Charlotte’s Web Novel Study

At almost 32,000 words, Charlotte’s Web (1952, 1963) is a middle grade novel rather than a chapter book. This is a story with many  hidden depths, which appeals to middle grade kids as well as their adult co-readers.

Below I’ll be getting into how this story appeals to both children and adults, the themes of death, the narration, characterisation and the overall story structure.

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

White gave us his reasons behind writing this particular story:

It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I
could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of
“Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere
deep inside me there was a wish to that effect. (“A Book is a Sneeze”)

CHARLOTTE’S WEB AND DEATH

Charlotte’s Web is infamously sad and does not shy away from death. There’s a myth that children’s stories are largely happy. (There’s also a myth that Hollywood movies tend to end happily. But if you look at the total corpus of popular children’s classics and popular blockbusters, many of them evoke sadness.)

Children’s books are often about power and repression: Peter Rabbit, Max and Ramona learn how to control their own personal power; Wilbur [of Charlotte’s Web] gains self-control over his fear of death.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

Parents do know their own kids best, but even then, we can never be sure how they are going to react to a sad story. Kathleen McDonnell writes:

Fly Away Home did very well in the box office and was praised by many reviewers as a superior family film, but I thought it was too much for my seven-year-old. I think it relates to a certain folk wisdom prevalent in fairy tales, which dictates that the death of the mother the primal trauma in the psychic universe of the fairy tale should happen “offstage,” before the story begins. This is true of the best-known tales, “Cinderella” and “Snow White” for example, as it is of lesser-known ones like “Donkeyskin” and “The Goose-Girl“. Even when such a death occurs in the course of a story, as in the modern children’s classic Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte the spider being the closest thing to a mother that Wilbur the pig has), it takes a writer with E.B. White’s sensitivity to know how much sorrow is too much for his young readers. White is careful to leave them hope for the future in the birth of Charlotte’s daughters the following summer.

Honey, We Lost The Kids: Rethinking Childhood in the multimedia age

So even though Charlotte’s Web is a terribly sad story, it does follow the rules of children’s literature and ends on a hopeful note.

Much of my understanding of Charlotte’s Web comes from reading Peter F. Neumeyer’s excellent but out-of-print The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (1994). Neumeyer’s commentary details how Charlotte’s Web evolved over many drafts. I won’t go into that below, but it’s worth saying that this classic novel went through many revisions, each one tighter and tighter. Notably, much scenery description was chopped out from the beginnings of chapters.

Morgan Weistling, b.1964, California

STORY OVERVIEW AND THE CONCEPT OF ‘BEING-TOWARD-DEATH’

Written in 1952 by E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web is a homely, comforting story about friendship. It is often, as noted by Perry Nodelman, the first “chapter” book adults choose to read to children; it has all the elements that make a story feel right for the very young — a main character with whom the child can identify, a wise and loving mother figure, villains that aren’t too frightening, and a triumphant story line, all woven together with gentle humor and carefully crafted language that emphasize the glories of the natural world. More than that, the story is empowering for the young child; it offers a vision of what most parents want for their children (and themselves) in that it can be read as a “consoling fantasy in which a small Everyman survives and triumphs over the pathos of being alone”. Not only does Wilbur triumph over his fundamental isolation, but he also triumphs over the terror of his being-toward-death. He is saved not once, but twice, by women who act as mothers to him and who use language to intervene in his destiny and to turn him into something that, by any objective standard, he should not be. In order to save Wilbur, first Fern and then Charlotte have to convince Mr. Arable and Farmer Zuckerman that Wilbur is worth saving, that he is more than simply a runt pig, good for nothing and a lot of trouble besides. The way they do this is by speaking for him, by connecting him to the world of language; in a sense, they do what the Lacanian (m) Other does — together, they provide the conditions for him to have a “voice,” at the expense of their own erasure.

Karen Coats

When you think about it, Wilbur is not more than a runt pig. A runt pig is exactly what he is. He isn’t especially beautiful, smart or useful. The underlying message here is a leftist one; we are all valuable simply for being us. We don’t have to prove our worth in any capitalist sense before someone else in the world considers us worth saving.

REFRIGERATOR MOMENTS

I had a few other ‘wait a minute!’ moments re-reading this book. (Riffing on Hitchcock’s fridge test.)

