Style E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is a unique coming-of-age tale in that it explores what it means to grow up from two very different points of view: Fern Arable, an eight-year-old girl, and Wilbur, a young spring pig. Fern and Wilbur grow up side-by-side but separated by the divide between the human world and the animal world. Nevertheless, they face many of the same challenges and fears as they come into their own: loneliness, fear of death, fear of change, and the struggle for connection with those around them. Through Fern and Wilbur’s twinned stories, White argues that though growing up can be painful and uncertain, there is beauty and hope in the process of learning, growing older, and moving on from one’s childhood.
From the moment Fern rescues Wilbur, the runt of his litter, from being slaughtered, the two are fast friends. As a year in their very different—but in many ways similar—lives go by, Fern and Wilbur’s parallel experiences show how each of them are starting to grow up and come into their own. The things they see, do, and feel change them a little bit every day, and by the end of the novel, both characters are wiser in the ways of the world. At the start of the novel, Fern Arable is eight years old. Very much still a child, she experiences intense emotions and a vivid fantasy life. As the novel progresses, Fern’s ability to hear the animals speak—and her willingness to share the “conversations” she overhears with her family—signal that she is young at heart, and even serve to worry her mother Mrs. Arable that Fern isn’t progressing or growing up at the right pace. Mrs. Arable visits with the town doctor, Dr. Dorian, and the man tells her that everything will be fine; Fern will grow up in her own time. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” the man says: “Let Fern associate with her friends in the barn if she wants to […] It’s amazing how children change from year to year.” By the novel’s end, the excitement of the county fair has drawn Fern out of herself a bit, and allowed her to interact with other children her own age—notably her classmate Henry Fussy, on whom she seems to develop a bit of a crush. As Fern has spent the better part of her year alongside Wilbur at the Zuckermans’ barnyard, learning the same lessons about friendship, community, and mortality as he learns, she has indeed grown up significantly—she is ready to begin to take her place in the world, and to relinquish some of the crutches of her childhood. The Fern who was so overemotional that she couldn’t bear the thought of a piglet going to slaughter has now gained an education in the ways of the natural world and the human one as well, and is ready to take them all in stride.
Wilbur is a newborn at the start of the novel, and over the course of the story—which follows roughly a year in his life—he matures from defenseless, pampered piglet into a “terrific” and “humble” pig whose kindness, empathy, and zeal for life are apparent to all who meet him. When Wilbur first arrives on the Zuckerman farm, he still has a lot to learn—he is skittish, overemotional, judgmental, and often impolite without meaning to be. He has trouble making friends and suffers a good deal of loneliness and insecurity. In other words, Wilbur is a child. As his friendship with the wise, thoughtful Charlotte deepens—and he learns from her lessons of life, death, friendship, and sacrifice, as well as the importance of self-awareness and self-assurance—he does indeed experience a kind of coming-of-age. Wilbur becomes more confident after winning a special prize at the county fair, and learns that there are things more important than his own enjoyment of life: when he realizes that Charlotte is dying, he does everything in his power to ensure that her egg sac will make it back from the fairgrounds to the barn intact, though the maneuver requires teamwork, self-sacrifice, and patience. By the novel’s end, Wilbur is still the same sensitive and dramatic pig he was in his “youth.” Even though he has suffered fear, loss, pain, rejection, and worry, he has come to see that on the other side of his tumultuous first year, there is peace, wisdom, and joy. As he looks around the farmyard, he sees the “glory” of the world around him and feels content, though his “childhood” and innocence are behind him forever.
As Fern and Wilbur “grow up” over the course of the novel, White celebrates the simple joys of childhood both practical and emotional: for both Fern and Wilbur, frolicking in the fields, eating wild fruits and berries, and engaging in physical play are as emblematic of childhood as are tears, self-pity, and squeamishness at any mention of death or suffering. By the end of the novel, both Fern and Wilbur have grown up quite a great deal—though they’re still young, they are ready to move on from the comforts of their respective childhoods and use the wisdom they’ve gleaned to see the world through fresh, mature eyes.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in Charlotte’s Web
“You mean you eat flies?” gasped Wilbur.
