September 30, 2011
There are a few books I love so much I have to go back and reread them every few years. One of those is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I remember the first summer I read Charlotte’s Web. In those days there was only a handful of television stations and one of them was required to show the Hannah Barbera cartoon adaptation, which, amazingly, is pretty faithful to the original, during every major holiday, so I’d seen it at least two dozen times. I still liked the book better. I picked up the book the same summer I found a huge garden spider–Argiope aurantia if you want to get scientific about it–under the deck. That whole summer I’d catch small bugs and throw them into the spider’s web and watch with fascination and a little horror as she’d grab these gifts and wrap them in silk, to be eaten later.
Fortunately I wasn’t a budding serial killer. I’m just a guy who really loves spiders. I get that a lot of people don’t like spiders and I’m not going to try changing people’s minds, but I challenge anyone to read Charlotte’s Web and not come away with at least some appreciation of spiders, and even if you still don’t like them I can’t imagine how you could not fall in love with Charlotte. Wilbur, of course, gave me a greater appreciation of pigs, or, to be more specific, a greater appreciation of bacon, pork chops, and sausage, because he’s so annoying. It’s even worse in the cartoon, where Wilbur makes Spongebob Squarepants look stoic, but even reading the book there were times when I thought, "If that damn pig starts crying again I hope they take him to the slaughterhouse before the fair." Charlotte, on the other hand, was what many spiders, particularly the web builders, are: a nurturing mother. It may seem a little strange that a spider would ultimately be Wilbur’s savior, especially since a spider, of all creatures, should understand that certain animals will end up on the farm’s dinner table, although maybe Charlotte saved Wilbur as a way of improving the spider world’s karma. Or maybe it’s just because, as I said, she’s a nurturing mother. Spiders spend the entire summer building webs and catching insects in preparation for the next generation. They devote their whole lives and give everything they have to children they will never know.
Charlotte is, in a way, mirrored by Wilbur’s initial savior, the girl Fern Arable. By the book’s end, though, Fern is on the cusp of becoming a young woman, and this is where they diverge. Charlotte will spin her webs, lay her eggs, and, when summer ends, she will die. Even though in winter Fern reminisces about a moment at the state fair she shared with a boy at the top of the Ferris wheel–which looks like a giant web–her future isn’t as clearly defined. She may or may not marry, she may leave the farm, and she could go on to any career–although veterinarian seems most likely. Charlotte, by the way, is mostly referred to as a barn spider, but White knew his spiders, and, if you want to get scientific about it, she’s an Aranea cavatica, which I think is a lovely name for such a lovely animal. This is another area where the cartoon version falls short: in reality these spiders are quite striking, colored black and orange with speckles of white or yellow, but in the cartoon Charlotte’s a dull, uniform gray. With only two eyes. Okay, I understand giving her six or eight eyes would have been too creepy. Anyway, every year in my yard or somewhere around my house, especially toward the end of summer or in early fall when they’ve gotten big and are ready to lay their eggs, I find at least one Aranea cavatica. One year there was one on the old television antenna up on the roof, and I wondered if she picked up signals and, if so, how often she wished I’d change the channel. I like to think of them as Charlotte’s great-great-great-great and so on grandchildren, which they may very well be. As much as I love seeing them I always feel a little sad about it. Or maybe more than a little sad, especially when I find them after they’ve built and filled their egg sacs, and are too tired to feed themselves. I have to admit I can’t be too hard on Wilbur for crying in the face of his own imminent demise because there were very few times when I was a kid that I didn’t bawl my eyes out over the death of Charlotte, whether in the cartoon or the book. It’s all part of nature’s cycle, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that where there’s life there must also be death. As sad as it makes the book though I think any child would feel cheated if Charlotte had lived happily ever after. Even though Wilbur lives to a ripe old age even he doesn’t live forever.
Charlotte used the gifts she had to make the world a better place. Her reward was that she is loved, and unlike so many spiders she doesn’t die alone. And Wilbur does what he can to ensure her legacy. It seems strange for death to be such a major theme of a children’s book, and to be dealt with so bluntly, and, in fact, there were plenty of critics who didn’t like White’s book because of that. In a letter E.B. White said to a friend, "I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing." Needless to say he never actually wrote that book but, you know, if he had I think I’d go back and reread it every few years, and every time I’m sure I’d laugh until I cried.