Charlotte's Web

Major Themes

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The Natural World

The novel is set on two farms: first the Arable’s and then the Zuckerman’s. Apart from their trip to the fair, the animals and the families are located here and so nature in its most basic form surrounds them.

Although the animals talk in this novel, White makes sure that they are presented as realistic creatures. When we first meet Charlotte we are given a detailed account of how she catches her meals and although Wilbur finds it gruesome, it is important that we recognise Charlotte as a spider even though she can talk like a human.

Nature works in harmony and it is interesting that when destructive forces enter the world of the novel, a shift takes place to evict the enemy. For instance when Avery tries to knock Charlotte out of her web and in so doing topples (this is interesting – he loses his balance as the balance of nature readjusts to expel him) and falls over, breaking the egg, which of course in turn forces him to leave.

On several occasions the story demonstrates nature’s survival instinct. Early on in the novel when Wilbur is first moved outdoors, Fern is worried that he will be cold but her father says: “You watch and see what he does.” Fern watches Wilbur poke “the straw with his snout. In a short time he had dug a tunnel in the straw. He crawled into the tunnel and disappeared from sight, completely covered with straw.” Even though Wilbur does not live with his litter and therefore won’t have learnt by watching other pigs how to keep warm, he instinctively knows what to do. Dr Dorian makes the same point with regard to Charlotte. When asked by Mrs Arable if he understands how words could have appeared in a spider’s web, he answers: “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web I the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

Nature also echoes the changes that take place in the novel: Wilbur is born in the spring which is characteristically a time of renewal and Charlotte dies in the autumn. On Wilbur’s loneliest day in the barn, nature also reflects how he is feeling: it is “rainy and dark”.

Setting

As we have already discussed, the bulk of the novel is set on the farm but the trip to the Fair is extremely significant. The move to the Fair and then back home is not dissimilar to the experiences undergone by several of Shakespeare's characters when they journey into what Northrop Frye describes as the Green World. When the characters in Charlotte’s Web go to the Fair, changes take place and they are not the same when they return home.

The fair is a hotly anticipated event. The adults are in bed early and dream on about their various unfulfilled fantasies. Lurvy, for instance, dreams that he throws a baseball at a cloth cat and wins a Navajo blanket, Mrs Zuckerman dreams about a deep-freeze unit and Mr Zuckerman dreams that Wilbur is one hundred and sixteen feet long and ninety-two feet high and that he wins all the prizes at the Fair. In the morning everyone washes and dresses for the occasion. Fern chooses her prettiest dress because she knows there will be boys at the fair.

Fern spends a lot of time with Henry Fussy at the Fair and we mark the shift in Fern’s interest. Before this point we do not see her with any friends other than those at the barn but now she is indifferent to Wilbur’s success and much more interested in journeying on the Ferris wheel with Henry.

Mr Zuckerman’s success at the Fair is described as “the greatest moment in [his] life”. When he returns home he has fulfilled the dream he had the night before going to the Fair when he dreams of winning the ultimate prize. Wilbur’s success at the Fair, moreover, ensures that he will be safe and will not be harmed by Zuckerman. Charlotte makes her egg sac at the Fair and then perishes there herself. When Wilbur returns to the farm, the farm is completely different without Charlotte and there is a sac of potential ready to open up in the spring to reveal hundreds of baby spiders.

Charlotte as Author

Charlotte is a writer and the author of the miracles that take place. By writing in her web, Charlotte creates a story in the adult’s heads that doesn’t really exist. They think that the writing is a miracle and that Wilbur really is “some pig” and for that reason they take him to the Fair in the hopes of gaining recognition. Charlotte opens their imaginations so much that they create and completely believe in this fantasy story, just as White does with us.

In fact, the main plot of the story is driven by Charlotte’s trickery -- namely her writing. Charlotte is therefore in some way the author of our story – she manipulates events which lead to the outcome that we read about. The story of Charlotte’s web is written by Charlotte in order to save Wilbur. This novel is therefore the embodiment of her gift to him – what we have in our hands is the gift that Charlotte leaves behind, even though in her story she gains little recognition for her work. E.B. White writes this story, documenting Charlotte’s skill in creating her story. By essentially placing another author in front of himself (Charlotte), White humbles himself just as Charlotte does in the story. The novel is called "Charlotte's Web" and not “Wilbur’s Success” for instance because she is its author.

Charlotte’s friendship would not have had the impact it did without her writing; without her writing she would not have been able to save Wilbur’s life. Equally, her writing would have meant nothing without her love for Wilbur as she would never have had the impetus to give her all to saving his life. All in all, White here notes the combination essential for a writer – to be skilled at writing and to have a heart. It is a suitable coincidence therefore that E. B White’s initials are an anagram of WEB. Charlotte and he are interchangeable – just as she leaves this story as a gift to Wilbur, White leaves this story as a gift to the reader. Both die but both live on in their own carefully crafted words.

