Looking for books off the list at the library makes the reading order fairly random. I picked up #170 Charlotte’s Web by EB White last time I was in, although it wasn’t one I had in mind. When I walked in the door, I was looking for On the Road or A Town Like Alice and I got this instead. No regrets though – it’s rather lovely.
Charlotte’s Web is the story of Wilbur. Born the runt of the litter, he’s saved from death by Fern who hand-rears him until he’s weaned, when she sells him to her uncle, Homer. Finding out that Homer is fattening him up for winter bacon, Wilbur, quite naturally, gets very upset. The rest of the farmyard is fairly blase about his situation, but Charlotte, a spider, steps in to save his life.
All the animals in Charlotte’s Web talk, apart from flies. It’s interesting as the only predators in the book seem to be Charlotte herself and the humans – the other characters are herbivores. I don’t even remember seeing a farm cat or the dog talk. Moreover, Charlotte recognizes the moral quandaries associated with her position, something the humans don’t seem to do. Another interesting point is that Fern can understand the animals talking (at least when she’s young) so she has an additional insight into their plight. And yet, so far as I can recall, her family still eat ham and mutton and other meat products, including, one assumes, Wilbur’s siblings.
Eater or eaten is a critical power dynamic in so many animal stories, and the communication element makes it more interesting. What if mice really could plead for their lives? What if the cat could understand them? What if pigs really could object to being killed with a reasoned speech? Would you become vegetarian? If not, what would that do to you?
The book itself
I enjoyed Charlotte’s Web, although not quite as much as I thought I would. It’s an intriguing, unusual story and well told. EB White is a talented writer, and I have very fond memories of The Trumpet of the Swan, which we read in school so I had a copy of for my very own. Charlotte’s Web must have been a library book, so I wouldn’t have reread it as often and as a result don’t have strong childhood memories of it.
Wilbur is something of a stereotypical princess-in-a-tower. He’s somewhat hard-of-thinking, prefers comfortable confinement to difficult freedom, and can’t save himself. Charlotte, on the other hand, is fabulously complex. She’s smart, creative, analytical and has a clear, complex moral code. She’s the star of the book, and it’s interesting that all her energy goes into saving the life of a creature who isn’t her equal. But then, Wilbur is both childlike and quite literally a child, being only two or three months old at the start of their friendship, so it’s hard to argue against saving him on the grounds that he’s kind of dull.
Charlotte’s technique for saving Wilbur is also very clever and another interesting side to her character – while it saves Wilbur’s life, it’s only through the superstition and gullibility of the humans who prefer to believe in divine intervention than a clever spider.
All in all I thought the book was interesting, definitely a good read. I didn’t remember the ending, and now I know it I’m tempted to read the book again, to look at Charlotte’s words more carefully, get my hindsight in, but as it’s gone back to the library, I can’t. The book does have a few sad moments and there is a risk that young readers may stop eating meat, but otherwise I think it’s a good choice for new readers.