Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

21 Oct 2011

(Novel) Charlotte's Web by: E.B. White

(Reaction) Some Spider by: Antonio Conejos

Charlotte's Web fits the mold of a fairy tale in that serious themes are treated in a light and whimsical matter. Specifically, E.B. White's tale deals with how life leads to death which in turn leads to life again. Life and death are not easily delineated and each influences and rises from the other.

In the beginning, Wilbur is a privileged pig and he experiences the ennui which only the blissfully pampered can, I'm less than than 2 months old and I'm tired of living. Wilbur takes his easy existence as pretty much assured and fails to appreciate life and liberty, If this is what it's like to be free. I believe I'd rather be penned up in my own yard.

News though that he is destined for the dinner plate makes Wilbur sit up and want to live. Thus death (or the prospect of it) makes one appreciate life. Moreover, it is to another creature who traffics in death, Charlotte the spider, that Wilbur turns to for salvation.

Charlotte makes no amends for what she is and how she survives. I love blood, declares the spider unabashedly. This attitude initially upsets the gentle Wilbur, sad because his new friend was so bloodthirsty. Yet this carnivorous spider, who deals with death as a daily fact of life, will be the one to save Wilbur's life. (Very literally in the story, Charlotte, who traffics in death, also goes about ensuring life.)

Ironically, in ensuring Wilbur's survival Charlotte may be hastening her own demise. The novel repeatedly emphasizes that Charlotte works tirelessly on crafting the various webs necessary for her plan to work. Towards the end she is so tired that she can't even move. While this lethargy is due mostly to the laying of her eggs, one wonders how much energy she could have saved if she hadn't been weaving all those webs praising Wilbur. In a way then, Charlotte pays in death so that Wilbur might live.

Wilbur in turns shows unwavering loyalty to his friend. This loyalty is demonstrated in Wilbur's sacrifices of a thing that pigs naturally love - food. Now Wilbur adores food, the novel emphasizes this by enumerating lovingly the different odds and ends which make up his meals. But Wilbur willingly sacrifices a portion of his meals in a bargain with Templeton in order to ensure the safety of Charlotte's eggs.

Life and death inevitably flow into each other. This thought is seen in another egg from the novel, the dud goose's egg which failed to hatch. By itself the unhatched egg represents death, or potential life that did not come to fruition. But in the novel this dead egg ends up saving the life of Charlotte when it cracks at an opportune moment. As Wilbur himself observes, It was that rotten goose egg that saved Charlotte's life.

Charlotte's Web deals in a matter of fact manner with how life and death relate and inform one another. Charlotte herself best sums up how life only achieves its fullest meaning when put in the context of others and death: 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.

Review:

I'm a big fan of E.B. White's essays (my all time favorite is Afternoon of an American Boy) but this was the first time I read any of his fiction. Unfortunately Charlotte's Web didn't grab me as much as I hoped it would.

In particular, I found Wilbur to be really sort of annoying. For a pig he can be quite a drama queen (Friendless, dejected and hungry, he threw himself down in the manure and sobbed.) and a pansy too (he's always fainting). I seem to have a hostility towards talking pigs who are trying desperately to be cute as I detested Babe as well. This may or may not stem from my unconscious guilt from eating too much pork over the years.

Setting aside for a moment my dislike for the pig, there are some touching moments in Charlotte's Web. Charlotte herself comes across as a stand-up spider and the imagery of her offspring sailing through the air is beautiful.

Ultimately, the novel is sort of like a strip of bacon, some parts aren't that enticing (the layers of fat) but overall it's a satisfying snack. If you're looking for a children's tale with more meat on its bones, try reading the excellent Watership Down.

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