We sat in the living room getting ready for Charlotte’s Web. I had a vague memory of a spider and a pig, but I could not remember the details from childhood. My husband was not certain this book was worth reading. My youngest was intrigued, and could not remember watching the movie a few years ago. With all of our apprehensions in mind, I began the first chapter:
“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” (p.1).
To Mrs and Mr Arable, killing the runt of the litter made sense. To Fern, who had not yet internalized the logic of getting rid of the weakest, killing the runt was outrageous enough to make her get up and run to save it. She arrives on the scene before the pig is killed and argues to her father that the “pig couldn’t help being born small” (p3). She further pushes the limits of his logic by asking him if he would have killed her if she had been born small. Mr. Arable sees the difference so clearly, but is still overcome by Fern’s question. He tells Fern there is a difference between a little girl and a “runty little pig” (p3). But, Fern sees no difference in this “matter of life and death” (p2), and remains stalwart in her understanding of injustice.
The pig’s life is spared, and Mr. Arable figures he will teach his daughter a lesson.
“All right, he said. “You go back to the house and I will bring the runt when I come in. Then you’ll see what trouble a pig can be.” (p3).
Surely, Fern will have a change of heart after she spends time taking care of the pig.
Fern, however, is grateful to her father for giving her the chance to take care of the tiny pig, and she devotes herself to this task with all the love she is able to summon. The first chapter ends with Fern naming the pig a name she considers beautiful, Wilbur.
Amazing! In the first few pages we witness a strong, tender eight year old girl fighting a man with an ax, and then engaging in one of the most powerful human acts, the act of naming.
We should all probably read the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web over and over again to remind ourselves about fighting against injustice. It could also be helpful to learn about how the other side sees things. Mr. Arable was doing what he was most likely taught to do, and what, as many would argue, was the most logical thing to do. But, we see from Fern, that logic make us condone things that are not so humane, not so loving, and not so just. Often, logic is used to keep us from thinking about others, and many times it is what keeps us from experiencing possibilities our limited knowledge withholds from us. Ultimately, we must question logic when it provides the excuse to abandon each other.
After a few weeks, Wilbur gets big, and the Arables are no longer willing to supply him with food. He is sold to Fern’s uncle who owns a farm and lives down the road. Fern weeps, but can do nothing to save Wilbur from being sold. Her only consolation is being permitted to visit when she likes, which turns out to be almost everyday.
Here, in the Zuckerman’s barn we meet, Charlotte, the spider who patiently crafts life saving messages, “some pig, terrific, radiant and humble,” into her web in order to create such a mystery around Wilbur that no one would think about selling, or worse, eating him! and a host of other animals who have their little quirks, but in one way or another work to save the life of one pig who ought not have lived for even a few hours!
We also see how enchantment really begins. Fern sits quietly in the Zuckerman’s barn. She does not rearrange the barn furniture or chase the animals around, or try to play with anyone; rather, she merely sits and does not disturb anyone. She watches Wilbur contentedly from a small stool. After a while, the barn animals get used to her, they begin to trust her, and then she begins to understand their language.
What a great community! There are some nasty sheep who first taunt Wilbur with knowledge of his inevitable service, Thanksgiving meal, and some geese who try to get him into trouble by encouraging him to run away. An old rat, Templeton, who only uses the pig for leftovers at his trough. But then there is Charlotte who is touched by Wilbur’s loneliness and offers to be his friend, and dear young Fern who sits in the midst of it all, a stable pillar on a stool radiating love, as only an untarnished eight year old can do.
It is not just inside the barn that is a place of enchantment in the story of Charlotte’s Web, for E.B.White is careful to show how beauty lies in the interconnectedness of the world – lest anyone brush this story off as a whimsical fairytale.
“Twilight settled over Zuckerman’s barn, and a feeling of peace. Fern knew it was almost suppertime but she couldn’t bear to leave. Swallows passed on silent wings, in and out of the doorways, bringing food to their young ones. From across the road a bird sang ‘Whippoorwill, whippoorwill!’ Lurvy sat down under an apple tree and lit his pipe; the animals sniffed the familiar smell of strong tobacco. Wilbur heard the trill of the tree toad and the occasional slamming of the kitchen door. All these sounds made him feel comfortable and happy, for he loved life and loved to be a part of the world on a summer evening. But as he lay there he remembered what the old sheep had told him. The thought of death came to him and he began to tremble with fear.” (p62)
It is all the sights and sounds coming from the land, animals and humans, everything together, vibrating as nature; not something outside of nature observing all the rest considered nature. All of it, together is what gives peace to the world, to Wilbur. And, Wilbur, like so many of us, looks around and feels so comfortable being part of this world, so happy that he is suddenly seized by the thought that it will end. He doesn’t want it to end. He doesn’t want to die. No so soon.
For all those who have read Charlotte’s Web or have seen the movie, we know that in the end Charlotte saves Wilbur through her artistry with words. Her love, though, saves him, just as Fern’s love saved him from her father’s ax. We are sad knowing that Charlotte dies a natural death, but heartened by the progeny she leaves behind. A happy ending, I suppose, but Fern grows and becomes more interested in other boys and girls her age, and life keeps changing.
In the end, E.B. White leaves us love. We learn to love the world, love it with all our soul, respect and honor the interconnections, and trust that from such great love change will come, as change inevitably does. The difference being, change through the natural outflow of love will be more equitable than change through an invisible hand that swings an ax.