Note: This post is full of spoilers. On the off chance you have never read Charlotte’s Web, stop everything and go read it, then come back.
I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to my son, and was surprised how often I was choked up while reading it. I expected the final chapter to destroy me, but not so much in the middle chapters, even the quiet ones: Wilbur’s bucolic day-to-day existence and the charming banter of animals was as likely to make me swallow hard and take five (my son staring at me in confusion) as Wilbur learning his fate from the old sheep.
I think what gets to me is Charlotte’s and Wilbur’s platonic love. Maybe all great middle-grade books are essentially about friendship, but no friendship is more peculiar and perfect than Wilbur’s and Charlotte’s. All my childhood I waited for that little voice to whisper from the darkness that she was there for me, and would reveal herself in the morning.
But as I grow older, Charlotte is not the friend I aspire to have, but the friend I aspire to be. She reaches out to Wilbur when he is muddy and pathetic and hasn’t a friend in the world. Her friendship transforms Wilbur, just by holding up a mirror of her own admiration. Soon the whole barnyard is swept up by her enthusiasm. The old sheep and the geese and even the bratty lambs start treating Wilbur with more respect. In turn, Wilbur considers Charlotte’s myriad legs and plump gray body and bloodsucking lifestyle and pronounces her beautiful, an unshaken belief until the end.
It is Charlotte’s gesture of friendship upon which the entire book revolves. It is also the source of the inspiration for her own life-changing art.
I was actually less weepy at the end than I expected, perhaps because the boy was so squirmy and distracting (while also steadfastly insisting I keep reading). He was so blank-faced when Charlotte died I had to make sure he understood what just happened (he did). He was impatient through the next passages, but delighted by the baby spiders, and so eager to announce we were finished he missed the lovely “true friend and good writer,” bit at the very end. It was hard to be emotional with such an impatient audience.
However, there is one sentence I was unable to read. I saw it, knew I couldn’t read it, and simply turned the page. It’s the last sentence in the second-to-last chapter, and may be the saddest line ever to appear in a book for children. I won’t even put it here. It’s no better typing it than reading it aloud.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Charlotte’s Web is that it never once mentions God, which leads to some confusion about the plot: why is Wilbur, and not Charlotte, the subject of praise and wonder? In an increasingly secular world, the disposition of rural folk to attribute the unknown to the hand of God is less and less obvious.
Mrs. Zuckerman more than once suggests that the spider is the real phenomenon, but her husband dismisses her. It’s just a plain old gray spider, he says. Mr. Zuckerman uses words like “wonder” and “miracle” to describe what happens, and consults his minister, who gives a sermon, but nobody uses the G word. I suspect that it is because White, or perhaps Ursula Nordstrom, felt that they were perilously close to mocking faith itself, or would be seen as doing so. They played it safe by alluding to miracles and wonders without naming their presumptive Source.
White was a skeptic, but a devout worshiper of nature, and his masterpiece is a statement of faith: we don’t need a celestial creator; the spider is miracle enough. White picks up the Emerson strand of enlightened animism that runs through the American canon (especially poetry). It’s a faith but not a religion, and captures my own faith better than any religious text.
The doctor serves as White’s mouthpiece, giving his lecture to Fern’s mother, in a scene I had completely forgotten and will probably forget again. (It has no children in it, and no animals. It made my son restless.)
Charlotte’s Web is beloved by writers for its smooth rhythms and pastoral descriptions, its epic catalogs of the humdrum. Reading it aloud tuned my ears to its stylistic mastery. There’s a reason the award for best read-aloud books is named for White. The style subsumes the story at times, as White patiently reels off the signs of seasonal changes, for example, or gives an exhaustive, almost ostentatious, list of things to eat at a fair or the contents of a junk pile. A certain type of children’s book reviewer is inclined to say they are “too much for children,” these languorous passages, just as critics have opined since its publication that Charlotte’s Web is too sad for children, that the sadness is ill-matched with the humor, that White bungled by establishing Fern as a main character just to demote her in chapter three. White’s children’s books do have structural peculiarities, but so do Andersen’s fairy tales. They defy our critical apparatuses. Children gleefully read, love, and cry over the book anyway, decade after decade.
When authors appeal to all ages they are said to appeal to the childlike hearts of older readers, but I think White appeals to the old souls in children.
Charlotte is also a writer, of sorts: literally spinning words that shine in the morning sunlight, transforming the lives of the ones she cares most about. And so I aspire to be a friend like Charlotte, and also a writer like Charlotte, with her tireless commitment to high-minded goals and no longing for personal reward. I more often feel like Wilbur, tying an old string to his tail and leaping off of a manure pile. Perhaps it is only by disappearing into the woodwork that a writer can see his or work work become, to those staring in wonder, divine.