  • Why didn’t Fern’s mother think maybe Fern was right about the talking animals in the barn after it emerged that the spider could write?
  • Why did Charlotte know all those big words but couldn’t think of any herself when it came to praising Wilbur? Why did she have to rely on Templeton visiting the garbage pile and riffling through magazines?
  • “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” If Charlotte is such a good writer, why is she using words brought to her by a rat from the actual garbage pile? (Okay, she’s good at writing memes. She’s a good marketer.)

JK. I’ll happily suspend disbelief:

  • Some of the animals can talk while others can’t. (Spiders can, flies cannot. Why?)
  • Why do the animals have some language skills but not others? (They have whatever fits the story.)

It’s also interesting to see which points E.B. White considered needed covering (lampshading).

  • It is mentioned early on that spiders are more amazing than people at weaving because no one taught them how to do it; they just know. This stops us wondering at the end, when Charlotte’s babies greet and say goodbye to Wilbur how they knew how to talk.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE IN CHARLOTTE’S WEB

  • White is well-known for his succinct style (hence the collaboration with Strunk on the style guide)
  • The book opens right in the middle of things. Before the end of page one, Fern has saved a life.
  • If you’re writing a story with some kind of magic (e.g. talking animals) and that magic isn’t apparent from page one, check out how E. B. White transitions from the realism of human farm life to a barn full of talking animals. It’s masterful.
  • White is also well-known for his lengthy lists. The lists seem anthethetical to succinctness, of course, but this is a great example of where to use your succinctness as a writer and where to let yourself run free. When we talk about ‘lists’ we don’t just mean lists of nouns.

Templeton poked his head up through the straw. “Struggle if you must,” said he, “but kindley remember that I’m hiding down here in this crate and I don’t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffered about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed. Just watch what you’re doing, Mr Radiant, when they get shoving you in!”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

NARRATION IN CHARLOTTE’S WEB

White made use of what Neumeyer describes as ‘ironical double vision‘ and also the ‘Mark Twain wink’.

RELIABILITY

White’s narrator is at the far end of the ‘reliable’ spectrum. He is completely reliable. At no point are readers encouraged to doubt the narrator’s take on things. Fern knows the animals can talk, as does the narrator.

What makes me think the narrator is a he (rather than a she)? Well, that’s a big question. The very fact of his authority and reliability, I expect.

FREE INDIRECT STYLE

There are times when White slips into Fern’s head.

He looked cute when his eyes were closed…

White didn’t use the word ‘cute’ anywhere else, apparently. This is clearly Fern’s word, and the narrator is firmly inside Fern’s head. When a narrator moves seamlessly in and out of a character’s head, sometimes channeling their thoughts, at other times commenting on them as a distant narrator, this is known as free indirect discourse or free indirect style.

The contrasting examples of ‘heavily armed’ vs ‘cute’ in Charlotte’s Web shows how at any given point the narrator can exist at a different distance from the character’s head. The writer makes this choice depending on what suits the scene.

Neumeyer contrasts the narrator of Charlotte’s Web with the close third person narration of Where The Wild Things Are, which never uses words Max wouldn’t. Even the more sophisticated language in Wild Things would come from Max’s mother.

THE TIME WHITE STUFFED UP

Some of Charlotte’s Web critics (e.g. Roger Sale) consider the following word choice a mistake:

In good time [Wilbur] was to discover that he was mistaken about Charlotte. Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.

Charlotte’s Web, end of chapter five

Why is it bad writing? The reader doesn’t need the end telegraphed via this instance of authorial intrusion. White has given us enough information about Charlotte to know that she is a ‘goodie’. Perhaps he doubted himself because he’s just spent a chapter outlining how Charlotte murders.

I also think there’s another way in which White stuffed up. I don’t know if this view is shared by other readers, but Fern is eight years old. When Fern’s mother takes her to the doctor, the doctor’s advice is basically, “Don’t worry about her interest in animals. She’ll soon develop an interest in boys.”

This is creepy. Why is an adult male doctor even thinking about an eight-year-old girl’s sexuality? Also, at eight years of age, girls are not typically boy focused. Eight year olds are still children. Some eight year olds are interested, of course, but the doctor has suggested that eight year olds are typically interested. It feels utterly wrong for Fern to later dress up pretty for the boy and for her to be basically spending the fair with her ‘date’.

