Friendship, Death, and Immortality in Charlotte’s Web
In the first few pages of Charlotte’s Web, the reader quickly comes to understand that he is not reading an ordinary children’s book. The story’s initial protagonist, a human girl named Fern Arable, engages in a vocal protest of her father’s plans to slaughter a baby pig because he was born a runt. Mr. Arable decides to spare the pig, and gives Fern the responsibility of caring for the infant. However, one immediately understands that Mr. Arable’s action will only temporarily save the pig; while the baby pig awaits Fern’s care, another pig is being served as bacon at the breakfast table. (White, 3). The dichotomy between how the two animals are being treated makes one immediately aware that Charlotte’s Web will not be a simple tale of life triumphing over death. Instead, one realizes that they are going to be reading a tale of life, but one that embraces the fact that life and death are inseparable.
Of course, from the very beginning of Charlotte’s Web, one also comes to realize that one is reading a powerful story about friendship. While rescuing the baby pig was simply a random act of kindness, Fern quickly befriends the young pig, whom she names Wilbur. However, Fern’s friendship with Wilbur is passing in nature. Although she is a very caring young girl, Fern has grown up on a farm and eventually comes to realize that, as a pig on a farm, Wilbur was born to die. Of course, the friendship between Fern and Wilbur is merely a precursor to the true tale of friendship in Charlotte’s Web: the friendship between Wilbur and a gray barn spider, Charlotte a. Cavitica.
The best way to understand how friendship, death, and immortality intertwine in Charlotte’s Web is to look at the life of Wilbur the pig. An examination of Wilbur’s life reveals several things. The first thing it reveals is dependency. As a helpless runt, Wilbur is completely dependent upon Fern for survival. When Wilbur realizes that his friendship with Fern is changing and learns that he is going to be slaughtered after the fair, he becomes dependent upon his friends Charlotte and Templeton, the rat, to save his life. The second thing that Wilbur’s life reveals is loss. First, Wilbur suffers the loss of his good friend Fern. Then, Wilbur suffers a more substantial loss; the death of Charlotte. The third thing that Wilbur’s life reveals is rebirth. Each loss that Wilbur suffers is accompanied by some type of gain or rebirth. Even more significant is the fact that Wilbur is only able to appreciate these rebirths because of the losses he has experienced. In this way, the novel demonstrates the fourth element of Wilbur’s life: immortality.
When the reader is introduced to Wilbur, the reader has very little information about him, aside from the fact that he is a runt and Fern thinks that he is cute. However, Wilbur’s personality develops rapidly in the beginning of the story:
Wilbur is of sweet nature — he is a spring pig — affectionate, responsive to moods of the weather and the song of the crickets, has long eyelashes, is hopeful, partially willing to try anything, brave, subject to faints from bashfulness, is loyal to friends, enjoys a good appetite and a soft bed, and is a little likely to be overwhelmed by the sudden chance for complete freedom. (Welty).
It is Wilbur’s sweetness that inspires Fern to treat him as more than a pig, and soon the two become friends. In fact, it appears that the growing friendship between Wilbur and Fern prompts Mr. Arable’s decision to move Wilbur as much as Wilbur’s growing size. Although he is clearly touched by his daughter’s determination to save the baby pig, Mr. Arable has not lost sight of the fact that Wilbur is a farm pig and will eventually be slaughtered. This sentiment is one that was shared by the author of Charlotte’s Web. “As someone who farmed throughout his life, E.B. White understood that death is an inevitable part of life on a farm. Animals are born, raised and then slaughtered for food.” (MacPherson). While coming to this realization, Fern begins to distance herself from Wilbur; and Wilbur experiences his first loss.
However, the loss of Fern is tempered by the fact that Wilbur experiences his first rebirth when he is moved to the barnyard. It is there than Wilbur meets the other barnyard animals. Meeting them, Wilbur comes to two realizations. Wilbur’s first realization is that he and the other animals are able to communicate through speech. Wilbur’s second realization is that he is one of the animals in the barnyard, and that he can become friends with the other animals there. The most significant friend he makes is the spider Charlotte.
