Let’s Ruin Some Childhoods: Charlotte’s Web

It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is the story of two unlikely friends: a pig saved from early slaughter only to find himself being fattened up for Christmas, and a rather remarkable spider with a gift for spinning words. Also, a very mean rat, a wise old sheep, a goose very focused on her eggs, a determined girl, a bit where a lot of people fall down in the mud, and a Ferris wheel. Warm, funny, wonderful—at least, that’s how I remembered it.

And then someone on Twitter had to spoil all of these happy childhood memories in one tweet.

Said someone was the gifted and always amusing Tansy Rayner Roberts, who noted a few gender issues with the book, summing up Charlotte’s Web with this zinger:

Seriously, it’s about how the female spider does all the work, the male pig gets all the glory and then SHE DIES HAPPILY AT THE END.

This being Twitter, you will not be surprised to learn that this tweet generated a lot of reactions before reaching a final, rather comforting conclusion that everyone should just eat some bacon. In revenge.

Also, it reminded me that I still hadn’t gotten around to blogging about E.B. White yet. So here we are.

Before we dive into this tweet, I do want to say, in my own defense, that my childhood memories were not entirely wrong. Charlotte’s Web is about a pig and a spider, although initially, that’s hard to see, since the first few chapters focus on Fern, an eight year old girl extremely upset to find that the runt of the latest pig litter is going to be killed. After she argues that this is the most terrible injustice she’s ever heard of, her father allows her to save the tiny pig, whom she names Wilbur. Fern keeps the pig as a pet for a few weeks—the illustrations of Wilbur in a doll pram are particularly adorable—bottle feeding the baby pig and basically saving his life. Girl save number one!

Unfortunately, the rescue doesn’t last: Fern’s father, John Arable, insists on selling Wilbur when the pig is only five weeks old. Fortunately, the pig is sold to Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman, which means that Fern can go down the road and visit the pig whenever she likes. Unfortunately, Mr. Zuckerman, a very practical farmer, has only bought the pig in order to fatten him up and butcher him in the winter.

Well, unfortunately from Wilbur’s point of view. The Twitter point of view is apparently, yay, more bacon! But Twitter is perhaps a bit bitter.

Anyway. Wilbur, initially ignorant about this—he is a very naïve little pig, perhaps not that surprising given that he’s only been in two places in his very short life, and spent much of that life dressed as a doll—is at first mostly beset by boredom. After five weeks of getting played with and taken places, he is now trapped in a small pigpen, with only occasional visits from Fern. He desperately wants a friend.

And along swings down Charlotte, ready to be his friend—and save him.

But although this friendship plays a central role for the rest of the book, as it turns out, this book really isn’t about friendship at all, but rather about growing up, and accepting that part of life is death.

On a first glance, this might not seem quite that obvious, given that the majority of the plot is about keeping Wilbur alive—something that is ultimately successful. But to reach that point, Wilbur has to accept that his friend is the sort who regularly kills other creatures and sucks out their blood—a poignant scene immediately followed by a slapstick scene where Wilbur tries to prove that he, too, can spin a web.

And he has to accept that yes, he actually can die.

That’s the scene that convinces Charlotte to save him—partly because Wilbur is her friend, partly because she thinks that what the farmers are doing—fattening up Wilbur with the best of the scraps while plotting is death—is just wrong (this coming from a blood sucking spider, to drive the point home)—and mostly, it seems, to shut Wilbur up. (Yes, this is in the text.)

But what’s striking about this, and other scenes, is just how passive Wilbur is up until Charlotte’s death. Everything he does is in reaction to something else, or at someone else’s urging—even the scene where he runs away is prompted by the goose (and he’s pretty easily captured again with the promise of food). His reaction to hearing about his forthcoming death is to wail and wail and wail until Charlotte tells him to shut up. He allows himself to be moved from place to place, following instructions and advice. And he contributes absolutely nothing to his own rescue plan—that is entirely the work of the old sheep, Templeton the Rat, and of course Charlotte.

It’s not until Charlotte’s death that Wilbur finally does something on his own—saving Charlotte’s daughters, with the help of Templeton—now that Wilbur has finally learned how to bribe the rat.

Some of this goes back to an observation made over and over again in the text: Wilbur is a very young, very innocent pig who knows pretty much nothing about how the world works—even the enclosed world of the two farms he lives on. Some of it is also because Wilbur really is fairly helpless—he’s trapped in a small pen, he has very few friends, the only human he can communicate with is an eight year old girl who pretty much loses complete interest in him once she’s had the chance to jump on a Ferris wheel with a boy, and—unlike the fictional pig created by White’s colleague Walter Brooks—he doesn’t have any other resources.

But some of it also goes back to Tansy’s observation: this is a story of a woman spider saving a male pig. And for a pig to be rescued by a spider, that pig has to be very helpless. Can we stretch that to if a guy needs to be rescued by a woman, he has to be very helpless? Er….well. Let’s stick to pigs and spiders.

But it goes a bit deeper than this. Again and again in this book, the women are the ones doing the rescuing and saving: Fern, her mother (who makes the fateful suggestion to send Wilbur to a friendly farm), the goose (who schools Wilbur on certain realities, and is technically the person who saves Charlotte’s life, allowing Charlotte to save Wilbur), the old sheep (who is the one to persuade Templeton to help out at the fair) and, of course, Charlotte. On a small note, the one person to appreciate this is also a woman:

[Mr. Zuckerman] “…A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Zuckerman, “it seems to me that you’re a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider.

Her idea is rejected. The men insist that Charlotte is just an ordinary grey spider. Though,I will say, to their credit, they’re less freaked out than I would be if I saw actual words in a spider web.

So yes, I think that something is going on here.

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten just how much of the book is about the other animals on the farm: the geese, their little goslings, the sheep and the cows. Perhaps they are less memorable because they are not under imminent threat death, or perhaps because they are simply nicer and blander than Templeton the Rat. Well. Everybody is nicer and blander than Templeton the Rat. I’d also forgotten that there is a minor character with the unfortunate name of Henry Fussy.

One other small thing that nags at me: why did not one, but two staff members at The New Yorker end up writing children’s books focused on fictional talking pigs beset by terrible boredom who end up having lengthy conversations with fictional spiders? The original Freddy the Pig book even used a similar narrative structure where the animals could talk to each other and understand human speech, but couldn’t speak directly to humans, even if this approach was later abandoned.

It’s impossible for me to say just how much influence the two had over each other—they knew each other, certainly, and worked together, and I think it’s possible that White’s decision to write books about talking animals was at least in part inspired by Brooks’ success. Also, of course, the success of Winnie the Pooh and several other talking animal books—including, possibly, Oz. And the two pigs aren’t that similar: where Brooks used his fictional farm animals for comedy and, later, fierce political satire, White uses Wilbur to develop a mediation on death, and the need to accept it. But that still leaves me wanting to know just what was going on at the New Yorker during the 1930s.

Mari Ness still likes bacon, even after reading this book, but she draws the line at eating spiders. She lives in central Florida.


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