A ‘terrific’, ‘radiant’, ‘humble’ American? Clinton? Hardly! It’s Wilbur in …
Farmyard animal tale
Children of seven upwards including arachnophobics!
What’s it about?
Friendship, self-sacrifice, tolerance, trust, growing up, life and death.
All that in one book?
Yes. Each theme is subtly interwoven into an uncomplicated, thoroughly absorbing story which children readily understand and relate to.
Eight-year-old Fern Arable rescues the runty pig of the litter from the chop and raises him by bottle. She names him Wilbur and, from day one, she is totally besotted with him – and him with her. When Wilbur is five weeks old, Mr Arable says he is big enough to sell. Fern is devastated, but luckily for them both Mr Arable agrees to sell the pig to Fern’s Uncle Homer who lives down the road.
At first life for Wilbur is very pleasant in Uncle Homer’s farmyard barn. But as Fern’s visits dwindle during the bad weather Wilbur becomes lonely, dejected and off his food. None of the other animals will play with him. No one seems to want to be his friend, that is until Charlotte the spider introduces herself to him from her web high up in the barn’s doorway.
Charlotte is an Aracnea Cavatica. Wilbur thinks she is beautiful and is delighted to have been chosen as her special friend. He becomes fat and contented. One day, the old sheep tells Wilbur that he is being fattened up to be killed at Christmas time. Poor Wilbur takes the news very badly, but Charlotte comes to the rescue with a brilliant plan to save him: by weaving words of praise about Wilbur in her web, she tricks Uncle Homer and the other humans into believing that a miracle has happened, and that Wilbur is somehow special. Wilbur’s fame as ‘Some Pig’ spreads throughout the County and visitors come from far and wide to see the web and admire the anointed pig.
Meanwhile, Fern’s mother is worried about her daughter’s preoccupation with Wilbur and the barn animals, and seeks Dr Dorian’s advice. He predicts that the day will come when Fern’s attention is attracted by someone else. And sure enough, at the County Fair, safe in the knowledge that Wilbur has been saved, she goes forth in search of new adventures with Henry Fussy.
Wilbur is awarded a special prize at the Fair and Charlotte produces one final message in her web: the word ‘Humble’ – which she feels most accurately describes her self-effacing friend, and one which the humans find deeply touching. Her mission complete, Charlotte is ready to lay her eggs. Too exhausted to return to Uncle Homer’s barn with the others, she remains in her corner of the pig-pen at the Fair and explains to Wilbur that she is going to die. It is almost too much for the pig to bear, but in return for her love and devotion to him, he is determined to look after her babies. He bribes Templeton, the rat, to cut down Charlotte’s egg sac. Wilbur then carries the sac safely and carefully in his mouth as they journey back to the barn. With one last wave of a leg to Wilbur, Charlotte dies.
As time passes, Charlotte’s babies emerge – all 514 of them. Wilbur is overjoyed and dismayed all at once when the young spiders take off into the wide world. However, three remain to make their home where Charlotte’s had been, in the doorway of the barn. Three special friends for Wilbur, who likes nothing better than to tell them all the wonderful stories that their mother, his very best friend, had told him.
Most moving moment?
When Charlotte, having achieved her two main tasks – to save Wilbur from the slaughterhouse, and to lay her eggs – whispers goodbye to her friend before she dies, alone.
There are many reasons why the story of Wilbur the pig and his unusual friend Charlotte the spider, has become a classic. Enjoyed by generations of children, the encompassing theme of friendship and trust is a universal and timeless one. Although the story is imaginary, it is founded on reality through the author’s close observation and deep affection for his own animals in the barn on his farm in Maine. His simple, yet carefully crafted prose brings the animal and human characters so convincingly to life that readers quite genuinely believe them to be real (and consequently are careful not to tread on a spider for she may be someone’s friend!).
Charlotte’s Web is also a fable of a child growing up, a process that necessarily involves the hope of good mothering (here provided for Wilbur by Fern and then Charlotte) as well as an eventual confrontation with aspects of reality that are painful – in this case the fact that Charlotte must die. The benign aspects of developmental growth are seen in Wilbur’s transformation from helpless piglet to a grown up pig able to concern himself about others – he repays the love and concern he has received from Charlotte by loving and protecting her babies after her death. A wonderful sense of the cycle of life emerges from the story with its theme of death and rebirth.
Each animal has its own individual voice and traits – Templeton the rat is only out for himself, open to bribery and often irritable. Charlotte is almost an archetypal figure encompassing both the terrifying and the loving aspects of the mother in the infant imagination – she is a real spider who entraps her victims and sucks their blood but she is also a loyal friend to Wilbur. Wilbur is frightened of dying but proves able to grow and develop into a good friend himself. Readers empathize with these characters and recognize the various characteristics in their own behaviour. They also identify strongly with the human characters, particularly Fern’s natural, easy-going relationship with the animals, and understand when at the end of the story she moves on to interest in boys.
From the start, the story flows smoothly along through times of joy and sadness, comedy and tragedy. Whilst keeping sentimentality in check, E B White successfully includes his readers in the acceptance of the inevitability of death and poses other philosophical notions through the voice of the wise and articulate spider. All this, combined with the highly evocative atmosphere of rustic life, creates a charming, wonderfully warm and happy story.
Most memorable quotation:
‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’
About the author:
E B (Elwyn Brooks) White was born in Mount Vernon, New York in 1899. He graduated from Cornell University in 1921, during which time he also served in the United States Army in the First World War. After a few years of trying various jobs, he joined the editorial staff of the famous New Yorker magazine which was still in its infancy. From then his literary career began to take shape. He wrote verse, satirical sketches, and essays, often contributing to Harper’s magazine. He was fond of children and concerned for the future of the planet, campaigning against H-bomb tests and pollution.
He wrote many adult books which were published both in the USA and UK. In 1938 he moved to the countryside of New England. On his farm in Maine, he kept the animals which provided the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web. He only wrote three children books – his first Stuart Little (1946) took him nearly twenty years to complete and was rejected by two major publishing houses in the States before being taken by Harper’s. Then came Charlotte’s Web (1952), and finally The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). He was married and had one son. He died in 1985.
During his career he received the American Library Association’s Laura Ingalls Wilder medal (1970) given every five years to an author who has made a long-lasting contribution to children’s literature. He was also awarded honorary degrees from seven colleges and universities.
Charlotte’s Web with illustrations by Garth Williams is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton (0 241 90098 0, £8.99) and in paperback by Puffin (0 14 030185 2, £4.99) and Puffin Modern Classic (0 14 036449 8, £5.99).
Helen Levene works in publishing.