White is not only reflecting the self-objectification that girls commonly engage in; he is promoting it. He is promoting it to an age group where it’s unlikely to be even happening. I find the characterisation of eight-year-old Fern utterly, terribly creepy. White reminds me of those old men who commonly say to mothers of cute toddler girls, “Mmm-hmm-hmm, you’ll be fighting off the boys in a few years’ time!” (I can tell you from experience that old men still say things like that about girls who are nowhere near adolescence.)

The heteronormativity of this advice also stands out with a 2020 re-read. Don’t come at me with ‘that’s how it was back then.’ I’ve no doubt that’s exactly how it was back then, but I’m not even talking about the heteronormativity. I’m talking about mothers taking concerns about daughters to patriarchal doctors and then being patted on the head (no matter the complaint) with some reassurance about how everything will work out in the end. (And the reason everything will work out is because she’ll end up getting married to a boy.)

SETTING OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB

LOCATION

We know Charlotte’s Web is set in New England, America. The only clue is the sparrow from Boston mentioned at the beginning of chapter six. Until then we just know it’s America.

SEASONS

The majority of classic children’s literature starring girls is circular in shape. Seasons are also cyclical (and circular) in nature, so seasonality in these feminine stories tends to be foregrounded. Femininity has long been associated with cycles, partly because of the obvious menstruation and pregnancy.

Charlotte’s Web is a book that celebrates the seasons. Chapters 6, 9 and 15 contain lyrical passages in the pastoral mode. The pastoral tradition, extolling country life, is an old one in literature, traceable at least as far back as the Greek Hesiod’s poem Works and Days (eight century B.C.), a work not only celebrating rural life, but full of practical advice concerning the arts of husbandry.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web
THE PASTORAL UTOPIA

Typically, the pastoral genre looks at the past through a golden haze and imputes to it an innocence and a simplicity that historical evidence might not fully support. Fern inhabits such an innocent world of yesteryear. Mid book, things will change for Fernor, rather, Fern will change. And that change, and perhaps lost innocence, can be regarded with mixed feelings. Rueful retrospection is not foreign to the pastoral mode.

One critic has astutely observed that in contrast to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, in which the characters themselves articulate the pastoral perspective, Charlotte’s Web is a pastoral because of the voice of the storyteller. It is his awareness, his judgements, on which we rely.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web

We might say Charlotte’s Web turns into a snail under the leaf setting into a postlapsarian story. But the reader is never lulled into the expectation of genuine utopia, not really. Not if we notice the Arables are eating bacon (ie. PIG MEAT) over breakfast as the story opens.

As is true for many children’s stories featuring a house and a barn, what happens in the barn is a miniature mirror of what happens in the house. This mirroring extends all the way through the story. Fern becomes more and more like her mother the less time she spends in the barn. When the children break loose at the fair, this is like how the animals broke loose at the barn in chapter three.

Garth Williams knew how to make pigs look cute. Below is a Williams illustration from a different book:

Garth Williams. Golden Press, 1958. "Three Bedtime Stories"
Garth Williams. Golden Press, 1958. “Three Bedtime Stories”

But overall, White believed that the world is a wonderful place, especially when you’re young. We know this from his other writing, including from messages in Stuart Little.

Arcadian/pastoral stories commonly contain a message about the brevity of life as a subtext. The same is true in Charlotte’s Web.

The song sparrow, who knows how brief and lovely life is…

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
FREEDOM

In Chapter Three, which is titled ‘Escape’, the goose encourages Wilbur to escape from the barn. “How does it feel to be free?” she asks.

This is an old and a serious philosophical question treated in literature by Sophocles, Milton, Camus and countless other authors. In the world of children’s books, Beatrix Potter perhaps unwittingly raises the question in The Tale of Peter Rabbit both in the reckless nature of the hero of the tale and in the illustrations of rabbits, fettered and unfettered by human clothing. For Potter, ‘divestment’ (in both senses) is equated with freedom. White underscores the theme and the issue in all three of his children’s books.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web

In the vast majority of stories, characters move from a state of entrapment to greater entrapment to freedom. But other stories move a character from slavery to greater slavery to death e.g. Hamlet).