“Certainly. […] I have to live, don’t I? […] Of course, I don’t really eat them. I drink them—drink their blood. I love blood,” said Charlotte, and her pleasant, thin voice grew even thinner and more pleasant.
“Don’t say that!” groaned Wilbur. “Please don’t say things like that!”
“Why not? It’s true, and I have to say what is true. I am not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made. A spider has to pick up a living somehow or other, and I happen to be a trapper. I just naturally build a web and trap flies and other in sects. My mother was a trapper before me. Her mother was a trapper before her. All our family have been trappers. Way back for thousands and thousands of years we spiders have been laying for flies and bugs.”
“It’s a miserable inheritance,” said Wilbur, gloomily. He was sad because his new friend was so bloodthirsty.
“Well, you can’t talk,” said Charlotte. “You have your meals brought to you in a pail. Nobody feeds me. I have to get my own living. I live by my wits. I have to be sharp and clever, lest I go hungry. I have to think things out, catch what I can, take what comes. And it just so happens, my friend, that what comes is flies and insects and bugs. And furthermore,” said Charlotte, shaking one of her legs, “do you realize that if I didn’t catch bugs and eat them, bugs would increase and multiply and get so numerous that they’d destroy the earth, wipe out everything?”
“Really?” said Wilbur. “I wouldn’t want that to happen. Perhaps your web is a good thing after all.”
One afternoon, when Fern was sitting on her stool, the oldest sheep walked into the barn, and stopped to pay a call on Wilbur.
“Hello!” she said. “Seems to me you’re putting on weight.”
“Yes, I guess I am,” replied Wilbur. “At my age it’s a good idea to keep gaining.”
“Just the same, I don’t envy you,” said the old sheep. “You know why they’re fattening you up, don’t you?”
“No,” said Wilbur.
“Well, I don’t like to spread bad news,” said the sheep, “but they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you, that’s why.”
“They’re going to what?” screamed Wilbur. Fern grew rigid on her stool.
“Kill you. Turn you into smoked bacon and ham,” continued the old sheep.
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.”
“I worry about Fern,” [Mrs. Arable] said. “Did you hear the way she rambled on about the animals, pretending that they talked?”
Mr. Arable chuckled. “Maybe they do talk,” he said. “I’ve sometimes wondered. At any rate, don’t worry about Fern—she’s just got a lively imagination. Kids think they hear all sorts of things.”
“Just the same, I do worry about her,” replied Mrs. Arable. “I think I shall ask Dr. Dorian about her the next time I see him. He loves Fem almost as much as we do, and I want him to know how queerly she is acting about that pig and everything. I don’t think it’s nor mal. You know perfectly well animals don’t talk.”
Mr. Arable grinned. “Maybe our ears aren’t as sharp as Fern’s,” he said.
On Sunday the church was full. The minister explained the miracle. He said that the words on the spider’s web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.
All in all, the Zuckermans’ pigpen was the center of attraction. Fern was happy, for she felt that Charlotte’s trick was working and that Wilbur’s life would be saved. But she found that the barn was not nearly as pleasant—too many people. She liked it better when she could be all alone with her friends the animals.
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.”
“Do you think she’ll ever start thinking about something besides pigs and sheep and geese and spiders?”
“How old is Fern?”
“Well,” said Dr. Dorian, “I think she will always love animals. But I doubt that she spends her entire life in Homer Zuckerman’s barn cellar. How about boys— does she know any boys?”
“She knows Henry Fussy,” said Mrs. Arable brightly.
Dr. Dorian closed his eyes again and went into deep thought. “Henry Fussy,” he mumbled. “Hmm. Remarkable. Well, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Let Fern associate with her friends in the bam if she wants to. I would say, offhand, that spiders and pigs were fully as interesting as Henry Fussy. Yet I predict that the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern’s attention. It’s amazing how children change from year to year.”
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.
“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.