So, it’s a spider we’ve come to talk about today, right? Well, yes, and a bit more. It is now a little more than 60 years since Charlotte’s Web was published, but instead of looking ahead to retirement E.B. White’s magnum opus seems to be finding new life with each generation that encounters it.
The book that novelist Eudora Welty described as “just about perfect” finds fans at every age. Indeed I admit to having infected my three daughters with it, having read it to each of them. And Anna has continued the pattern, having read it to Eliza.
There are books we read to children with a sense of obligation: they really ought to be exposed to this, we think. And then there are books like Charlotte’s Web where the treat is ours as much as theirs, where the experience of it is almost a rite of passage, an introduction to a way of seeing the world that fires our imagination and opens our hearts. It’s a case where a work sometimes dismissed as “just a children’s story” can touch us at our core and leave us changed.
While it’s true that Charlotte, a humble grey barn spider, is the central focus of this story, White elects to wait a while before introducing her. Instead, we begin with a dramatic morality tale: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” The questioner is Fern, a pre-teen farm girl, who sees her father headed out to the barn to dispatch the runt of a litter of piglets born in the night. She cannot believe that the world, no less her father, could be so cruel as to snuff out a young life.
“If I had been very small at birth would you have killed me?” she cries, hanging on to his ax, adding that it was “the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”
Good John Arable gets a funny look on his face, starting to tear up a little himself. All right, he says, you go back to the house. I’ll bring the runt and you can start it on a bottle. You’ll see what trouble a pig can be. Garth Williams’ illustrations give us this beatific pose of Fern nursing that young pig, propped in her cross-legged lap, lovingly naming him Wilbur.
E.B. White later acknowledged in interviews that this scenario reflected his own misgivings. Though he loved farm work and lived on a farm in Maine while writing this book – and once owned a pig named Wilbur – he was haunted by what seemed to him the moral dilemma of feeding and raising livestock with the intention of slaughtering them.
Several years before writing Charlotte’s Web, he told of an episode on his farm when a hog got sick and died. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham, but the loss of a pig,” he said. “He evidently became precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.”
So, Fern’s plea succeeds, and the pig is saved, but John Arable doesn’t intend to raise any more pigs, so he must be moved. Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman, is willing to take him in, and so Wilbur finds a home in the manure pile of his barn. The humble barn with its manure, straw, and farm tools, inhabited by creatures of all sorts, domesticated and not, gets an Eden-like sheen from E.B. White’s prose: warm in winter, cool in summer, its mixture of earthy smells expressive of an all-pervasive goodness. It echoes White’s comment elsewhere that, in his words, “all that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say is that I love the world.”
But all is not well in the barn. Poor Wilbur is bored and lonely, and none of the other animals are interested in him. Bemoaning his outcast state, he is surprised to hear a small voice in the darkness: “Do you want a friend? I’ll be your friend, Wilbur. I like you.” Morning brings a cheery greeting of “Salutations” from a gray spider about the size of a gumdrop perched on a web stretched across the barn door. She introduces herself as Charlotte A. Cavatica, a presence who he learns is clever and kind but also fierce, brutal, and scheming. It gives Wilbur a fright: What a gamble friendship is!
This was not the first time that E.B. White had employed insect-like creatures to advance a children’s story. Years before he made Archie the cockroach the subject of several of his stories. But for Charlotte he was determined to get the details right. He had exhaustively researched spidery biology from their markings and colors to behavior and life cycle.
He learned, for example, that spiders stun, rather than kill their prey, then drink their blood – no wonder Wilbur felt squeamish. He discovered that Aranea cavatica – Charlotte A. Cavatica – was the species most likely to inhabit a barn in Maine, that their lifespan was about a year and that their nests had an average of 500 eggs. He even mapped diagrams of how webs were made.
But his research extended beyond books. He kept track of a spider in his barn in Maine. He watched how it trapped and killed flies. Then one day he noticed a gray ball on the web that clearly was not a fly or some prey. He concluded that it must be some sort of egg sac. He got out a ladder and light and examined it. It was a fuzzy pink color, the consistency of cotton candy.
One day he saw the spider spread itself on the top of the sac, presumably laying eggs. The next day it was gone. Curious about what would happen with this egg sac White cut the threads holding it on and carried it inside. He put the sac in an empty candy box and, when he had to leave for New York, carried it to his apartment in Manhattan and put it on his bureau.
Several weeks later he noticed movement around the box. He looked and saw tiny spiderlings crawling out of air holes that he had punched into the box. He let them cavort there for a week or two, inhabiting his hair brush, nail scissors, mirror and comb. He removed the spiders after his maid refused to work around a spider encampment.
