Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web The Fable Tradition

The word 'fable' comes from the Latin word 'fabula' meaning 'a story.' A fable is a short story in verse or prose that usually features anthropomorphized animals, plants or inanimate objects to illustrate a moral lesson. Ben Edwin Perry, the authority on Aesopic tradition, captured the fable's essentially rhetorical genius by describing it as "a fictitious story picturing a truth."

Aesop is the most famous fabulist and is believed to have lived between 620 and 560BC. His tales include The Goose that laid The Golden Egg and The Boy who cried Wolf. 1st century AD philosopher Apollonius of Tyana is recorded as having said about Aesop:' those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths...And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind.'

White exudes a similar charm and although Charlotte's Web is not as concise as most conventional fables, it does 'teach worldly wisdom and shrewdness' (p.239 American folklore by Jan Harold Brunvand) to those who are willing to learn. According to Jack David Zipes in his book Aesop's Fables, 'the purpose of most fable writers has been to address a specific social problem of their times and to draw a universal lesson that may be applicable in other situations and epochs. What White makes us aware of in Charlotte’s Web is how self involved humans can be and how blind they often are to the wonders of the world around them.

As America began to prosper after the war, many people became more and more concerned with material wealth. The Beatniks - and the beat generation - was an anti-materialist literary movement which reached its height in the 1950s. Written after the Second World War and as American manufacturing and construction was on the rise, Charlotte’s Web also reacts against materialism and reminds us, during this time of American economic gain, of the simple yet astonishing pleasures in life. White’s use of anthropomorphic animals in Charlotte's Web not only fulfills a key criteria of the fable tradition but also provides us with the opportunity to laugh at human folly -- specifically, by supplying us with examples of human behavior to be avoided and not emulated.

In Charlotte's Web, White illustrates the power of love and creativity in contrast with material success and status. After all, a runt pig (who promises nothing when it is born) becomes the object of fame and success essentially because of the love bestowed on him by Fern and Charlotte. Although the humans in the novel think they have been blessed with an extraordinary pig, what they witness is extraordinary love between Charlotte and Wilbur, and that itself is the miracle of the story.