At first Wilbur decides he doesn’t want freedom. He returns to the barn rather than trying to escape to the woods, as the goose suggests.

Since freedom also implies responsibility, the rejection of freedom makes an important point about Wilbur. It’s also a thought-provoking statement in the context of White’s own life. After his brief youthful peregrinations, White seems not to have thrived away from his farm. He was skilled at turning down invitations and honors when they involved travel.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web

A lot of children’s picture books share the ideology that ‘captivity’ at home is best for kids and young, naive characters (such as piglets). Any home-away-home story ending in a character safely tucked up in bed contains this implicit ideology.

FOOD IN CHARLOTTE’S WEB

Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.

In … many … texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman

See also: Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

CHARACTERS IN CHARLOTTE’S WEB

THE ARABLES

‘Arable’ is a symbolic name. Arable means ‘plowable’ and potentially fruitful. Fern’s family name therefore means ‘The Plowables’. I’ve seen this name described as ‘Bunyanesque’. (John Bunyan is best known for Pilgrim’s Progress.)

Fern Arable is the empathetic viewpoint character. Fern’s name is also symbolic. The fern is dates back to the Carboniferous Age, which began 260 million years ago a plant about as prime and basic as you can get. (White also had a boat which he named Fern.)

Mr Arable Fern’s father. White liked to create grandiloquent fathers who channeled the voice of the unseen narrator (ie. himself as author). An early example:

“He’s yours,” said Mr Arable. “Saved from an untimely death. And may the good Lord forgive me for this foolishness.”

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
FERN

I am forever getting caught up on this character’s name. I always think the girl is called Charlotte, then remind myself that it’s the spider whose name is Charlotte. I’m sure it doesn’t help that my edition of the book shows a large picture of Fern. Charlotte is of course much smaller.

Apparently White did not initially open the book with the close third person viewpoint via Fern, but later realised he needed to give readers someone to identify with.

Fern is basically a little mother archetype. Her interest in Wilbur is considered good and natural because she will soon grow up to have babies of her own, and the pig is good practice.

For more on how girls are commonly depicted as mothers in training, see my post on the Female Maturity Formula (a phrase first used to describe Pixar films).

When Fern steps back from the story, Charlotte steps in as the designated mother figure.

AVERY ARABLE

Whereas Fern is your archetypal girl, Avery is your archetypal boy. White makes it clear that if Avery had been put in charge of the piglet he would not have made a good job. He’s the sort of boy who likes to collect frogs and cart them around in his pocket. He doesn’t show much empathy for them, either. He doesn’t care that he’s pulling them out of their natural environment, or that they might be injured. In his creation of Fern and Avery Arable, White relies on the 20th century gender essentialist view of children and how they ‘naturally’ behave.

Homer L. Zuckerman

Fern’s uncle. Neumeyer points out that the uncle’s name is a bit odd for his age. We ‘overhear’ Fern’s parents say that he ‘keeps a pig’ (every year, iteratively), and deduce that he keeps a pig so he can butcher it and have the meat for himself rather than sell it on. A common practice for farmers.

Lurvy/Larry

The hired man.

WILBUR

Wilbur is the runty pig Fern wants to save. To what extent is Wilbur anthropomorphised? In stories with human-like animals, the degree of their humanness exists on a continuum, but this degree shifts over the course of a story. If it shifts, typically the animal is introduced to the reader as purely an animal, then when it talks, this is a delightful reveal. Wilbur’s transformation into a human-like character begins at the beginning of chapter two: ‘He would stand and gaze up at [Fern] with his adoring eyes’. He first speaks in Chapter Three: “I’m less than two months old and I’m tired of living.” (The content of his first words isn’t quite so delightful.)

Wilbur is ‘aberrant’, just like all of E. B. White’s main animal characters: Wilbur is the runt, Stuart Little is two inches tall and looks like a mouse, and Louis the Trumpeter Swan is born mute.

Wilbur is immature and totally self-absorbed early in the book. Only near the end does he begin to perceive beyond himself. As long as he is childishly blind to all but his own needs, he finds being cared for far more gratifying than having the responsibilities that go with freedom.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web

Wilbur is also lonely in the barn. Books about friendship may require a condition of loneliness in order to work.