Where Charlotte’s Web takes its most inspired turn, though, is with a detail of spider life that White never documented. Happy with his life on the farm and his new friend, Wilbur is distraught to learn of Zuckerman’s plans for him. A sheep breaks it to him: they’re going to kill you and eat you.
Death, again, is looming in Wilbur’s path. Charlotte, though, proves herself to be a creative friend: You shall not die, she says. I will save you. It takes a couple of days, but then it comes to her while watching flies buzz into her web. The way to save Wilbur is to play a trick on Zuckerman. People, she says, are so gullible.
The web she weaves to catch a person takes advantage of a conceit of ours about which White was an expert: our way with words. So, the next morning when the Zuckermans’ hired hand hauls out Wilbur’s slops he chances to look at Charlotte’s web glistening with dew and see something that stops him short: woven into the web are the words “SOME PIG.”
And thus begins a merry romp as one human after another gets caught in Charlotte’s clever subterfuge. For a quarry so wily, though, Charlotte must pay out more line. So in time she adds more words: terrific, radiant, humble.
People travel from miles around to view “the miracle.” Zuckerman is so distracted he drops any plans for butchery and instead carts Wilbur off to the county fair in a cart emblazoned with “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig.” Charlotte’s subterfuge has worked, Wilbur is saved. But White remembered his spider biology. Fall is when they make their egg cases and perish.
Wilbur is impressed with Charlotte’s egg case, but he is inconsolable when he learns he will lose his friend. Great sobs rack his body: “Charlotte! My true friend!” But this time Charlotte will have none of it. “Come now, let’s not make a scene,” she says. She can feel her energy waning. She knows the end is near.
But then Wilbur has his first truly selfless thought. If he can’t bring Charlotte back to the barn, he will bring the egg case. He has to make a deal with the rat, Templeton, to give him first dibs on Wilbur’s slops if he gets the egg case, but Wilbur doesn’t hesitate. Wilbur is carted back home with the egg case, and Charlotte is left at the deserted fairgrounds.
The story ends with the tiny spiderlings hatching and crawling about, like they did on White’s bureau. But then comes another disappointment for Wilbur. He despairs as they weave tiny balloons and float away on the breeze. Three, though, decide to stay, assuring a lineage that will be with Wilbur the rest of his life.
Zuckerman, White tells us, “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.”
The story has such a satisfying arc that it’s easy to miss some of the sly and bittersweet wisdom that White imparts. He fools us with his dramatic opening, for the travails of Wilbur are really only a plot device to advance a deeper story, and it’s centered in Charlotte. The caginess and compassion of the spider is the through line that holds the story together, through Wilbur’s endearing enthusiasms and despairs, through the miracle hokum of the words on the web that satisfied White’s moral qualms over animal husbandry.
In the book’s penultimate chapter when it is clear that Wilbur will be saved, the pig finally asks the question that has been knocking around ever since Charlotte appeared. “Why did you do all this for me?” he asked the spider. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
Charlotte replies simply, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
And so in her final speech Charlotte reveals herself as something of a student of Zen. We cling so tightly to this world so much of which ends up bringing us such heartache. I think of a book by a Buddhist teacher that I received recently entitled“Who ordered this truckload of dung?”
We are each confronted with the messes of our own lives. Charlotte’s was trapping and sucking the blood of flies. Yet, we are also presented with the opportunity to, in Charlotte’s words, “lift our lives a trifle.” We are given the opportunity to do things we would have thought impossible to raise others up, to put our shoulders to the wheel of compassion.
We’re born, we live a little while, we die. As Wislawa Symborska put it: performance without rehearsal. We know nothing of our roles, only that they are ours. We improvise, though we hate improvising, and we trip over our own ignorance, our character like a raincoat we button on the run.
We stand on the set and see how strong it is, the props surprisingly precise, and the machine rotating the stage has been around forever. And we stand at the premiere, knowing that whatever we do will become forever what we’ve done.
It want to tell you about a moment I had when I was reading Charlotte’s Web again for this service. It had been a while since I picked the book up so I gathered myself in a chair and plowed through it. It was late at night, and I was getting near the end, when suddenly without really even knowing it at first I found I was crying.
Part of it, I suppose, was thinking back to sitting on my daughters’ beds reading White’s magnificent prose and remembering those moments we shared. But a part of it, too, I think, was sitting in the circle of light from my lamp amid the enveloping darkness around me and reflecting in awe on this “set” before me, the wonder of my life, this world and those in it, and reflecting, with E.B. White, on how much I love it.
E.B. White, who closed his book giving a compliment to Charlotte that his wife once gave him, that she was a true friend and a good writer, finishes his story with a paean to the world. And it’s not a bad model for us either.
“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, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, 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.”