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Charlotte's Web Summary and Analysis

by E.B. White

Section Three

Wilbur doesn't sleep well - he is hungry and he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for the morning when his new friend will be revealed. Eventually, just as the stars disappear and the sky lightens, Wilbur begins searching for his friend. When he finds nothing, he decides to speak up and call out. The other animals wake with Wilbur's shouting and tell him to keep quiet, which he does (once he has apologised for waking them up).

As Wilbur is settling down for a nap after breakfast, a little voice says 'Salutations!'. Wilbur still doesn't know where the voice is coming from until it says 'Look up here in the corner of the doorway!' As he looks up he sees a lady grey spider waving at him. Her name is Charlotte and Wilbur thinks she’s very pretty. He is not happy, however, to see her wrapping up a fly caught in her web, ready to suck its blood for breakfast. Charlotte teaches Wilbur that he is very lucky to have his food brought to him and that most animals have to be ruthless to survive. The goose, who is eavesdropping, laughs and thinks of how innocent Wilbur is and that he has no idea that Mr Zuckerman and Lurvy are planning to kill him for Christmas.

Wilbur is very happy to have Charlotte as a friend but he is wary of her bloodsucking habits. He does have to admit though, it is a very clever way of getting breakfast.

Soon it is summer and summer days are always happy days on the farm. Lilacs, apple blossom, bees and children are out in full force. School is over and so Fern visits Wilbur every day. She and Avery help on their uncle's farm, cutting and gathering hay with birdsong thronging in the air. Everything is bursting with life, including the goose's eggs. Charlotte spies the first egg hatch and after that six follow. Templeton the rat, who is sneaking around, asks if he can have the eighth egg (which is a dud). The goose and gander don't mind but they are both suspicious of Templeton, who they know have no conscience and could easily kill their goslings. The gander flaps his strong wings at the rat as a warning should he come near the nest. When Mr Zuckerman sees the new family on their first walk around the farm he is delighted - 'Seven baby geese. Now isn't that lovely!'

Analysis

When Wilbur wakes up early and it is still dark, the mood in the barn and the noises he hears are quite gothic. As the narrator points out in a rather sinister fashion ‘A barn is never perfectly quiet. Even at midnight there is usually something stirring.’ The ambiguity of the word ‘something’ creates an impression of the unknown which is unsettling and the sibilant ‘something’ combined with ‘stirring’ adds to the mysterious mood. The first time Wilbur wakes up he hears Templeton’s teeth ‘scrap[ing] loudly against the wood’ and the second time he wakes up he hears ‘the goose turning on her nest and chuckling to herself.’ These noises, dislocated from the animals making them because Wilbur can see nothing in the dark, are quite haunting and add to the mood of anticipation. It also echoes the last thing Wilbur hears before going to sleep – the dislocated voice telling him: ‘You’ll see me in the morning.’ It is as though the shock of hearing that is echoing throughout the night as he lays half in and half out of sleep.

When the voice eventually speaks up in the morning, the first word it says is: ‘Salutations.’ We are very soon told that Charlotte the grey spider is the speaker. It is significant first of all that Charlotte is introduced to us through words and only later is revealed in her full spider form and it is also significant that her greeting to Wilbur is ‘Salutations.’ ‘Salutations’ is a very formal and polite greeting or expression of goodwill and Charlotte’s courtesy here demonstrates – especially in comparison with the other animals in the barn – her relative command of language (although she later admits that ‘it’s a silly expression, and I am surprised that I used it at all’ ). Although she is only a spider, White endows her with human charm and this is apparent from the start. (Indeed, because the words are more important that the mortal body – the words will live on, like the words in this novel even after White has died. Wilbur lives on because of Charlotte’s words, because of her writing, even though she dies.)

Wilbur’s first response to hearing Charlotte is this: ‘Salu-what?...What are they, and where are you?’ Charlotte tells him what salutations means and very soon Wilbur is imitating her with – ‘Good morning! Salutations! Very pleased to meet you.’ Not only does he copy her word but he mimics the polite and sophisticated way in which Charlotte greets him. Already the influence Charlotte has on him and her tutoring of Wilbur has begun.

Although a very polite, pretty and kind spider, Wilbur is appalled to see her wrapping up a fly to eat for breakfast. Notice the echoing here of Fern’s reaction to her father wanting to kill Wilbur on the first page of the novel. It is significant that White includes this detail about Charlotte so early on. First of all, it paints a realistic picture of a spider – as Charlotte says ‘I am not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made.’ Secondly, it demystifies death and makes it seem entirely natural, by presenting it hand in hand with life – Charlotte must eat flies in order to live and for that reason the fly must die. Thirdly it is significant and in keeping with the theme of the novel that at this moment of connection between Wilbur and his soon-to-be best friend Charlotte, there should be a death scene. The astute reader will note this foreshadowing by White. After all, White is forever balancing life and joy and hope and newness with death and destruction and decay, just as he did at the start of that spring day when Mr Arable left the house to kill the little runt.

At this point though ‘everywhere you look is life; even the little ball of spit on the week stalk, if you poke it apart, has a green worm inside it.’ The different sounds employed by White here demonstrate how he teases us with variety to replicate the abundance and wealth of sounds, smells and natural growth offered by the summer: here we have alliteration – ‘little ball of spit on the week stalk’, the plosive repetition in ‘poke it apart’ and the elongated vowel sounds of ‘green, worm, inside’. This description also delicately mirrors the quick and staccato movements of a child desperate to rip open the little ball of spit in a flurry of energetic curiosity, only to reveal the lugubrious worm going about its business. Parallelism is also used to reinforce the wealth of life that is everywhere: ‘in the barn, in the woods, in the swamp’, as well as listing to uncover specific and numerous wonders – ‘everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs’, ‘in early summer there are plenty of things for a child to eat and drink and suck and chew.’

The world is thronging with song and White cleverly incorporates the not uncommon association of the bird singing with a more specific version in which his throated sparrow sings ‘Oh, Peabody, Peabody Peabody!’ and the phoebe teeters ‘Phoebe, phoe-bee!’

At this time, there is absolute harmony between man and nature – the hay grows and is cut and moved into the loft – and there is a great affinity between the children and the animals. Fern has finished school – the world of conventional learning, surrounded by other children is over for the summer - and she and Avery are enjoying jumping into and hiding in the bed of hay with gay abandon, much like Wilbur.

Although brilliantly plentiful, summer days can only give way to autumn days where the leaves fall off the trees and the flowers and fruit wilt and die. As readers, we are only too aware that after this high naturally comes the descent into winter. Once again, the description betrays the forecast: ‘Lilacs bloom and make the air sweet, and then fade...School ends, and children have time to play and to fish for trout in the brook. Avery often brought a trout home in his pocket, warm and stiff and read to be fried for supper.’ There is always another side of the coin and, in this example, summer days are well and truly over for Avery's trout.

The birth of the little geese is also tinged with the fear that Templeton might murder them and White makes sure that we are threatened by the rat’s loose morals – death is never very far away. Amongst the beauty and serenity of the mild summer days, the chapter ends on a dark note. Significantly, Templeton saves the only dud and rotten thing described in the chapter – he keeps the egg that doesn’t hatch and in so doing reminds us of the untapped potential of life – an example of the unfulfilled side of nature.

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