As Fern and her mother set the table for breakfast, Fern sees her father leave the house with an axe and asks her mother where he is going. Mrs Arable tells her that a litter of pigs was born the night before but one of the piglets is a runt and so Mr Arable is going to do away with it.
Utterly appalled by what her mother tells her, Fern leaves the house and catches up with her father, telling him how unjust it is to kill a piglet just because it is small. Moved by his eight year old daughter, Mr Arable decides to give the piglet to Fern to look after.
At the breakfast table, Fern won't eat until she has fed her little piglet which she does from a baby's bottle, filled with warm milk. As the school bus honks outside, her mother pushes a doughnut into her hand and takes the suckling pig from her. At school, Fern can only think of the little white pig who she decides to call Wilbur.
As the days go by, Fern only becomes more attached to Wilbur and looks after him like a baby – she feeds him religiously four times a day. When Fern comes back from school, the two of them are inseparable - sometimes Wilbur even sits with Fern's doll in the pram as she wheels them gently around. When Fern goes swimming, Wilbur sloshes around on the muddy bank. At first, Wilbur sleeps in a box near the stove, then in a bigger box in the woodshed and at two weeks old he is moved to a shed outside under the apple tree. Fern worries that Wilbur will be cold outside but he digs a whole in the straw in his shed and curls up, hidden inside.
At five weeks old Mr Arable decides that Wilbur is ready to sell. Fern is distraught but her father is firm. Fern's parents decide to compromise and sell Wilbur to the Zuckerman’s' just down the road so that Fern can visit. Because he is a runt, Wilbur is sold for only six dollars and goes to live in Zuckerman’s' barn.
‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ is the first sentence of the novel. The long and open vowel sounds: ‘where’s Papa going’, which reflect the innocence of Fern's enquiry, followed by the consonant stop ‘t’ in ‘that’ and the harsh and menacing hiss sound created by ‘axe’ create a surprising contrast. The innocent question, 'where's Papa going' placed adjacent to the sound and meaning of the word 'axe' highlight the contrast between innocence and the awareness of the harsh reality of life. When Fern receives her mother's answer she will realize for perhaps the first time, not only that her father is capable of killing a piglet, but is in fact happy to do so.
The word 'axe' cuts the sentence like a knife - the echoing sibilance creates a haunting effect that warns the reader that the answer to Fern's question may come as a shock. What a fantastic way to start a novel full of suspense about death.
This first chapter is titled ‘Before Breakfast’ and it is set in the Spring. It is no accident that the novel begins at the symbolic pinnacle of newness: spring being the time of new life, hope, youth, growth and beginnings, promising huge potential for the summer. This is the beginning of a new fruitful year and the beginning of our story. This happy spring morning is tainted however with the threat of death when Mr Arable leaves the house with an axe and the astute reader will wonder whether this will remain a theme of the novel. Bear in mind that when Fern comes back having persuaded her father to have mercy on the little pig, she returns to a kitchen that ‘smelt of coffee, bacon, damp plaster, and wood-smoke.’ Life is observed in tandem with death and the presence of the bacon at this typical breakfast scene speaks volumes.
It is frightening for the young Fern that her father could be on a mission to kill an innocent little runt and this reminds the reader than man has the potential to be a cruelly destructive creature. Against man and the axe, a little pig is completely defenceless.
Fern is young and innocent and is not yet hardened to the ways of the world and so her father's intention to kill the piglet is quite barbaric. Mr Arable is going out to kill the runt for practical reasons – thinking no more about the animal than what it will produce at market or on the dinner table.
The innocence/experience contrast will continue throughout the novel and it will be interesting to see how Fern's perspective changes as she grows older. It is interesting that Fern’s ten year old brother Avery enters ‘heavily armed – an air rifle in one hand, a wooden dagger in the other’. Although he is not carrying threatening weapons and they are essentially still children’s toys, Avery represents the movement out of innocence and into adulthood. He has already lost the ability to see the runt as an exciting new being, describing it as ‘no bigger than a white rat.’ (Note the emphasis on size here - Avery doesn't value the little pig because, like his father, he thinks it is worth less because it is small). Although Avery is not yet like his father, only interested in the animal for economic gain, he shows signs of becoming like his father as he demonstrates a complete lack of care for the new born creature.
This may also be because Avery is a boy. Fern demonstrates her natural feminine instinct to her mother in this first chapter - even at such a young age she thinks of ‘what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig.’ Perhaps White is demonstrating the natural order of things here and setting up the contrast between Avery and Fern from the start. Man is associated with weapons and in particular with the axe while woman and, in particular, Mother Nature is associated with birth and renewal.
Fern names the little pig ‘Wilbur’ in this opening chapter which comes from an Old English word meaning ‘wild boar.’ Although just a little runt at this stage, White sets up nicely the importance of words as representation. Wilbur will one day live up to his name.
The second chapter begins: ‘Fern loved Wilbur more than anything. She loved to stroke him, to feed him, to put him to bed.’ The parallelism here employed by White is used to reinforce Fern’s love for Wilbur: she gives him attention, she gives him sustenance and she gives him shelter – Fern acts as Wilbur’s surrogate mother. The narrative even tells us that ‘it relieved her mind to know that her baby would sleep covered up (italics mine).’ Personifying Wilbur by thinking of him as her own baby emphasises the bond between the two: their relationship transcends species as they live in complete harmony together. As Wilbur is humanised here, it sets the scene for the narrative shift later on in the novel when we watch him anthropomorphised by the narrative as he interacts in a very human way with the other animals on Zuckerman’s’ farm.
It is significant when the narrative points out the difference between the two. For instance, when Fern and Avery go swimming, Wilbur amuses himself in the mud along the brook. It is hardly a surprise that Wilbur is unhappy in the water because he is a pig but the narrative foreshadows an important fact here: Fern and Wilbur are not the same and although they love each other dearly, their lives will follow different paths.
At the end of the chapter Mr Arable insists that they sell Wilbur and so Fern sells him to her uncle down the road for six dollars (so cheap because he is a runt). Wilbur is still seen as a commodity by Mr Arable at this stage, despite his daughter’s obvious attachment to the animal.