Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The longing for that which is both inexpressible and unattainable is a recurrent theme in the life and work of E. B. White. Despite his talent and success, White was beset with anxiety and lack of confidence throughout most of his life. As a young boy, he found joy and inner freedom each summer when his family left their home in Mt. Vernon, New York, for Maine, where he swam, fished, and canoed. As an adult living in New York City, White recaptured this joy by purchasing a farm in Maine, spending portions of the year there, and eventually retiring there. The barnyard of his farm in Maine provided a rhythm with which he was comfortable. His happy participation in the domain of geese, pigs, and chickens provided fodder for his literary life as well as strength for coping with his inner demons.

Toward the end of the 1940’s, White consulted with a prominent New York psychiatrist for help with the same symptoms that plague Trexler in his story. “The Second Tree from the Corner” is, undoubtedly, White’s own story. Just as Trexler finds courage to cope with his frailties through his appreciation of life’s beauty, White seemed to find what he needed on his farm in rural Maine.

The natural world as the source of grace is a theme throughout much of White’s work. It is the means of salvation for Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web (1952) and is embodied in the free and unobtainable Margalo, the bird for which Stuart quests in Stuart Little (1945). Although this theme permeates his work, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, perhaps nowhere is White clearer about what the natural world means to him than he is in “The Second Tree from the Corner.”

What we all long for, according to White, is deeper than words and beyond possession, because it is the ability to appreciate the goodness of life through the natural world in the face of fear and death. In the story, Trexler’s symptoms do not go away, but he is able to transcend them momentarily because he glimpses the fundamental benevolence of life.