Charlotte's Web is a children's book about the friendship between a Pig, and a spider named Charlotte.

A little girl named Fern saves a piglet runt from getting killed by her father. She names the pig Wilbur. Wilbur and her share a great deal of time together. However soon Wilbur becomes too big for Fern to handle so she sells him to farmer Zuckerman. Fern visits the farm everyday, she sits on a milk stool and watches the animals. She soon realises that the animals can speak. Wilbur soon finds out that the Zuckerman's are planning on having Wilbur for roast dinner. Wilbur can't believe he cries and cries, Charlotte hears him and tells him that tomorrow they will meet and that he will not die. The next day the two meet properly and Wilbur discovers that Charlotte is a spider who spins webs in the barn, the two become instant friends. Charlotte thinks of a plan that will help to save Wilbur's life. With Charlotte's skills in spinning webs and writing and Wilbur's charm they set out to save the pig's life.

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."
"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.
"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."

So begins Charlotte’s Web. You’ve got to love a children’s book that begins with attempted murder.

For most of you reading this, the story is familiar. If you haven't read the book, maybe you've seen the movie. Fern rescues the runt and names him Wilbur. She nurses him and wheels him around in a baby carriage with her dolls. When he is five weeks old, she sells him (at her father's insistence) to her uncle Homer Zuckerman, who owns a farm. The Zuckermans live nearby, and Fern visits almost daily, sitting on a stool outside the pigpen, watching and listening to the animals. Wilbur makes friends with his new neighbors, especially the goose and gander, who repeat everything three times, and the old sheep, wise to the ways of the world. Templeton the rat lives there too, and is tolerated.

Templeton, in fact, is pivotal to moving the action along, but like Han Solo in the beginning of A New Hope, he’s only in it for himself. He is motivated by food, and will only help the other animals if bribed. Unlike Han, he’s never converted to the cause and continues to look out only for his own interests, growing increasingly obese. By the end of the book he more closely resembles Jabba the Hutt.

E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web in 1952. He does three things in his writing for children that I particularly like. His voice is very matter-of-fact, he makes long, descriptive lists, and he weaves scientific information in with his fantasies.

For instance, within the first few minutes of Wilbur meeting Charlotte A. Cavatica, a “large grey spider…about the size of a gumdrop” (p.37) she catches a fly in her web. She dives at it, wraps it up in silk, and bites it to paralyze it, in preparation for a breakfast snack.

“You mean you eat flies?” gasped Wilbur.

“Certainly. Flies, bugs, grasshoppers, choice beetles, moths, butterflies, tasty cockroaches, gnats, midges, daddy longlegs, centipedes, mosquitoes, crickets—anything that is careless enough to get caught in my web. I have to live, don’t I?”

“Why, yes, of course,” said Wilbur. “Do they taste good?”

“Delicious. Of course, I don’t really eat them, I drink them—drink their blood. I love blood.” (p. 39)

I just re-read Charlotte's Web, and was struck by the similarity to Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree: Wilbur is needy and asks for things (a story, a song, explanations; company, reassurance, a plan to save his life), and Charlotte provides them with a smile, even when she is tired (or dying). In Wilbur's defense, he is less than a year old, and Charlotte's deeds do not go unappreciated. Besides, "Like Fern, she was truly fond of Wilbur, whose smelly pen and stale food attracted the flies that she needed..." (pgs. 57-58)

E.B. White's writing for children combines realism with fantasy in a very matter-of-fact way. Stuart Little, born to a human couple, is a mouse; Louis, a trumpeter swan who is born mute, learns to read and write and play a trumpet; Charlotte the spider spins webs advertising Wilbur's finer qualities. Within the stories, nobody blinks. Humans, as Charlotte points out, are gullible.

Mr. Zuckerman: "A miracle has happened on this farm. There is a large spider's web in the doorway of the barn cellar, right over the pigpen, and when Lurvy went to feed the pig this morning, he noticed the web because it was foggy, and you know how a spider's web looks very distinct in the fog. And right sprang in the middle of the web were the words 'Some Pig.' The words were woven right into the web. They were actually part of the web, Edith. I know, because I have been down there and seen them. It says, 'Some Pig,' just as clear as clear can be. There can be no mistake about it. 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 you're a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider."

Almost everyone else attributes the miracle to the pig. People come from miles around to read the messages in the web, and admire Wilbur, but other than Mrs. Zuckerman, there is only one human in the story who places credit where credit is due. I like his perspective the best:

"Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."

Charlotte's Web won the Newbery Medal in 1953; there is a new edition out now with a forward by Kate DiCamillo. If you haven't read it, or haven't read it recently, it is worth locating a copy.


More about Charlotte: here's a fun review that aired on NPR a while back.

gnarl says re Charlotte's Web: learned today: While recording the audiobook version of Charlotte’s Web,

E.B. White needed 17 takes to read Charlotte’s death scene because he kept crying.

Inspiration for Wilbur: E.B. White wrote an essay called "Death of a Pig" which can be found here.



The last words in the book are "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.

That's a nodeshell here. It would be nice to see it filled.

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