E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web centers around the tender, life-changing friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte. Fittingly, the book’s central theme is friendship—specifically the ways in which true friendship often involves self-sacrifice. Throughout his classic children’s novel about the sacredness of kindness, love, and solidarity, White uses the many different kinds of friendships at the heart of the story to suggest that the rarest and truest of friends are those who are willing to put their hopes, dreams, and even their lives on the line for the ones they love.
There are many different kinds of friendships to be found within the pages of Charlotte’s Web, and through the two central friendships Wilbur the pig experiences—with Fern Arable and with Charlotte the spider—White demonstrates the ways in which friendship and self-sacrifice can often go hand-in-hand. Wilbur and Fern’s friendship begins when Fern, an eight-year-old girl, stops her father from unfairly killing the runt of their sow’s newest litter. Fern feeds the newborn Wilbur from a bottle, gives him carriage rides alongside her favorite dolls, and makes sure his every need is met. Their friendship is a true one, but because Fern is Wilbur’s first and only friend, he doesn’t know yet how very lucky he is to have her—or how her friendship literally saved him. Fern has to adjust her own routines and responsibilities to make room for Wilbur in her life—a sacrifice she willingly undertakes as she bottle-feeds him three or four times each day and spends the heady first days of spring caring for Wilbur rather than frolicking with her brother Avery and their friends. Though Wilbur’s friendship with Fern will grow and change as the novel progresses, the fact that she loved him, stuck up for him, and used her voice to help him when he had none—sacrificing her time, her care, and her other friendships for his well-being—is a dynamic that will be repeated in Wilbur’s friendship with Charlotte.
When Wilbur gets too big to be kept in the house, Mr. and Mrs. Arable force Fern to sell Wilbur for six dollars to their neighbors and family, the Zuckermans. As Wilbur moves to the Zuckerman farm, he goes through a major adjustment period. Fern visits most days, but can’t be with Wilbur all the time, and he feels her absence profoundly even as he begins to enjoy his new routines. Surrounded everywhere by new animals but unable to make true friends with the gossipy geese, the standoffish sheep, or the conniving barn rat Templeton, Wilbur despairs that he’ll never have a true friend again—until a friendly spider’s voice in the dark whispers to him and tells him not to be afraid. When Wilbur meets the astute, practical, and inventive Charlotte, he feels rescued from loneliness. Wilbur loves Charlotte so much that he tries to emulate her by tying a string to his tail in hopes of spinning a web just like hers, and he hangs on her every word as she shares stories of her adventurous cousins and their spidery hijinks. Wilbur is devoted to Charlotte entirely, and when news arrives that Homer Zuckerman plans to slaughter Wilbur for meat at Christmastime, Charlotte knows she has to defend her friend. Though the conception and execution of her master plan—to spin into her webs impressive words which glorify Wilbur in the hopes of signaling to the farmers how special and deserving of life Wilbur is—wears Charlotte out both physically and emotionally, she sacrifices her own well-being for Wilbur. Her final act is to help him secure a special prize at the county fair by spinning one of her special webs from scratch there—too weak to return to the barn, having sacrificed the last bits of strength in her short life for Wilbur’s security, Charlotte sends Wilbur home with the eggs she’s laid, and dies alone on the fairgrounds.
In the novel’s final pages, White shows Wilbur adjusting to life on the farm without Charlotte. When the egg sac hatches one day and Charlotte’s children are born, Wilbur is happy—but when most of them balloon away on the wind, he is disheartened. Three of Charlotte’s daughters, though, stay behind, and as Wilbur introduces himself to them he makes this pledge: “I was devoted to your mother. I owe my very life to her. She was brilliant, beautiful, and loyal to the end. I shall always treasure her memory. To you, her daughters, I pledge my friendship, forever and ever.” Wilbur’s devotion to Charlotte’s daughters shows that he is willing to repay his debt to her by offering her daughters the same attention, respect, and devotion that she always showed to him.
Through Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White shows that is a rare and beautiful thing to find someone who is willing to use their own talent, time, and effort to help or defend a friend in need. For the rest of his life, Wilbur remembers his special friendship with Charlotte fondly and humbly—and his gratitude to her for the sacrifices she made on his behalf during her short life enhances “the glory of everything” around him.
Friendship and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Friendship and Sacrifice Quotes in Charlotte’s Web
“Fern,” said Mr. Arable, “I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!”
“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”
Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another.”
“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”
A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.
“All right,” he said. “You go back to the house and 1will bring the runt when I come in. I’ll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you’ll see what trouble a pig can be.”
Every morning after breakfast, Wilbur walked out to the road with Fern and waited with her till the bus came. She would wave good-bye to him, and he would stand and watch the bus until it vanished around a turn. While Fern was in school, Wilbur was shut up inside his yard. But as soon as she got home in the afternoon, she would take him out and he would follow her around the place. If she went into the house, Wilbur went, too. If she went upstairs, Wilbur would wait at the bottom step until she came down again. If she took her doll for a walk in the doll carriage, Wilbur followed along. Sometimes, on these journeys, Wilbur would get tired, and Fern would pick him up and put him in the carriage alongside the doll. He liked this. And if he was very tired, he would close his eyes and go to sleep under the doll’s blanket. He looked cute when his eyes were closed, because his lashes were so long. The doll would close her eyes, too, and Fern would wheel the carriage very slowly and smoothly so as not to wake her infants.