Wilbur’s speech shows that he is a newcomer to the barn. He says things like, “Attention, please! Will the party who addressed me at bedtime last night kindly make himself or herself known by giving an appropriate sign or signal!” He’s being overly formal and sounds officious, unlike the other animals who are using more down-to-earth language. Wilbur isn’t at home in this new home of his.

Just about everything said about Wilbur in the last four chapters and especially in the county fair scenes includes some word or phrase taken from Charlotte’s text: terrificradiant, or humble. Charlotte’s art is therefore also good writing because it does the minimum that we expect of good writing. It’s clear, moving, educational, and entertaining.

J.T. Barbarese
GOOSE

The goose has a realistic, pessimistic view of the humans around her. Like the human characters in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, she knows what they’re there for they’re meant for the table. This is why she encourages Wilbur to seize every bit of freedom he can get. She isn’t empathetic towards him why would she be? Her imperative is survival and reproduction. Instead of comforting Wilbur she sits on her eggs.

TEMPLETON

Templeton is the ‘scamp’, as rats often are in children’s literature. (They’re quite different from mice, personality-wise.)

Throughout the book, he is associated with the letter ‘T’ (rat, trough…) and other blunt-sounding words. He is associated with garbage collectors. This is a trope we see throughout storytelling. Chicken Run also characterises the rats as garbage collectors.

CHARLOTTE A. cavatica

Charlotte is the title character and the most noble, but remains off the page until the end of chapter four. Wilbur doesn’t know where her voice is coming from but the reader must have surely deduced she’s a spider. (Who else spins a web?) This puts the reader in audience superior position until Charlotte reveals herself to Wilbur.

Although Wilbur is highly anthropomorphised, White insisted Charlotte stay a spider in the illustrations. The editorial team along with White decided that Charlotte’s temperament would be conveyed via “attitudes and postures, rather than in facial expression”. White did an enormous amount of research on spiders. He researched for a year before he started writing Charlotte’s Web.

We know from White’s her full name that Charlotte is Araneus cavaticus, an orb weaving barn spider common to North America. He changed her name to agree in gender with Araneus.

White distinguished Charlotte’s speech by giving her Latin expressions. Her name is also Latinate.

Throughout the book Charlotte functions as mother, saviour and teacher.

DR DORIAN

When Mrs Arable gets worried about Fern making friends with animals in the barn she visits a Professor type, long-bearded, patriarchal, and condescending. This archetype is the same as seen in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, in which a wise man is willing to put aside concerns such as the difference between reality and fantasy, considering them unimportant. Mr Arable is also dismissive of Mrs Arable’s concerns about Charlotte.

Peter Neumeyer doesn’t see Dr Dorian as a stock character at all: ‘In my view…rumination by the doctor is one of the finer touches in the book. Observing how such a comment (How enchanting!) rounds out and deepens the impression made by Dr. Dorian, one appreciates the difference between a stock character and a profound one.’

My reaction may be different because in my experience, white male doctors are the demographic least likely to listen to mothers. In the world of the story, Dr. Dorian is correct. The mother is incorrect about her own child. This plays into a trouble real world dynamic, unfortunately. I also find him a bit creepy. He’s basically saying, “Fern will learn to like boys in a sexual way, which will solve any social problems.”

But is he really all that correct? You could argue that the mother knew something was up; she just didn’t know what. She didn’t think the animals were talking, but she knew in her gut that something was up. She went to the doctor and was told not to worry. Many mothers have had this exact experience, later to realise they were right to be worried, and it only took more years to find a medical professional willing to take her seriously. Mothers are regularly wrong about diagnoses; mothers are very rarely wrong about there being something wrong.

STORY STRUCTURE OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB

PARATEXT

Garth Williams  Cover sketch Charlotte's Web, 1952
Garth Williams Cover sketch Charlotte’s Web, 1952

This beloved book by E. B. White, author of Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, is a classic of children’s literature that is “just about perfect.” This high-quality paperback features vibrant illustrations colorized by Rosemary Wells!

Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte’s Web, high up in Zuckerman’s barn. Charlotte’s spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur’s life when he was born the runt of his litter.

