One afternoon, as Charlotte rebuilds her web after the destruction caused by wriggling trapped insects, Wilbur decides to try and spin his own web. He boasts to Charlotte that the only reason he hasn't yet built a web is because he hasn’t tried. So Charlotte begins coaching Wilbur and he follows her instructions. First, he races up to the highest point he can find - the top of a manure pile - and then, after making an attachment with his spinnerets as Charlotte tells him, he hurls himself into space and lands with an 'oomph' on the floor. Realizing that his spinnerets haven't worked, he gets Templeton to tie some string to his tail and he tries again. Once again he crashes to the ground and tears come into his eyes.
Charlotte comforts Wilbur with the fact that not many people can spin webs and that not even man are as good at it as spiders. Charlotte explains how it took men eight years to build the Queensborough Bridge. She explains that all that did was allow people to go backward and forward across the bridge, rushing all the time. Charlotte on the other hand prides herself on staying still and on giving herself a chance to think. She knows her web is a good thing and is in no hurry to leave it to go anywhere. As evening falls Wilbur begins to worry about what the sheep told him but Charlotte assures him that she is working on a plan that will ensure he escapes an early-Christmas death. 'Never hurry and never worry' she tells him.
White begins this chapter with some factual information about the spider’s web. The information is sound: ‘A spider’s web is stronger than it looks. Although it is made of thin, delicate strands, the web is not easily broken. However, a web gets torn every day by the insects that kick around in it, and a spider must rebuild it when it gets full of holes.’ Each sentence is concise, short and authoritative – there is no arguing with the facts here. Because this description is written in such a factual manner, we do not question its validity and yet we do not really appreciate what the spider achieves. The sentence that follows reads: ‘Charlotte liked to do her weaving during the late afternoon, and Fern liked to sit nearby and watch.’ We move very smoothly from general information about the spider web to specific information about Charlotte. Although we are used to animals and insects going about their business and building quite remarkable things, we are not used to thinking of them doing so in any humanly conscious way - we just take for granted that they are simply programmed to do what they do. So the general information about the web is easier to accept than the information about Charlotte's preferred time to build her web. If we think about it though, surely it is actually more amazing that spiders are able to build webs at all than to think they choose a time to build them. By writing these sentences next to each other, White forces us to confront what we find uncomfortable about the writing. We find it odd to accept that a spider can actively choose when to rebuild its web which surely forces us to think of how amazing it is that the web is built in the first place.
This is a very important structural point – White lures us into his fantasy story, not with overblown and fantastic descriptions but by challenging to reassess our initial perspective. After all if we believe (and we do) that the spider can build a web, why is it so hard to believe that a spider can choose a time for building its web?
This chapter also highlights the differences between Wilbur and Charlotte. Wilbur does not truly acknowledge the difference between him and his friend, thinking that he can also spin a web. In a world where animals talk and form friendships, it is not implausible to imagine that Wilbur has extra skills but White never indulges in ‘silly fantasy’ although he builds the drama extremely well in his description of Wilbur’s second attempt to spin a web: ‘And summoning all his strength, he threw himself into the air, head-first. The string trailed behind him. But as he had neglected to fasten the other end to anything, it didn’t really do any good, and Wilbur landed with a thud, crushed and hurt. Tears came to his eyes. Templeton grinned. Charlotte just sat quietly.’ The beginning of this description is overblown in a typically fairy-tale way. You can just imagine descriptions of a prince ‘summoning all his strength’ to slay the dragon and save the princess. ‘Summoning’ is a great word to use because of the long vowel sounds which force you to draw the word out thus building tension as with the start of drum roll. This is highlighted by the echoing sibilance of ‘strength’ which equally forces you to linger on the early part of the sentence which acts as a springboard for the second clause. ‘he threw himself into the air, head-first’ – formed of mostly monosyllabic words, this clause gives real energy to the task Wilbur is undertaking. The absence of long vowel sounds in this clause and the alliteration of ‘he’ ‘himself’ and ‘head’ really moves the sentences quickly, giving it the energy it needs. The longest sentence of the description explains how Wilbur’s plan fails and the onomatopoeic ‘thud’ winds Wilbur and the sentence of any positive conclusion. The short sentences which end this description simply reinforce the disappointment and their simplicity is very moving.
The point is however that although the animals can talk, a pig is a pig and a spider is a spider and it would be stupid to think a pig could build a web. When it is made painfully clear that Wilbur cannot, the difference between him and Charlotte is confirmed – Wilbur must acknowledge the difference between him and Charlotte and this paves the way for their eventual separation. Each has his own path to follow and his own life to lead. Although best friends, they cannot share everything and here White makes Wilbur and the reader accept the fundamental isolation of man and animal: although we can share with others, we cannot ever completely experience what the other is thinking, feeling or doing.
Charlotte’s story about the Queensborough Bridge is interesting – it is almost an allegory for the way so many humans live their lives and it is refreshing to view the human race from this perspective: ‘They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side.’ Because man is always rushing, Charlotte asserts, they never have time to properly acknowledge what is in front of them. This observation by Charlotte obviously has wider implications for the novel and it suggests that Mr Arable may well have been right when he said ‘maybe our ears aren’t as sharp as Fern’s.’ Fern is so often still on her stool on the farm and perhaps if more people took the time she did, they too would experience things they never dreamt they would experience. This also an anti capitalist view held by Charlotte as she is advocating stillness as opposed to supporting men going out to explore and conquer.
Note the change in Wilbur now that he has friends in the barn to how he felt when he was bored of life at two months old. Now that he enjoys his life, he is frightened of death and of the happiness ending. This, once again, highlights the dichotomy of life: with life must come death, the existence of happiness asserts the existence of sorrow and as Wilbur cleverly points out earlier, with nothing must come something.
It is interesting that we never actually hear Fern talk to the animals but the suggestion is given here at the end of the chapter in this exchange:
‘Good night, Charlotte!’ said Wilbur
‘Good night, Wilbur!’
There was a pause
‘Good night, Charlotte!’
‘Good night, Wilbur!’
Although it is not made explicit, it may well be Fern saying goodnight to them here but White leaves it up to the individual to make up his mind for himself. The last thing this novel wants to be is prescriptive – it is a story written for each one of us and he gives us the freedom to take from it what we will.