I know this wasn’t on my last list of books I’m currently reading, but it was the perfect choice for twenty minutes or so when I couldn’t sleep the other night, and once I’d started, I just had to finish it! It was pretty perfect, actually – my husband is away and my house is a little lonely. Just as I got to the part where Wilbur is lonely and finds a friend, I became contented and sleepy enough to turn off the light.
Reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) was like a never-ending feeling of déjà vu. I read this book so often as a kid, and I must’ve seen the animated film countless times. It had been a long time since either book or film, so I remembered the basic plot but not specific lines. As I read, though, the words were so familiar, and on many occasions, I could hear them being read by the characters from the movie. It was very sweet to revisit this old favorite.
Everybody knows the plot of Charlotte’s Web, right? Wilbur the pig befriends Charlotte, the spider who lives in the doorway of his pen. Charlotte is smart and loyal, caring and clever; in short, the best friend Wilbur could have. Wilbur is slated to be slaughtered for bacon and ham around Christmastime, but Charlotte concocts a plan to prevent that. Writing words in praise of Wilbur in her web, she makes the pig famous enough to eventually win a prize at the State Fair. No one would kill “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig” after that, and Wilbur goes on to live a long, happy life.
It’s a cute story, full of memorable characters like the goose who can’t talk without repeating herself (repeating-repeating-repeating herself) and Templeton, the self-centered rat who hoards objects and craves garbage for food. And White’s descriptions of farm life and the turn of the seasons are simple yet vivid.
But the ending is sadder than I remember. As a child, I wasn’t able to draw the parallel between Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s fates. Wilbur cries, “I don’t want to die!” and Charlotte makes it so. But who is there to save Charlotte’s life? A spider’s lifespan is short. Charlotte sacrifices her final days accompanying Wilbur to the fair, giving up the chance to lay her egg sac at home as she wanted. Wilbur lives a long, happy life surrounded by his friends at the farm, but Charlotte dies alone despite all the love and cleverness she poured into another’s well-being.
“She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died” (171).
It’s so tragic. But of course, Wilbur couldn’t stay at the fair; he was carried away in his crate by the farmer, a force greater than himself. Of course there was nothing anyone could do to save Charlotte. No number of clever words could stave off her approaching death. Charlotte’s Web portrays the inevitability of change and death, a theme echoed by the turning of the seasons and the attention of Fern Arable, the girl who raised Wilbur, turning from her once-beloved pig to the boy who took her on the Ferris wheel. Fern grew up, her ability to hear the animals’ speech transforming into an interest in dating. Charlotte grew up, laid her eggs, and died. Even the goose and the gander lay eggs each year and protect the goslings that emerge. Wilbur’s growth is a bit more subtle. Grown wiser through his experience of grief at his friend’s death, Wilbur has children by proxy, the few baby spiders who choose to remain with him each year. In the end, Wilbur finds contentment:
“Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web. Life in the barn was very good – night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything” (183).
White’s message is not an existential one. Everyone must grow up and eventually die, but this is cause for living one’s life full of joy in one’s friends and surroundings, enjoying the sunshine and the birdsong and the memory of dear friends gone before.
Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross
Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth von Armin
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, Jeanne Birdsall