One morning, as Fern Arable and her mother Mrs. Arable are setting the table for breakfast, Fern’s father Mr. Arable heads out to the hoghouse with an ax. When Fern asks why he’s bringing the weapon along, Mrs. Arable explains that a litter of pigs was born last night, and Mr. Arable is going outside to “do away” with the runt. Fern is angry and indignant, and though her mother tries to comfort her by telling her that the small pig would die anyway, Fern follows her father outside and tries to wrestle the ax from his hands as she cries. Mr. Arable protests that “a weakling makes trouble,” but Fern begs Mr. Arable to be fair. She asks if her father would have killed her if she had been born little, and Mr. Arable tries to explain that “a little girl is one thing, [but] a little runty pig is another.”
The novel opens with a strikingly stark and practical examination of life and death. Mr. Arable sees death as necessary and unremarkable, but to Fern, the idea of taking life from a living thing is a horrible injustice. Fern’s commitment to honoring animal lives as deeply as human ones is a proxy for E.B. White’s thematic message about the beauty of natural world and the dignity of all life.
Fern says she sees no difference between a girl and a pig, and suddenly a strange look comes over her father’s face. Mr. Arable softens, and agrees to let the runt live—if Fern promises to take care of it and feed it from a bottle, “like a baby.” Fern heads back up to the house, and a while later, Mr. Arable brings in a carton containing the runt. Fern loves the pig at first sight, even though her brother Avery makes fun of it for being as small as a rat. Fern feeds the pig his bottle of milk before eating her own breakfast.
Fern is devoted entirely to the piglet and even puts its needs before her own. Even though everyone else sees the animal only as a scrawny runt, Fern is almost reverent in her care and attention towards it, giving the pig the dignity and love she knows it deserves.
The school bus arrives, and Fern and Avery run out to the road to meet it. On the way to school, Fern is so lost in her “blissful” thoughts about her new pig that she hardly notices anyone or anything else. She decides to name the pig Wilbur—“the most beautiful name she [can] think of”—and daydreams about what life with him will be like all day long.
Fern is in love with her new little pig—she is unfocused on and uninterested in the human world, and much more devoted to the natural world and its creatures.