E. B. White’s Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come. This edition contains newly color illustrations by Garth Williams, the acclaimed illustrator of E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, among many other books.

marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

Wilbur undergoes a character arc in this story. At the beginning he is young and emotionally labile. Mind you, I might be a bit emotional if I knew I was being fattened up for the table by the people meant to be my friends. In any case, Wilbur starts out self-centred and by the end he will be thinking about the greater good. The other reason Wilbur is so emotional is because Fern is so cool and collected by comparison. This is White differentiating his two main characters.

Fern is a highly empathetic kid but she lives on a farm. How to live the typical farm life all the while feeling bad about the workaday slaughter of animals? This is Fern’s psychological shortcoming.

Fern’s saving of Wilbur is the O.G. Save The Cat moment in children’s literature and endears the reader to Fern.

Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli has created a lot of Fern-like characters across his animations. Unlike Pixar and DreamWorks, Miyazaki likes to centre girls in his feature-length animations for kids. These girls tend to be caring little mother types, which adds to the cosiness of the setting even in absence of an adult woman as motherly stand-in.

White was fond of the notion of little girls mothering, playing with dolls, giving bottles. In one draft, White ended the previous chapter with a school-room scene in which Fern’s teacher asks the children in the class an arithmetic questions: “And now, here is a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?” Fern raises her hand and answers the question White did not use this page in CW, but eighteen years later transferred one version, as written for Fern, to The Trumpet of the Swan and let Linda Staples answer the question.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web

The concept of girl characters as little mothers is all related to what Roberta Seelinger Trites has called the Female Maturity Formula of children’s stories. Modern girl characters are rarely so overtly turned into mothers, but they are still very often imbued with the responsible attitudes of little mothers.

THE TRICKSTER WHO IS UNDERESTIMATED

In stories starring naive characters, a lack of power and superhero-level smarts can turn out to be an advantageous thing. We can see this play out in various fairytales, for instance in Hansel and Gretel:

In the famous Grimm fairy tale, Gretel pretends to be a dunderhead when the plotting witch tells the little girl to climb in the oven to see whether it is hot enough. Gretel knows the witch plans to make an ogre’s meal of her, so the little girl claims not to know what to do. Exasperated, the witch  —  calling Gretel a “stupid goose” demonstrates, and the clever girl pushes the witch in the oven, thereby freeing herself and brother Hansel from their evil captor.

In this and many another story where a child “plays dumb” to hoodwink adults, it’s difficult to miss the familiar and underlying point: grown-ups are easily fooled and manipulated because of their mistaken prejudice that kids are ignorant and not very clever. Things may seem altogether different in a book like E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web But don’t mistake who’s who: “Animal fables often present the almost universal attitude children adopt with grown-ups,” the famous psychologist Otto Rank observed. That attitude, Rank says, is “playing the fool‘.

Jerry Griswold

DESIRE

Opening desire: Fern would like to save the runt piglet’s life.

Wilbur didn’t want food, he wanted love. He wanted a friend someone who would play with him.

I call this a McGuffin desire. Typically, a McGuffin refers to some problem which kicks off the action in a story, and the audience later forgets about it altogether. A standout example is Hitchhock’s Psycho, in which a woman steals money then leaves town. Once she lands at the getaway hotel she finds herself in a dangerous, strange world and the audience has forgotten she ever stole the money, and that cops are probably after her.

Likewise, we forget that Fern fell in love with a pig in a motherly kind of way, and we move on just as Fern moves on (to the boy).

Charlotte’s Web is a bit of a subversion of the typical mythic journey structure, in which a hero leaves home, goes on a journey and has an adventure in the big, wide world. Wilbur tries this, egged on by the goose, but comically fails. Any journey Wilbur takes will be decided for him. He has no choice when he is taken to the fair to compete.

That’s what makes Charlotte’s Web a melodrama. A character is thrown into a life and death situation and must confront his own mortality. (Melodramas are typically focused on home and family, and this is why they’re typically thought to be ‘women’s stories’.)

OPPONENT

Fern’s main opposition is her environment. Farm life is personified by her father, who kills animals.

The opponents of this story are low stake. The closest we get to a Minotaur Opponent is the massive pig at the fair, but he’s pretty tame. The worst we can say about him is he busts out with pretty bad Dad jokes.

