Charlotte's Web

by E. B. White

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Setting

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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?

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Sensitivity

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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.

For Further Reference

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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.

Welty, Eudora. "Dateless Virtues." New York Times Book Review (September 25, 1977): 7, 43. Assessment of White's outstanding traits as a writer.

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