Where Animals are More Human: Reading E.B. White’s Charlotte's Web as an Adult
Try to think of a time when you were a child. Didn’t you believe that animals do talk with each other? I, being an adult, still believe that they are chuckling after looking at us stupid human beings. Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White, has been a prolific writer who likes to use talking animals in his tales. Most of us have fond memories of reading Stuart Little or watching the film. Wasn’t it a great job to see Stuart taking up a human character? White’s children's book, Charlotte’s Web, has to be one of the most read novels by kids all over the world.
White introduces us to a little girl Fern, who is upset about knowing that his father will kill the runt piglet. The setting of the book is rural America, so the family has their farm. It is a close-knit community, and we do not get to see our characters move farther than the village fair. As Fern’s father thinks that the piglet is probably going to die, he lets her keep the pig and bottle feed him. Fern names the pig Wilbur, and their attachment grows. More than anything, Charlotte’s Web as a book is about the bond of friendship.
Now, as the fate of any other pig, Wilbur needs to be sold. After another sullen episode with Fern, her father decides to sell it to her uncle for six dollars. So, Wilbur is sent off to the barn, and it becomes the place of his growth. Fern can visit Wilbur regularly as the barn is close by. But, Wilbur ends up feeling lonely. There is an episode where he tries to escape, but it isn’t fruitful. He is too engrossed in the slop that Mr. Zuckerman supplies him.
In one such lonely spell, Wilbur comes across Charlotte, the lovely spider. They develop a friendship that will last a lifetime. Now, Charlotte is a brilliant spider, and she knows her way ‒ she can even knit alphabets in her web. Soon, Wilbur can realize that he might be sold before Christmas. So, Charlotte hatches a plan that can bemuse Mr. Zuckerman and the whole village ‒ that ends up saving Wilbur’s life. Though Charlotte passes away before seeing the brilliant outcome of her talent or her children, Wilbur remembers her as the best of friends.
Bear with me, as that is the best I could have done with a shortened down a summary of the book.
Now, coming to reading a children’s text as an adult ‒ it makes you see the layers which might have gone past at a younger age. So, the first thing I noticed was the gender dynamics of this text. As the setting is America in the late 40s, gender is still a hegemonic belief compared to today. The sexual and cultural revolution is yet to come, and it is especially visible in the rural setting. Fern, the little girl, is meek and sympathetic to the piglet. In contrast, her brother Avery carries a rifle(all of us are aware of the gun-related problems of America) and often behaves quite rudely. Fern is not even a teenager, and her mother is thinking of her marriage(It isn’t blatantly mentioned, but Henry Fussy, Fern’s friend ends up being a big deal, even for her) By the time we reach the end of the book, Fern has already grown out of her childish cocoon of being friend’s with a farm animal. Gender is also evident in Charlotte, the spider, which creates a masterpiece in the form of an egg sack, and she ends up dying out of feebleness. (The act of maternal sacrifice) She is intelligent, yet she cannot talk back to Wilbur about his acts of selfishness.
Now, as human-like animals are a part of this tale, the literary device used by White is known as anthropomorphism. The word means providing human-like qualities to something that isn’t human. So, a talking animal is an anthropomorphic character. Even an inanimate object like a car or a computer may often be given human characteristics. The use of anthropomorphism is significantly seen in children’s works as there is a need to ‘teach lessons’. As I began by saying, the main earning we have out of Charlotte’s Web is the bond of friendship. It is often seen that an entity which isn’t human can deliver a message in a better way when it is given human features. That is why Orwell’s Animal Farm is a memorable modern fable. On the top layer, Charlotte’s Web may seem like a mild story of rural friendship based on imagination. Still, it has enough Easter eggs to irk us, adults.
I perceive Charlotte’s Web as a bildungsroman narrating the life of Wilbur. (Bildungsroman is a literary genre which can be compared to the coming-of-age-story, where the protagonist learns something through his life’s journey. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is an example of the genre) So, Wilbur is given a second life through Fern, and he ends up learning to live in the barn, as well as to build a friendship with Charlotte. Through the tale, he goes on learning new things, enjoying his glory of being a famous pig. The climax comes at the end when he realizes that Charlotte was the one who sacrificed herself for him ‒ Wilbur tries to repay this by carrying her egg sack back to the barn. Now, Wilbur is a flawed character, and he is snobbish, pampered, and often stubborn. All barn animals need to give him small lessons, and he faints at the slightest of excitement.
Charlotte, the spider, has to be my favorite character of this book. She is intelligent and knows the tricks of the world. Her knowledge comes out when she talks about the functions of her body as well as her family history. On top of everything, she knows to be kind even after being a spider. (Spiders are generally thought to be a harmful creature, but White has given us a positive representation of the species). Charlotte knows the right way to market Wilbur, to make him memorable to human beings. When she writes ‘some pig’ on her web, Wilbur becomes worthy, to Mr. Zuckerman, and also to himself, rather than ending up being fried bacon.? (I find Charlotte to be a master in SEO keywords, she knew the letter which will click for humans)
Continuing with words, there is a sentence spoken by Charlotte in the twelfth chapter ‘People believe almost anything they see in print’. In the world of advertisements, words work the magic. Similarly, in propaganda and manipulation, words are quite remarkable. So, the ‘some pig’ Wilbur is ‘terrific’ and ‘radiant’ which increases his brand value, and he ends up winning a special prize in the fair. (Wilbur gets buttermilk baths. Can you even imagine bathing in buttermilk?) People flocked from all over the village to see Wilbur. He was thought to be more unique than a spider, who spins the web. (It gave me vibes of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings)
The great thing about Charlotte’s Web is White’s treatment of the theme of death. We start with a probable threat of Wilbur’s death, we continue with the dud egg of the geese, and lastly, we are devastated by the death of Charlotte. But, death becomes a part of us, and we end up accepting it. The book ends with the kind words ‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’
Go read, Charlotte’s Web, it is all about the American dream of fattening up and living in your little barn, rather than going on adventures. I am sure you will fall in love with it.