The read-aloud project here at the Stone Cottage has taken a well-deserved break from wizardly things. We have, in fact, most recently found ourselves in the barnyard, spending time with a garrulous group of animals as they encounter life’s biggest challenges.
Like many another kid, I read this book at about the age my son is now. (He’s finishing third grade.) It’s a different set of circumstances. I was still raw from the death of my grandmother and, a few years prior, my brother. Then, as now, my reaction to the book was probably quite singular.
Charlotte’s Web, you see, is a modern fairy tale. When I say that it has little to do with talking pigs and the like. Sure, there’s no tale without them–and so we’ll certainly get to that–but let’s pause for a moment and consider that a fairy tale serves a purpose. Why else would they exist almost universally across cultures? As I recall (from another of those writers on the must-get-to list whose work I know of in Reader’s Digest form), Bruno Bettleheim suggested such stories help children come to grips with the realities of life and its mysteries.
Ah, I hear a skeptic murmur, there you go, mucking up a wonderful story. Well, it is a wonderful story but that doesn’t mean it can’t do two jobs at once. We shouldn’t limit that kind of thing just to adult books, should we?
This fairy tale, like so many, begins with a birth, though in this case it’s a litter of pigs, from which Fern Arable, a young girl, adopts the runt. Living in rural parts, the Arables are closer to this sort of thing than most contemporary readers, but anyone who’s experienced their dog or cat delivering a litter knows the thrill–and the work–that follows. Fern loves her piglet and names him Wilbur.
Pigs, though, get big–fast. Fern’s parents are not about to risk that. She has to sell Wilbur to her uncle, Homer Zuckerman, who owns a farm close by. Fern will still be able to visit Wilbur, but the more commodious agrarian surroundings will better suit a growing pig. Fern completes the transaction, earning five dollars. And she continues to visit, sitting quietly and even beginning to understand the talk between the animals.
Wilbur is a gentle soul and he acclimates to barnyard life even if the other residents are a bit standoffish. The farm abounds with livestock, all eager to help educate Wilbur in the ways of the world, which is a good point to mention Garth Williams‘ illustrations, including the iconic cover.
Charlotte’s Web is what my wife and other elementary-school teachers call a chapter book. I have no recollection of such a distinction. To me, we just moved along and illustrations eventually disappeared (until they reappeared in other circumstances). They overwhelm the tale, right? We learn to read and we bring our own pictures.
Maybe that’s so. As an adult, though, I think William’s approach is brilliant. Let me explain why. The story is full of talking animals with full-blown personalities. As readers, we come to recognize the busy-body sheep and the hyper-active geese even if they don’t all warrant names.
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of turning them into people as Disney would. Heck, even Garth Williams and E.B. White did it. Stuart Little was one natty, preppy dresser though he was as much mouse as boy. Here, though, the animals are left as animals, so when Templeton, the rat (and only other animal besides our hero and heroine to warrant a name) eats too much, we see a grotesque fat animal, not a burlesque of a reluctant helper filled with cunning. It’s a useful corrective
Meanwhile, Wilbur, ensconced in his pen, quickly learns from a helpful barnmate that all too soon he will be the Zuckerman’s Sunday dinner. It’s a brutal introduction to the realities of animal husbandry–one the cows, sheep and even geese can worry less about.
Then Charlotte steps in to help. Charlotte is a spider. And not just any spider. She thinks. She strategizes. She writes. She understands human psychology, Occasionally, she eats a trapped bug. Plus, she’s a spider, an animal not usually tapped to play a cuddly role. Prejudice against spiders is wide-spread, so it’s a brave choice.
Charlotte knows how to help, probably even save, Wilbur. She tears apart her web and writes a message unmistakably about him. Zuckerman sees it and reacts about as expected, entering an excited state that never diminishes. Not everybody sees it that way. Edith Zuckerman, in a wonderful example of Algonquin Roundtable/New Yorker wit, reacts to the statement that they have no ordinary pig by saying, “It seems to me, we have no ordinary spider.”
The words keep coming and Wilbur begins to gain notoriety. Folks start to come see him. He’ll be shown at the County Fair at the end of the summer. It will be his triumph. But something is up. As the days grow shorter so, too, does Charlotte’s energy. After much cajoling, she agrees to accompany Wilbur to the fair. Templeton will come, too, the temptation of so much food overcoming the distaste of being put to work.
Charlotte spins one last web and then she creates her egg sac. Wilbur receives a special award and will return home a hero, but without Charlotte. She’s no strength or silk left to even return to Zuckerman’s farm. Left behind at the fair, she dies, alone, the abandoned still-littered fairgrounds all about her.
I’ll admit it. Even at this late date Charlotte’s passing leaves me in a puddle. This is what Bettleheim must mean, I think. Charlotte dies, her children–whom Wilbur rescues and brings home to be born–carry her legacy onward. Wilbur endures the loss of his dearest friend and learns he can survive it. We all learn that there’s a good that comes from doing good for others.
Books shouldn’t just be didactic, though. White is a fine writer and so my kids got to hear some truly beautiful prose read aloud. And the tale proved timeless–my son was shocked to learn the book was published in the early 1950s.
So my kids learned that even a modern fairy tale may not be all that recent. If they also learned about dealing with death in a safer manner than I did, that’s a bonus.