Wilbur burst into tears. “I don’t want to die,” he moaned. “I want to stay alive, right here in my comfortable manure pile with all my friends. I want to breathe the beautiful air and lie in the beautiful sun.”
“You’re certainly making a beautiful noise,” snapped the old sheep.
“I don’t want to die!” screamed Wilbur, throwing himself to the ground.
“You shall not die,” said Charlotte, briskly.
“What? Really?” cried Wilbur. “Who’s going to save me?”
“I am,” said Charlotte.
“How?” asked Wilbur.
“That remains to be seen. But I am going to save you, and I want you to quiet down immediately. You’re carrying on in a childish way. Stop your crying! I can’t stand hysterics.”
There, in the center of the web, neatly woven in block letters, was a message. It said: SOME PIG!
Lurvy felt weak. He brushed his hand across his eyes and stared harder at Charlotte’s web. “I’m seeing things,” he whispered. He dropped to his knees and uttered a short prayer. Then, forgetting all about Wilbur’s breakfast, he walked back to the house and called Mr. Zuckerman.
“I think you’d better come down to the pigpen,” he said.
Zuckerman stared at the writing on the web. Then he murmured the words “Some Pig.” Then he looked at Lurvy. Then they both began to tremble. Charlotte, sleepy after her night’s exertions, smiled as she watched.
Wilbur came and stood directly under the web.
“Some pig!” muttered Lurvy in a low voice.
“Some pig!” whispered Mr. Zuckerman.
“Run around!” commanded Charlotte. “I want to see you in action, to see if you are radiant.”
Wilbur raced to the end of his yard.
“Now back again, faster!” said Charlotte.
Wilbur galloped back. His skin shone. His tail had a fine, tight curl in it.
“Jump into the air!” cried Charlotte.
Wilbur jumped as high as he could.
“Keep your knees straight and touch the ground with your ears!” called Charlotte.
“Do a back flip with a half twist in it!” cried Charlotte.
Wilbur went over backwards, writhing and twisting.
“O.K., Wilbur,” said Charlotte. “You can go back to sleep. O.K., Templeton, the soap ad will do, I guess. I’m not sure Wilbur’s action is exactly radiant, but it’s interesting.”
“Actually,” said Wilbur, “I feel radiant.”
“Do you?” said Charlotte, looking at him with affection. “Well, you’re a good little pig, and radiant you shall be.”
“What are you doing up there, Charlotte?”
“Oh, making something,” she said. “Making something, as usual.”
“Is it something for me?” asked Wilbur.
“No,” said Charlotte. “It’s something for me, for a change.”
“Please tell me what it is,” begged Wilbur.
“I’ll tell you in the morning,” she said. “When the first light comes into the sky and the sparrows stir and the cows rattle their chains, when the rooster crows and the stars fade, when early cars whisper along the highway, you look up here and I’ll show you something. I will show you my masterpiece.”
The Zuckermans and the Arables stared at the tag. Mrs. Zuckerman began to cry. Nobody said a word. They just stared at the tag. Then they stared at Uncle. Then they stared at the tag again. Lurvy took out an enormous handkerchief and blew his nose very loud— so loud, in fact, that the noise was heard by stableboys over at the horse barn.
“Can I have some money?” asked Fern. “I want to go out on the midway.”
“You stay right where you are!” said her mother. Tears came to Fern’s eyes.
“What’s everybody crying about?” asked Mr. Zuckerman. “Let’s get busy! Edith, bring the buttermilk!”
Mrs. Zuckerman wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. She went to the truck and came back with a gallon jar of buttermilk.
“Bath time!” said Zuckerman, cheerfully.
“Ladeez and gentlemen,” said the loud speaker, “we now present Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman’s distinguished pig. The fame of this unique animal has spread to the far corners of the earth, attracting many valuable tourists to our great State.”
“This magnificent animal,” continued the loud speaker, “is truly terrific. Look at him, ladies and gentlemen! Note the smoothness and whiteness of the coat, observe the spotless skin, the healthy pink glow of ears and snout.”
“Ladeez and gentlemen,” continued the loud speaker, “I must not take any more of your valuable time. On behalf of the governors of the Fair, I have the honor of awarding a special prize of twenty-five dollars to Mr. Zuckerman, together with a handsome bronze medal suitably engraved, in token of our appreciation of the part played by this pig—this radiant, this terrific, this humble pig—in attracting so many visitors to our great County Fair.”
“Why did you do all this for me?” [Wilbur] asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
He carefully took the little bundle in his mouth and held it there on top of his tongue. He remembered what Charlotte had told him—that the sac was waterproof and strong. It felt funny on his tongue and made him drool a bit. And of course he couldn’t say anything. But as he was being shoved into the crate, he looked up at Charlotte and gave her a wink. She knew he was saying good-bye in the only way he could. And she knew her children were safe.
“Good-bye!” she whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him. She never moved again. 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.
As time went on, and the months and years came and went, [Wilbur] was never without friends. Fern did not come regularly to the barn any more. She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen. But Charlotte’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, year after year, lived in the doorway. Each spring there were new little spiders hatching out to take the place of the old. Most of them sailed away, on their balloons. But always two or three stayed and set up housekeeping in the doorway.
Mr. Zuckerman took fine care of Wilbur all the rest of his days, and the pig was often visited by friends and admirers, for nobody ever forgot the year of his triumph and the miracle of the web. Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything. Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.