavior. This was not only an issue of great interest during the end of the 19th century but is still a current subject because just as Pollock and Rainwater quote Ouida (Maria Louise Ramé) “The treatment of animals in our power, […] both reflects and affects the depths of our collective moral being.” (8). Therefore, first I am going to compare the text passages and point out differences and similarities in the motivation of the characters and their approach to the forbidden object, so to say, their actual way of stealing.

To understand the moral features one needs to have a look on the consequences afterwards. I will analyze these by pointing out differences and similarities to be finally able to work on what impact these scenes had on their readership, which influenced why they have not been censored in the beginning of the 20th century. Concerning this, I argue that very severe consequences for stealing in animal stories did not only help authors to make their work socially accepted but did also heavily moralize the readership. In my conclusion I will then summarize my different findings and show which points would need further scholarly investigation.

2. Analysis of the stealing scenes in The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Wind in the Willows

2. I.a. Motivation of Peter in The Tale of Peter Rabbit

The British law system differentiates between different kinds of theft. Most of the differences depend on the quantity of what has been taken from another person, on the effect it has on involved people and on the motivation of the thief. Though the stories The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Wind in the Willows are literary works for children, this classification of crime also partly finds its representation in them.

Starting with the typical introduction of a fairy tale, the story about Peter Rabbit is introduced to the, most times, very young readership with a harmonic setting:”Once upon a time there were four little rabbits […]. They lived with their Mother in a sand-bank, underneath the root of a very big fir-tree.” (Potter 7). So far, this setting does not offer the least trouble or action. Nevertheless, before the rabbit mother leaves to go shopping, she tells the four little rabbits that they are allowed to play outside and to go everywhere, except for Mr. McGregor’s garden (Potter 8). During the story, the garden serves as the forbidden but desired object and as well as the literary instrument for an adventurous story. Like the Garden of Eden, in which the bible says humans could not resist the forbidden fruit (Douay-Rheims Bible), attracted humans, the abstract concept of the only thing that is forbidden to him, draws Peter to Mr. McGregor’s garden. Even the warning, that their father had died there, meaning that the garden stands for life-threatening consequences, does not affect Peter emotionally in any way (cp. Potter 11). At least he does not show any emotional reaction, nor do his sisters. At this point it is obvious that Peter is going to the garden, ignoring all warnings, and that he must have an encounter with the death-promising force of the gardener when it is stated that he is a “naughty” little rabbit (Potter 19). This literary device is used to prepare the reader for further action to come.

The story offers also another interpretation of Peter’s motivation. The garden is also a desired object because Mr. McGregor grows many vegetables in there. They are very well protected. For children these vegetables can be compared to the delicious sweets on a very high cupboard. But one could get them with a lot effort and it seems, every exertion seems to be good enough to get to these sweets. Compared to the story that means every effort is good enough and no consequence can be too severe for Peter getting to the vegetables.

Every adult reader though can understand why the gardener is protecting his so long cared for food. Children though cannot. They cannot understand why something is forbidden because they cannot see yet what reasons and consequences are connected with the forbidden thing. They only see the garden through Peter’s eyes and therefore, Mr. McGregor becomes the villain in the story. That I will further explain later on. Even though Peter can easily slip through under the gate (Potter 20), the garden is still very hard to reach. Not from the physical point of view but from the psychological one. The death of Peter’s father still overshadows Peter’s entering the garden and serves as a bad omen for his stay there. Peter though does not see that it is only the reader, who still has that in mind. But it also gives way for an adventurous story which leads me to another more subconscious reason. That might be the wish for an adventure and the author might have intended to let it look like this. One can already see that in the beginning of the story where the three sisters of Peter are called “good little bunnies” (Potter 16) because they only go and gather blackberries. The reader can see that this is a safe activity, but they also do not experience anything special. Nonetheless, since we do not have proof for this, it can only remain an assumption.

To summarize this passage, it is never stated, that Peter has the intention to steal something. He easily enters the garden without having any thought about taking property from someone else. It appears Mr. McGregor’s garden attracts him so much, he does not even give a thought about the warning of his mother or the consequences. He does not steal because he has to survive. His motivation though appears to be a combination of the animal instinct and the human (childish) wish to break the rules and to reach a forbidden thing. The special attraction of the vegetables combines both human and animal features. The desire for an adventure can hardly be proven with text passages and cannot be undergirded with secondary literature, which is why I will not follow this line of argument and leave this aspect out in my further investigation.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Stealing as a moral feature in animal stories
A comparative analysis of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "The Wind in the Willows"
University of Osnabrück
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stealing, tale, peter, rabbit, wind, willows
Quote paper
Anna Winkelmann (Author), 2012, Stealing as a moral feature in animal stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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