Release Date: 1952
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Children’s Literature
“Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words in Charlotte’s Web, high up in Zuckerman’s barn. Charlotte’s spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur’s life when he was born the runt of his litter.” (via Goodreads)
I’ve read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web more times than I can count. As I kid I read it over and over and over again, I loved it that much. Most of my adult re-reads have been attempts at reliving childhood nostalgia. This time, however, I had my reviewer hat on. What surprised me the most was the depth and thoughtfulness of the novel, nuances which had somehow eluded me even after thirty plus years of engaging with it.
And Charlotte’s Web is deep. The novel is more than a twee tale about a charming piglet and loquacious spider. It’s about being open-minded and big-hearted toward those who are different from you. It’s about helping those in need not just because it’s morally right but because it’s the kind thing to do. Charlotte is the extreme example of these two related themes, but the other farm animals demonstrate them as well. As selfish as Templeton the rat is, he never descends to cruelty. He isn’t caring, but he understands the difference between right and wrong. He may not like teamwork, but he knows the farm ecosystem will collapse without his participation.
The book is also about growing up. Fern and Wilbur open the novel doting on each other, but by the end both are living separate lives, Fern with her first crush and Wilbur with Charlotte’s descendants. Once Wilbur’s fate is secure, she’s able to let go of childhood fancies and face her own future. Charlotte mothers Wilbur, but once she’s gone it’s Wilbur who must become the parent to her children. He has real responsibility for the first time, and like Fern grows into his more mature role.
White also doesn’t shy away from heavier topics. Death looms heavily over the story, from Wilbur becoming bacon to Charlotte wasting away to the goose’s rotten egg. As adults, the goose and Charlotte are prepared for death and recognize it as a fact of life, something young Wilbur reluctantly learns. Wilbur teaches kids that it’s ok to be frightened of dying but not to be scared of death itself. Everyone dies eventually, but you can’t let it stop you from living your best life. Charlotte knows from the beginning she won’t live to see the winter, but she never lets it slow her down. Wilbur faces his fear of dying, and even though Mr. Zuckerman spares his life Wilbur knows his time will come eventually. He’s reminded of this every fall as Charlotte’s descendants die off and leave him their egg sacs filled with the next generation of friendly arachnids.
Lastly, I can’t forget to highlight Garth Williams’ lovely, understated illustrations. Each illustration is intricate yet unassuming, full of compelling expressions and playful tones. They were even more enjoyable than I remembered.
Charlotte’s Web is one of those books that I fall in love with a little more every time I read it. If somehow you’ve managed to not read it yet (or haven’t read it since you were little), now’s the time to pick it up.
“Can I have a pig, too, Pop?” asked Avery.
“No, I only distribute pigs to early risers,” said Mr. Arable. “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig. A small one, to be sure, but nevertheless a pig. It just shows what can happen if a person gets out of bed promptly. Let’s eat!”
Do the world a favor and buy this from an indie bookstore or get it from your local public library.