I had not read Charlotte’s Web (1952) by E. B. White until now! Growing up, my sisters and I always watched the cartoon movie version, which I absolutely love. I’ve seen it well over 100 times. The music is great and the story follows the book closely. I loved it, and now I love the book. In fact, my third-grade daughter had an economics fair at school last week, and she opened her own “store.” We had to choose and provide the items for this store. We ended up getting books, toys, and DVDs for her to sell. One of the books was Charlotte’s Web, but before she could take it to school, I said, “Let’s keep this one!” It is worth keeping and reading and rereading. And it is number 87 on the BBC book list.
The theme that stood out to me has to do with the words that Charlotte uses to help Wilbur. She does it to save him, and in that sense, she is a hero and a saving figure. However, I see the words in two ways. First, they serve to build up Wilbur and label him in order to improve him. What I mean is that we often live up to our labels, and because Charlotte (and Fern first) called Wilbur good things, despite his runty beginning, he lived up to that. That love gave him confidence in himself and good qualities to aspire for. In that sense, the words became self-fulfilling prophecies, inspiring Wilbur to be those things. Because if we are being honest, Wilbur really isn’t all that great by himself. He whines and cries a lot. Yet he becomes better with a vote of confidence from the two women in his life, both Fern and Charlotte. These women serve as mothers to Wilbur. I see a lesson here for mothers, and all parents, including fathers, to label their children with good words and honorable qualities in order to allow those children to live up to those labels. Labeling a child as something negative will do the same.
Second, I see the labels as an uncovering of our gullibility. Just because Wilbur has these positive words associated with him, despite his not really doing anything to be those things, the Zuckermans and the Arables believe it. We often believe anything and everything we see in print, without scrutinizing it for ourselves and thinking through it critically. This can be dangerous, especially in the Information Age, but I want to bring it down to an interpersonal level again, and talk about bullying.
Sometimes we label each other, whether by appearance, socioeconomic status, age, gender, or race, among many other things. When we hear or see these labels, given by somebody else (somebody without authority and often without a brain), we may believe them instead of getting to know the person for ourselves and forming our own opinions. Labels based on hate or outward appearances can be dangerous, and our willingness to believe those labels is not necessarily a good thing. I see Templeton the rat as a champion of this view. Sometimes he is mean to Wilbur, but sometimes he speaks the truth and makes the point that we shouldn’t always be so quick to believe what we see in print (or in a miraculous web) or what we hear people say about others. Charlotte summed this up when she said, “People believe almost anything they see in print.” She uses this knowledge of human nature to her advantage and to save Wilbur.
The community of animals in the barn shows this dynamic, and they seem to represent human society. It also reminded me of my three-year-old’s favorite book right now, Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown. It is a delightful board book with large colorful pictures of all of the animals who live in the barn. It is accompanied by a simple rhyming narrative and exquisite details in the drawings with opportunity for finding small butterflies and counting eggs.
I love the character of Fern. She is a passionate child who loves deeply. My favorite line of hers is, “How can I control myself when this is a matter of life and death?” Yes, how can she? I love this because it reminds us to be passionate about that which moves us, but it also makes me smile when I see how difficult it is for my children to control themselves sometimes. To them, everything can be a matter of life and death.
Wilbur also reminds us to love freely and well. When he is taken from Fern and to the barn, he has trouble adjusting to his new life. It is devoid of love. He is bored and alone. He is languishing because of this lack of attention. He keeps asking the other animals to play with him but they are all too busy. It reminded me to play with my children more and to say “I’m busy” less. Interestingly, Zuckerman’s solution to Wilbur’s depression is to give him more food, an extra meal even. Do we do this to our children? Or ourselves? Do we medicate our loneliness with things that won’t cure it? I know I do.
The solution is love from Charlotte, but also those positive labels to give Wilbur something to aim for. He learns purpose. And from Charlotte we learn the truth of the scripture, John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”