Words and Language

Charlotte is first introduced as a disembodied voice in the barn. It is significant that Wilbur hears her voice – hears the words that she speaks – before he sees her. This immediately places Charlotte’s voice – her words and her language – above her physical being. This is important because her words and her creativity have some much more power than her physical body. In fact, Fern even tells her mother that Charlotte speaks quietly and this is presumably because she is so small. She has a big heart however and a bright mind and together these make an indestructible team. Charlotte’s words will not only form our story but they will save Wilbur.

The words that appear in her web baffle the adults that read them. Charlotte is only too aware of this. White draws our attention to words in context when Templeton comes back with a piece of cardboard with the words ‘With New Radiant Action’ written on them. Charlotte separates the words and applies ‘radiant’ to Wilbur. Although the word radiant is used in both contexts, it applies to two completely different things because words are given meaning by the context in which they appear. When the words appear in the context of Charlotte’s web, nobody can interpret what it means and so they decide that they have been visited by a higher power telling them of Wilbur’s uniqueness. All this of course, Charlotte anticipates. The moral of this story of course is to always read language with a fresh perspective and not to rely on old traditions and habits to cloud fresh meaning. If we manage to do this when reading Charlotte’s Web, the novel becomes all the more exciting.

Life, Death and Time Passing

There is always a constant in the background that is nature, going about her business despite what happens in the story. Time is an unstoppable force on the farm and the humans and animals must adhere to its demands – the changing seasons dictate what activities are carried out when. The narrative explains that as the summer months approach, certain tasks must be carried out: “Around the first of July, the work horses were hitched to the mowing machine, and Mr Zuckerman climbed into the seat and drove into the field…Next day, if there was no thunder shower, all hands would help rake and pitch and load, and the hay would be carried to the barn in the high hay wagon, with Fern and Avery riding at the top of the load. Then the hay would be hoisted, sweet and warm, into the big loft”. As the hay grows high in summer, Zuckerman has his work cut out for him – nature dictates that it is time to cut the hay. In fact, Wilbur’s fight for survival is a fight to the finish – Wilbur must prove himself worthy of staying alive before winter arrives when Mr Zuckerman will be ready to slaughter him for the Christmas table. Attention to the cyclical world of nature makes it impossible for us not to acknowledge time passing in this novel. The Ferris wheel at the Fair is the most obvious symbol of passing time as it rotates slowly but definitely over and over again.

Life and death are in constant tension with one another and White signals this from the very first page when Fern stops her father from slaughtering Wilbur. Wilbur is dogged with the fear of death throughout the novel and when he is sure he will be spared, his best friend dies. Charlotte’s egg sac is the symbol of renewal after her death and although some early critics found White’s story pessimistic, he deals with life and death in an unsentimental manner. This never makes the story less moving, it just means that White demonstrates his overall sense that nature replenishes itself each year and each generation.

Friendship

Friendship is the foundation of this novel. Without Fern’s love for Wilbur he would have been killed as a runt and without Charlotte’s love he would be served up on the Christmas dinner table. Despite the fact that some view this novel as pessimistic, Wilbur is ultimately saved (twice) by love -- a fundamentally optimistic message. Although this is not a typical fairytale romance where boy and girl meet and fall in love, the love here is equally powerful.

As Charlotte says, "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 life up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that." Although Charlotte perishes in the end, her life is given meaning by helping Wilbur and the effort she goes to in order to save him makes her feel happy that her life has had purpose.

The Individual

It is significant that despite the lasting and deep rooted friendships that spring up in the story, that each character follows his or her own path. Although some of the characters in the novel only play small parts, we always get a sense of their particular personality. For instance we know that Lurvy dreams of baseballs even though we don’t know if he is married, has any children or even how old he is. We are given information only that allows us to see each character as an individual and not as a stereotype. We know that Dr Dorian doesn't think very highly of Henry Fussy but that Fern does. When Wilbur is very young and he and Fern and Avery go down to the brook for a swim, Wilbur prefers to wade in the mud on the edge of the brook – although he feels at this stage as though he and Fern are inseparable, this is an early indication that they are two very different creatures and that one day this difference will push them in individual directions.

There is also a very touching moment when Wilbur tries to spin a web and can’t -- implying that Charlotte and Wilbur are different in their individual genetic makeups as well as their different personalities. Undoubtedly, these differences mean that they travel down different roads during their life.

White’s novel could be read as a modernist text that deals with issues about the isolation of the individual. Although Wilbur does seem to suffer loneliness before he meets Charlotte, the novel confronts the inevitable feelings of loss with grace. Each creature will lead its own life and will one day die and will not be able to take anyone with him on that journey. It is significant in this way that Charlotte is alone when she dies at the Fair and although this is a very moving moment, it is also an honest one that doesn’t cover up the truth that life is most often solitary.