Of course, Charlotte, like White, understands the circle of life better than others. Though Charlotte is portrayed as a very compassionate and kind character, one of the first things she reveals about herself to Wilbur is that she has to drink blood to survive. Charlotte’s feeding is readily accepted by the other animals in the barnyard, because unlike Wilbur, they have not been sheltered from the reality of life on the farm. In fact, while they all seem to like Wilbur, none of them seem distraught by the idea that Wilbur will be slaughtered after the fair. Instead, they accept Wilbur’s death as something that is inevitable. Charlotte appreciates that Wilbur’s death is inevitable, but she also understands that she can do something to stall his death. Furthermore, Charlotte realizes that, as Wilbur’s friend, she is obligated to do what she can in order to help Wilbur live as long as possible.
Likewise, when Wilbur realizes that Charlotte is dying, he tries to figure out what he can do to prolong her life. Wilbur initially does not understand that all animals do not have the same life expectancy, and he finds it difficult to understand. Even when he comes to grips with the fact that Charlotte is dying, Wilbur engages in behavior that is not constructive. Rather than cherishing every moment he has with Charlotte, he begins to mourn the idea that she is going to die. However, it is Charlotte’s final actions that demonstrate the true meaning of friendship; she expends the last of her energy spinning the final web to save Wilbur’s life.
With Charlotte’s death, Wilbur comes to a very important realization, which is that life is only meaningful if one makes it meaningful. He begins to understand that Charlotte helped him, not because she was obligated to, but because she was his friend. Furthermore, Wilbur comes to understand that Charlotte truly appreciated his friendship. Of course, Charlotte had told him this, right before telling him she would die within a few days:
wove my webs for you because I like you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that. (White, 142).
Furthermore, Wilbur comes to understand that Charlotte did two things to ensure her immortality. The first of these things was to weave her egg sac, so that her children could live. The second thing was to weave her last web, which she knew would ensure Wilbur’s continued safety.
One of the most interesting elements in Charlotte’s web is not that Charlotte dies, but that she dies alone. However, “Charlotte’s lonely demise at the fairgrounds is infinitely sad, and yet is it also readily understood and even accepted by children. The book’s true miracle is not Wilbur’s double survival of the axe, but rather Charlotte’s regeneration through her 514 offspring.” (Amidon). With this passage, White helps parents and educators that children can understand even the saddest things in life, even if they cannot understand or tolerate things like injustice.
Wilbur is similar to the children that White targeted as readers. When Wilbur realizes that he cannot save Charlotte’s life or even be with her in death, he takes a step to ensure her immortality. He pesters Templeton to help him, and he retrieves Charlotte’s egg sac and takes it back to the barn. Once Charlotte’s eggs hatch, Wilbur is excited to meet her children, hoping to find the type of friendship he had with their mother. However, Wilbur is again reminded that friendship is different, and that he saved the eggs for Charlotte, rather than for himself, when almost all of Charlotte’s children leave the barn. However, some of them, like Wilbur, are runts, and are too weak to follow their siblings. These spiders stay, and Wilbur does his best to bring their mother to life for them, by telling them stories about what a wonderful friend she was.
Amidon, Stephen. “Caught in the Finest Web.” The Guardian. 23 Nov. 2002. The Guardian.
14 Oct. 2006 http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/classics/0,6121,844748,00.html#article_continue.
MacPherson, Karen. “At 50, ‘Charlotte’s Web’ Still Enraptures Readers Young and Old.” Post-
Gazette. 30 Jul. 2002. Post-Gazette.com. 14 Oct. 2006 http://www.post-gazette.com/books/20020730corner0730p1.asp.
Welty, Eudora. “Along Came a Spider.” The New York Times. 19 Oct. 1952. The New York
Times Online. 14 Oct. 2006 http://partners.nytimes.com/books/98/11/22/specials/welty-charlotte.html.
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1952.
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