Charlotte’s Web is a book I’ve heard about time and again in children’s reading circles and it was on my wish list for quite sometime. Finally it was the response of a young reader that spurred me on: “I heard from his mother that he shed buckets of tears for the protagonist.” Intrigued I ordered the kindle version from Amazon.
“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.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
White, E. B. (2015-03-17). Charlotte’s Web (Trophy Newbery) (p. 1). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
That beginning, pretty much, gives the reader a hint of what the book is going to be about.
Fern names the little piglet Wilbur; she feeds him and raises him until he becomes old enough to be weaned from milk and eat scraps of food. As the Arables cannot maintain him any longer, they tell Fern he has to be sold. Reluctantly, Fern sells him to her Uncle Homer for six dollars.
Wilbur moves over to the Zuckermans’ barn. His new companions at the Zuckerman’s farm are the goose and the gander, the cows, the sheep and the horses. There is also Templeton, a rat, who lives in a hole, which opens under Wilbur’s trough. Fern visits Wilbur daily after school and sits watching him and listening to all the the animals, till it is time to go home. Despite this idyllic world Wilbur is depressed by loneliness, because he has no real friend. At which time Charlotte, a spider, becomes his friend. He watches her while she wraps up a trapped fly for her breakfast. Though he is horrified at what Charlotte does, he accepts her nature and becomes her friend.
Wilbur’s idyllic world is somewhat shattered, when the other animals tell him that he would be killed around Christmas time, because this what happens to pigs year after year. This comes as a rude shock to Wilbur. He is terrified. Charlotte calms him, and promises to save him from being killed. How is she going to do this? Even she doesn’t know at that time.
Finally she hits upon a bright idea. She removes sections of the spiral part of her web, and in the cleared parts of the web she prints the words, “SOME PIG”. The next morning the words “SOME PIG” shows up dazzlingly due to the early morning dew. The farm hand on the Zuckermans’ farm, Lurvy, who see this is amazed and reports this to Zuckerman. Seeing this the farmer and his wife are convinced that they have an unusual pig. They believe that the words have appeared miraculously on the web! News of the miracle pig spreads and soon the whole neighborhood visits the Zuckerman’s farm to see the miracle words and the pig.
Charlotte is pleased that her ruse has worked. To reinforce the idea, after a few days, she removes the words, “Some Pig” and weaves TERRIFIC into the web. This is followed up with RADIANT. Every change is met with wonder and Wilbur’s fame spreads. However Charlotte realises that the excitement may not last forever, and thinks of an idea which will keep Wilbur safe permanently.
It so happens that the annual country fair is to be held at the nearby town and the Zuckermans decide to show Wilbur there. Charlotte uses this opportunity to execute her plan. She travels with Wilbur and Templeton, the rat, to the fair. There during the night Charlotte weaves a web and prints the word HUMBLE above Wilbur’s stall. The entire crowd at the fair sees the miracle words in Wilbur’s stall and they are all indeed convinced that they have a miracle pig. Wilbur is also awarded a special jury award. That ensures that Wilbur would be safe from being killed ever.
After having finished with writing HUMBLE, Charlotte also creates her magnum opus – her egg sac with five hundred and fourteen eggs. Having laid her eggs, Charlotte is weak and is about to die; Wilbur is inconsolable. Accepting that as the reality of life, he decides that the least he can do for Charlotte is to take Charlotte’s egg sac with him to the farm. Wilbur and Templeton return to the farm and Charlotte dies soon after. In the farm, Wilbur keeps the egg sac safe through winter. Soon it’s spring and one glorious spring day all of Charlotte’s eggs hatch. All of the tiny spiders wave a Hi to Wilbur as they emerge. Wilbur is delighted to have Charlotte’s children. However many of them shoot a balloon and then go on their way to occupy new places, save three who decide to stay back. They are Joy, Aranea and Nellie. Wilbur lives on to a grand old age with Charlotte’s daughter’s and grand-daughters, but Charlotte is always special in his memory.
+ + +
- The descriptions of a farm, life in rural America, the change of seasons have been delightfully written, and conjure the visual images clearly in our minds. To me this was the best aspect of the book.
THE BARN was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell —as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.
The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in .
White, E. B. (2015-03-17). Charlotte’s Web (Trophy Newbery) (pp. 13-14). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
- New fancy words are introduced casually (by Charlotte) in the conversation, words that Wilbur doesn’t understand. It is a nice way to improve vocabulary. Words like salutations, untenable, magnum opus are so introduced.
- Despite giving Charlotte anthropomorphic traits, White describes a spider’s life accurately in a biologically consistent manner.
- The author attempts to justify the nature of different creatures, as being inherent of them, and despite that they may be “good”. This is attempted by the contradiction that Charlotte is – she is “bloodthirsty”, but at the same time is empathetic to Wilbur’s plight.
– – –
I do have quite a few issues with the book. Agreed, they have a lot to do with the change in today’s worldview from that of mid twentieth century.
- Certain characterizations have been stereotyped, reflecting the worldview of the times that the book was written in. Examples of this are the manner in which Templeton, the rat is portrayed. Similarly, Avery, Fern’s brother is painted as the typical boy, catching frogs, carrying an airgun, and generally being a bit destructive and violent in his ways.
The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions , no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it—
- Fern seems to hear and understand all the conversations that are going on between the animals, but she doesn’t participate in any of them, so we do not know her opinions on the goings-on in the barn. This is a bit puzzling – it appears that White was not clear on what moral stand she should take.
- White attempts to address a moral issue, that of justifying killing for the sake of food, however the issue isn’t quite resolved, and leaves the reader in an ambiguous state of mind.
Delightfully spun story – though the lessons were not convincing.