The Writing Is on the Web

With the unfolding of spring comes a renewed awareness and appreciation for life. It is peculiar, though, how the observation of life, birth, and the rounds of nature’s dance can lead to the contemplation of death. Resurrection requires that life conclude before it may rise again. Spring can, as a result, be solemn even as it sings. April showers tell of the tears in things. Robert Frost’s poetry provides beautiful yet brutal expression of this psychological and spiritual paradox:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Though the verdure of the stirring earth brings the heartening promise of prosperity, its new-born vigor is as doomed as is every newborn. Part of the unspoken beauty of spring, no doubt, is the ephemeral quality that rules the world. The writing has been on the wall ever since Belshazzar’s feast. There are poets and storytellers who can read it well, even as they write their own words with an Easter optimism, capturing the wonder of life’s revolutions together with the death that gives meaning to life. Charlotte’s Web(1952) by E.B. White (1899-1985) is one of these works: a work of springtime, of childhood delight, of mystery and simplicity—and one that allows death to play its inevitable part in the drama of life.

Charlotte’s Web is a good book because E.B. White had a good imagination. His storytelling shows that imagination can be fantastic without losing its connection with truth. Everyday truth, as the barn demonstrates, is fantastic, and the healthy imagination emphasizes and embellishes the fantastical truth of things. The whole point of the imagination, therefore, is to draw out and augment the inherent symbology of things, giving real objects a representation that is not seen in reality, but sensed as integral to their nature. As Chesterton put it, the function of imagination is “not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”

Consider, for instance, the imaginative pattern that wolves are wicked, donkeys dumb, and lions regal. This is not simply an imaginative convention, but an imaginative concordance based in reality ever since Æsop. In following this intuition of the suggestiveness of and in things, E.B. White makes the gander silly, the rat sleazy, and the spider artful. He knew that the imagination presides over an invisible aspect of the visible world, bringing the unreal into play without denying reality; and this is precisely why Charlotte’s Web is so universally accepted and beloved by children who can see the world as well as Mr. White could.

Every child respects Charlotte’s Web deeply because of its honesty. E.B. White’s introduction in his peerless narration is entirely expressive of his frank, New Yorker approach: “This is a story of the barn. I wrote it for children and to amuse myself. It is called Charlotte’s Web and I will read it to you.” Terrific. Children dislike literature that has, as Keats said, “a palpable design.” The point of children’s literature is not to impose any literary scheme upon children, but to allow children to encounter things in literature as they are on their own.

Charlotte’s Web is just such a story, a story that leaves children alone to look and listen, even when it is hard. It is a story of the barn, of the farm, of growing up, of joy and fear, of life and death. Nothing more. Charlotte’s Web presents a grounded yet whimsical representation of the miracles of nature, providing both the good and the gritty elements that allow children to decide for themselves what is wonderful and what is not.

With sturdy yet graceful illustrations by Garth Williams, White introduces his readers and listeners to “some pig” named Wilbur, a girl named Fern, and a spider named Charlotte. Though Wilbur and Charlotte can talk, together with all the barnyard animals, Charlotte’s Web is not a story of fantasy or faery or beast fable. It is, as White says, a story of the barn and it presents tremendous mysteries with the blunt manner of the barn. Talking animals are presented as straightforwardly as a barn presents life and death.

Rooted as it is in reality, Charlotte’s Web normalizes death especially as a part of life. The whole premise centers on a morbid fact: Wilbur must die to provide Farmer Zuckerman with ham and bacon. Such is life. Such is death. But even as Charlotte, like a spider-sister of the Fates, weaves Wilbur’s salvation by writing praise for the pig in her web, her very web becomes an instrument of life and death—life for the pig she has befriended, and death for every fly that blunders into its strands.

Though Charlotte’s worded web is regarded by all as a miracle and Wilbur becomes a local sensation, the whole affair, extraordinary as it is, stands among the ordinary miracles that define the work and ways of a farm. The barn is well used to miracles, even if they are common miracles, and the story more or less deals with miracles as matters of fact. Like the words Charlotte hangs over Wilbur’s pen, miracles are presented as both humble and radiant.

Mrs. Arable fidgeted. “Fern says the animals talk to each other. Dr. Dorian, do you believe animals talk?” “I never heard one say anything,” he replied. “But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers—I can give you my word on that.”

It is true that children are more attentive to the wonders of the world than grownups, whose growing up has left them too accustomed to mysteries. Here again, Charlotte’s Web writes a message as direct as the messages Charlotte wrote in her web. As life gives way to death, so too does innocence wane as the world loses its luster. When Fern goes with Henry Fussy to ride the Ferris wheel beneath the stars, the voices of the animals fade from her ears and her consciousness. Life cannot help but be punctuated by loss.

The most powerful stroke of Charlotte’s Web is its childlike acknowledgment of this truth with the solemn, glassy-eyed acceptance that children assume when change or tragedy looms over them. Charlotte’s Web is a touchstone of every grownup’s lost innocence as all remember the first time they read of Charlotte’s own death and how their heart grieved. What child did not weep with Wilbur over such a plain statement of death?

Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

For many children, no one was with them when Charlotte died. It was a fact they faced alone in a story of the barn, learning something difficult about the world as they awaited the delightful appearance of Charlotte’s babies out of her mysterious egg sac. Springtime is a similar harbinger of hope that the life all people share will lead to a serene recognition of the reality of life—which must end in death. The writing is on the wall, but there is writing on Charlotte’s web as well.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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