Charlotte’s Web is an excellent example of the maxim that the quietest stories are the most affecting. Sturm und drang cannot move an audience in the way a melodramatic, domestic story with well-meaning characters can move us.

PLAN

In order to save Wilbur’s life, Charlotte must convince the adults that Wilbur’s life is worth saving. So she does the only thing she knows how to do: creates a meme.

First she tells the world that Wilbur is ‘Some Pig’, then ‘Radiant’ and ‘Terrific’, and finally ‘Humble’.

by Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web (1952)
by Garth Williams for Charlotte’s Web (1952)

BIG STRUGGLE

About halfway through the book we learn of the country fair. Plots often culminate in something like this; a competition, a race, a talent show and in this case a livestock competition at the country fair.

Wilbur doesn’t win, because there’s a bigger pig in the pen next door. I feel a bit sorry for this pig. I don’t think he’s as bad as Charlotte says. He may be big, but that’s precisely the reason he’s going to be turned into bacon (off the page).

Charlotte has been getting older and weaker and dies alone at the fair, after the fair is over, surrounded by the detritus of human after-fun.

Charlotte's Web sad

There is also a long quote from the “benediction” offered to Wilbur by the spider Charlotte, his in-effect mother, shortly before she dies: “You will live, safe and secure, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose … All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days.”

A Grown-Up’s Travels Down the Rabbit Hole of Children’s Literature by Bruce Handy

Charlotte dies because that is what happens after her egg sac is spun, her spider-babies ready to be born; it’s the cycle of spider life. Handy says that when he finished reading the book to his kids, they said, “What are you crying about, Dad? Wilbur has all these new friends now.” We, the readers, know those Handy children won’t always have that child-resilience, that soon autumn will get to them, too.

ANAGNORISIS

Over the course of the story Fern has moved away from the natural world of the talking animals and further into the sophisticated world of the adults. She becomes less able to understand what the animals are saying. This is in line with a common ideology of children’s literature: that children notice magical things, and the ability to notice the magic of nature diminishes with age and maturity. This is partly to do with the idea that children are closer to the ground (to nature), that adults develop other, more frivolous concerns (in this case romance; it’s often making money), and that adults are in general too busy to really observe the world as it is.

So, Fern has the inverse of a self-revelation.

Who has the self-revelation, then? That would be Wilbur, who has just undergone the teenage developmental phase of learning that life means death, that we are not in control of death, that it both exists AND comes to us all. In this way, Charlotte’s Web looks more like your typical young adult story than your contemporary middle grade story.

NEW SITUATION

Perhaps if White had written Charlotte’s Web with his consciousness raised by feminism, Fern might not have had to sacrifice her childhood friends in the barn for the sake of pursuing a relationship with Henry Fussy.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

Earlier in the history of children’s literature it was common practice to cross out lines and rewrite the final three chapters so that Charlotte lives on. E.B. White apparently found this deeply annoying. This culture of rewriting an author’s work hasn’t died. These days readers write these alternative versions on fan fiction sites instead.

RESONANCE

Charlotte’s Web remains popular with young readers, especially because the story has been adapted a few times as an animation and also as a live action film in 2006 starring Dakota Fanning. The late 1990s-early 2000s saw a proliferation of talking animal movies for young viewers. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and the Babe series by Dick King-Smith were also turned into live action film. I remember when Babe came out, it was quite something to see live action animals seeming to talk. Until then we had seen plenty of talking animals, but apart from the odd horse with peanut butter in its mouth, this was new. Animation software had advanced to the point where it really did seem the animals were talking. I imagine this is how readers felt when they first saw Beatrix Potter’s animals wearing clothes: Huh! Weird!

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF CHARLOTTE’S WEB

  • Pay attention to Fern’s hair, which grows as time passes.
  • Notice how Charlotte’s attitudes are conveyed not by giving her a face but by arrangement of her legs. In his initial illustrations, Williams initially drew Charlotte with a woman’s face. Seems like a good decision to not do that. When he no longer had the face to rely upon, he must have realised he only had legs.
  • Fern features less and less in the illustrations as the story progresses. White didn’t want to make the animals look small. Williams did his best in that regard, foregrounding the animals while putting Fern in the background, drawing from a low angle.

FURTHER READING

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