In a very real sense, Charlotte's Web is set in E. B. White's barn in Maine. There, White encountered the web of the spider Aranea cavatica in the doorway, while carrying a bucket of slops to his own pig, and decided to write a story in which a spider saves a pig. In transforming his own barnyard into a fictional world, White gives the animals voices and personalities. He uses human characters as well, principally Fern and the Zuckermans.
The main source of the book's enduring ability to touch generations of readers is its sense of reality amid the obvious fantasy. For all the unreal things that happen, the barnyard is nevertheless a real barnyard, with all the sights, sounds, and smells that go with it. Here, Wilbur the pig sleeps in a manure pile, and Charlotte the spider kills flies and drinks their blood. Here, too, Charlotte devises a plan to keep Wilbur from being killed to provide food for the Zuckermans' table. White uses farmyard reality as an anchor and as a source of suspense. Which world will prevail—the fantasy world in which animals talk, or the human world in which animals must die to provide for people's needs?
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White uses the genre of the fable to construct a narrative that makes its moral indirectly. Although he does not spell it out, the reader can readily discern White's point that love exerts a saving influence. Love does, indeed, produce wonders. First Fern's and later Charlotte's love saves Wilbur. At the same time, however, Wilbur does not get everything he wants. His joys are fleeting and bittersweet. Fern grows up more interested in Henry Fussy, the neighbor boy, than in Wilbur, and he discovers that his friend Charlotte is powerless against the real enemies of life—time and death.
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For all its innocence and simple delight, Charlotte's Web judiciously addresses the serious subject of death. Wilbur is threatened with murder throughout the book, of course, but in the end, when Charlotte's life is spent, the reality of death hits hardest. Yet here White makes his strongest statement about selflessness. Charlotte expends her last ounce of strength writing a final web message, the one that assures Wilbur that he will live. But he feels abandoned, lost without Charlotte, and his grief is both real and affecting. It is eased, however, by his mission. He persuades Templeton to bring Charlotte's egg sac down from the rafters at the fair, and then carries it back to the barn, cares for it, and welcomes the hatchling spiders when they emerge the next spring. His actions give Charlotte a kind of immortality, since her descendants live and flourish in the barn, and Wilbur always tells them tales of Charlotte. Although Wilbur cannot stop Charlotte from dying, he returns her love in the best way the world allows, by establishing her as a living tradition in the barnyard.
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Topics for Discussion
1. In what way does White adapt the animals' fictional personalities to the way those animals act in real life?
2. The threat of death is a very serious part of everyone's life. Is it surprising to find that threat central to such a charming story as this?
3. When the message "some pig" appears in Charlotte's web, everyone except Mrs. Zuckerman is immediately impressed with Wilbur, not Charlotte. What might White be trying to say about human nature?
4. What do you think about the doctor's lack of concern over Fern's apparent delusions about animals and spiders talking?
5. A fable is a simple narrative in which talking animals are used to represent human characteristics. Usually, the fable ends with an explicit moral, or lesson. What moral, or morals, might be drawn from Charlotte's Web?
6. Part of White's reason for writing this novel was his own sense of the unfairness of raising an animal simply to kill it for food later. How does that basic sense of barnyard injustice help you to understand the book?
7. Templeton the rat acts solely out of self-interest, yet he is in many ways the hero of the story, next to Charlotte. How does Templeton's role in the book contribute to the impression that the story is real?
8. Think about the words Charlotte chooses to write in her web. What are the reasons she gives for choosing those words? Why are they particularly appropriate for...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. White based Charlotte on a spider known as Aranea cavatica. How closely does Charlotte conform to the characteristics of this species? What function does this scientific accuracy serve in the narrative?
2. Compare this fable with several fables by Aesop. What are the similarities and differences?
3. Write a plot summary of Charlotte's Web, but tell the story from Templeton's point of view.
4. White often uses barnyard settings and metaphors in his adult essays. How does his fictional use of the barnyard in Charlotte's Web compare with his use of it in some of his essays?
5. White uses many descriptions of places in Charlotte's Web: the barn, the dump, the county fair, and so forth. What effect do these descriptions have on a reader's response to the story?
6. Imagine Wilbur, years after the end of the story, about to die a peaceful, natural death. He decides to write a letter to post on the barn door, telling all the future generations of Charlotte's descendants about their heroic ancestor. Write that letter.
7. There are many definitions of heroism that may be derived from the characters in novels, films, stories, plays, and real life. Considering those examples and the characters in Charlotte's Web, what does White's definition of heroism seem to be?
8. Fern reacts strongly to the injustice of Wilbur's situation in life, and in so doing, she...
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White's two other books for young people are also about animals interacting in a human world. Stuart Little (1945) is about the trials of being born a mouse in a human family. Stuart must overcome adversity as he deals effectively with being different, and his positive, never-say-quit attitude helps him prevail. The Trumpet of the Swan (1970) follows Louis, a mute swan, who is handicapped in courting a mate without his voice. As with animals in other White stories, Louis overcomes his handicap by learning to play a trumpet as well as the great jazz musician, Louis Armstrong.
Charlotte's Web has been adapted into a sentimentalized but fairly faithful animated feature film, produced by Paramount and released in 1972. The film deals more broadly with the issues White treats in the novel, and it also uses a broader form of comedy. In fact, Templeton almost steals the show. The animators had a field day drawing his disgusting antics, especially his trip to the county fair, and Paul Lynde's voice is perfect for the role. Debbie Reynolds performs the voice of Charlotte; Henry Gibson is Wilbur; and the narrator is the familiar, deep-voiced Rex Allen, veteran of classics such as Old Yeller, Incredible Journey, and many Disney wildlife short subjects.
In 1970 Pathways of Sound released an audio recording of Charlotte's Web, narrated by White himself, after attempts by two professional readers did not satisfy him.
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For Further Reference
Beck, Warren. "E. B. White." College English 7 (1946): 367-373. An insightful critical study.
Elledge, Scott. E. B. White: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. A thorough and enjoyable biography with a useful bibliography.
Neumeyer, Peter F. "The Creation of Charlotte's Web: From Drafts to Book." Horn Book 58 (October and December 1982): 489-497, 617-625. An in-depth study of White's authorial techniques.
Sampson, Edward C. E. B. White. Boston: Twayne, 1974. General introduction to White's life and works.
Thurber, James. "E. B. W." The Saturday Review of Literature 28 (October 15, 1938): 8-9. Sketch of White by a well-known friend....
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