The Zuckerman’s barn is very large and very old. It smells comfortingly sweet with the odour of cows, grain and hay. The sheep, geese, horses and the cat live in the barn which is always cosy and warm in the winter and cool and breezy in the summer.
Wilbur lives beneath the cows and Fern comes to visit him almost every day. Wilbur is not allowed out of his pen but Fern is allowed to sit beside him and watch him for as long as she wants. One day, at two months old, Wilbur wanders into the small yard and thinks about how boring life is. ‘When I’m out here’ he says ‘there’s no place to go but in. When I’m indoors, there’s no place to go but out in the yard.’ But the goose pipes up and tells Wilbur that one of the boards in his pen is loose and that he should escape through it.
Once free, Wilbur stands puzzled, looking out at the big world. He doesn’t know where to go. He starts wandering around but isn’t discovered until he ploughs up some earth. Mr Zuckerman, the hired man and the cocker spaniel soon run out to chase Wilbur back into his pen. Frightened and alone, Wilbur takes the goose’s advice and through his tears, he bolts. All he really wants is for Fern to come and see him. He dodges the men and tries to follow the instructions shouted by the goose but when he looks up Mr Zuckerman is standing in front of him, tempting him with warm slops. Wilbur feels relieved and doesn’t care if it is a trap to get him back to the barn – he doesn’t want to be free if it means so much commotion. Once back in the pen, Mr Zuckerman nails the board firmly back on and scratches Wilbur’s back with a stick. He feels peaceful and happy and, although it is early, goes straight off to sleep.
The next day the rain ruins Wilbur's plans. He had decided the day before that he would have breakfast, talk to Templeton the rat, have a nap, dig a hole, watch the flies on the boards and swallows in the air, have lunch, sleep again, scratch against the fence, wait for Fern and have supper. But as the rain pelts against the barn roof and spatters against Mrs Zuckerman's kitchen windows, he realizes sadly that his plans have been ruined.
Templeton is nowhere to be seen and Wilbur suddenly feels lonely and friendless and starts to cry. When Lurvy leaves slops for Wilbur, he doesn't budge. The goose won’t play with him because she has to sit on her eggs and the lamb won't play with him because, pigs mean ‘less than nothing’ to him. This comment by the lamb provokes the following response from Wilbur: there can be nothing less than nothing otherwise nothing would not be nothing and would be something.
When Templeton finally shows his face, he is more interested in eating Wilbur's breakfast than playing with him. Knowing that Fern won't visit on such a miserable day, Wilbur lies down, dejected, friendless and hungry. When darkness comes, a voice nearby says 'I'll be a friend to you. I've watched you all day and I like you...Go to sleep. You'll see me in the morning.'
The description given by White of Zuckerman’s’ barn is idyllic: ‘The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows.’ The narrative builds through repetition: ‘It was very old’, ‘it smelled of hay’ ‘it smelled of manure’, ‘it smelled of [the] perspiration.’ The natural imagery is simple but completely evocative – the sentences are short to start with and become longer with each new description, like a symphony building to a climax. The narrative teases our senses, forcing us to imagine the smells described and introduces us to Wilbur's new space, with a ‘big door…open to the breeze’ and a ‘barn cellar on the south side’ for the pigs.
Fern visits Wilbur but she is forbidden by Mr Zuckerman to enter his pen or to take him out of it. It is significant that for six dollars Mr Zuckerman now officially owns Wilbur and Fern no longer has any control over what they are allowed to do together. Even though Fern loves Wilbur much more than Mr Zuckerman ever could, he makes the decisions because he paid for him. Money is here presented as much more significant than love and Mr Zuckerman is able to impose restrictions that ultimately cast a shadow over her relationship with Wilbur.
This beautiful but realistic scene is suddenly transformed ‘one June afternoon, when Wilbur was almost two months old.’ The narrative explains that ‘Fern had not arrived for her usual visit’ and ‘Wilbur stood in the sun feeling lonely and bored.’ Suddenly the reality of the human world, with their bacon and egg breakfasts and their six dollar purchases is thrown into the background as the narrative shifts very much to Wilbur’s perspective: we realize that Wilbur can think like a human and speak like a human. The change comes as a shock because, after the first two chapters, we do not expect to hear what Wilbur is thinking or saying. This anthropomorphic shift is sudden and very structurally effective – we suddenly find ourselves in a kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world. In terms of Wilbur’s relationship with Fern, this shift pushes their worlds and therefore their relationship further apart but it will bring Wilbur closer to new friends in the barn.
Despite his beautiful new home, Wilbur is bored when Fern isn’t around. He has no purpose and no friends and suffers from a kind of existential angst: a deep-seated spiritual feeling of despair. As we observe Wilbur at this time, we entirely accept that he is capable of any human feelings and it is in fact the humans that become more distant and less emotionally available to us. It is ironic that in this new barn which offers so much in contrast with the ‘small yard’ where he lived ‘under an apple tree’ at the Arable’s, Wilbur is so unhappy. Materially and in human terms Zuckerman’s barn is far superior to his dwelling place at the Arable’s and yet, without the love and friendship he was used to, it means absolutely nothing. ‘I’m less than two months old and I’m tired of living’ says Wilbur. He is unhappy in his mind and so nothing from the outside can help him. He is, however, persuaded by the goose that he needs to reclaim his freedom, and so he escapes the barn. When he leaves the barn he panics and doesn’t know where to go. The hole in Wilbur’s heart will not be filled by the new and beautiful barn or the vast space beyond it but only by a good friend. His last thoughts before falling asleep are ‘I’m really too young to go out into the world alone’. The fact of the matter is that Wilbur does not want to be alone at all.
The pathetic fallacy of the rain echoes Wilbur’s depression. It is significant that at the end of the day a voice calling out from the darkness brings hope for the new day. This is dramatically very effective as the voice is dislocated from its owner and we have no idea who is speaking. We then have to wait until the next day to learn who it is that creates dramatic suspense for Wilbur and the reader.