Charlotte’s Web Essay
The author Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) is perhaps best known for the beloved children’s books he left behind. Although he wrote other things as well, beginning his writing career as a newspaper reporter and then graduating into magazine writing before trying his hand at children’s books. According to White, “I don’t know what caused me to do it [write], or why I enjoyed it, but I think children often find pleasure and satisfaction is trying to set their thoughts down on paper, either in words or in pictures. I was no good at drawing, so I used words instead” (White, 1985). While many people have traced different themes through his work, for me, E.B. White’s children’s book Charlotte’s Web reflects the concepts of true friendship and love’s power to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Charlotte’s Web features a story of friendship in which the various characters find themselves dependent upon each other in order to survive. White says his inspiration for this story came from his own farm. “One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. This made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big grey spider at her work and was impressed by how clever she was at weaving” (White, 1985). This, of course, developed into the heart-warming story of the grey spider who wove words into her web that brought attention to Wilbur and finally saved his life. Wilbur was undoubtedly dependent upon Charlotte to save his life, but he was able to provide her with a service as well. To begin with, his stall attracted many of the flies and other bugs that Charlotte enjoyed eating (much to Wilbur’s horror) and Wilbur, able to live because of Charlotte’s efforts, was then able to greet her children and either send them on their way or provide for them as they chose. Other creatures, such as Templeton the rat, are also dependent on and helpful to Wilbur in his quest for survival.
The strength of this friendship, strong enough to conquer even the bounds of death, struck me as particularly heartwarming. While Charlotte was destined to die well before Wilbur thanks to the short life cycle of the spider, her life was meaningful because of her devotion to her friend just as Wilbur’s life became meaningful when he was able to greet the young spiders and provide for three that chose not to leave the farm. As Charlotte told Wilbur shortly before she died, “You have been my friend … That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s 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, 1999: 164). This mutual assistance and service to one another really emphasized the importance of community to me, reinforcing the concepts I grew up with that insisted that material pursuits were fruitless; it was only through working to help others that our lives gained meaning. This seems to be the philosophy that underlies the entire text.
Templeton the rat is a good character to analyze with respect to the idea that we can only gain meaning in our lives through our service to others. The rat is generally considered to be a barnyard pest, constantly stealing things out of the animals’ cribs and typically collecting the vilest things he can find, turning the stomachs of the more discerning members of the farm family. However, as he grudgingly agrees to assist Charlotte and Wilbur with their schemes, finally agreeing to collect Charlotte’s egg sack to bring it home where it belonged, he can be seen to gain meaning and appreciation from the other animals. While they may not like him any better than they had, they are now much more willing to tolerate him, even reserving a rotten egg for him knowing the delight he will take in such a prize. Through Templeton, it can be seen that a willingness to serve others can also translate into a much more satisfying lifestyle. Templeton returns home a fat, content rat with a sticky mouth (thanks to the egg sack) that now has the friendships he needs to continue living a very comfortable lifestyle without all the hostilities of his past.
Through this story, E.B. White demonstrates the importance of friendship and the ways in which friends can aid and assist each other as they travel through life’s journey. In Charlotte’s Web, the love of Charlotte was repaid with love and caring for her children, which was only possible thanks to the many friendships developed throughout the farm as everyone contributed to saving Wilbur’s life. It becomes clear that without friendship, life has very little meaning to it. Other themes can be traced through the story as well, but young or old, the idea of friendship as an ever-lasting exchange reaches through.
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952 (reprint 1999).
White, E.B. “Letter from E.B. White.” Teacher Vision. New York: Pearson Education, 1985 (reprint 2007). September 9, 2007, <http://www.teachervision.fen.com/authors/letters-and-journals/1734.html>