Despite being a children’s book, Charlotte’s Web also has many important lessons to teach on the subject of mortality. E.B. White infuses the novel with happy moments of friendship, play, and the beauty of the natural world, while also communicating frightening lessons about sacrifice, growing up, and, most acutely, the idea of death as a necessary, normal part of life. Through the lives of his animal characters, E.B. White shows his young readers that though life is fleeting, its finite nature is actually a beautiful thing, ultimately arguing that without death and loss, there can be no rebirth or new growth.
Though a novel for children, Charlotte’s Web announces itself from its very first lines as a book very much concerned with the practicalities of death and dying. White, writing about life on two neighboring farms in the American countryside, starkly portrays death as a natural and necessary part of life several times throughout the novel. The novel opens with the young Fern Arable watching her father head out to the shed with an ax in hand. When she asks what he plans to do with it, her mother tells her that he’s going to slaughter the runt of their sow’s newborn litter, as it’s too small to thrive or even survive. Outraged, Fern chases after her father and begs him not to kill the animal—she is emotional at the thought of death and violence and tells her father she’ll sacrifice her own time and energy to care for the pig rather than let him die. That the novel’s narrative roots lie in its main character’s close brush with death at birth sets up the idea that Wilbur will encounter the fact of death several more times as the novel progresses. Indeed, that is what comes to pass as White continues to demonstrate that death is a natural part of life; although death can be sad and frightening, the rebirth it makes room for is beautiful and sustaining.
The novel’s next brush with mortality and the circle of life comes shortly after Wilbur meets his new friend Charlotte the spider at the Zuckerman farm. One of the first things Charlotte does after meeting Wilbur is show him how she kills her prey: she rather blithely demonstrates how she wraps up a fly in her web, injects him with an anesthetic, and them consumes him. Though Wilbur is horrified by Charlotte’s “love [of] blood,” she insists her way of life is necessary: if she didn’t catch and eat bugs, they’d “increase and multiply” and eventually destroy the earth. Upon hearing this, Wilbur decides that perhaps Charlotte’s web “is a good thing after all.” Wilbur, having narrowly escaped an early, unfair death himself, is sensitive to the topic. He becomes faint when he hears Charlotte talking about the practicalities of her own survival—but is heartened when he realizes that her contribution to the circle of life helps make room for lovely things to grow and thrive, and for the world to flourish.
The novel’s heartbreaking climax arrives when Charlotte—her short life span coming to a close as summer ends and fall descends—chooses to spend her final days helping her friend Wilbur to secure his own safety by proving his worth as a prize pig. Charlotte knows that her days are coming to an end, but repeatedly shows through her words and her actions that she accepts her impending death with grace and determination to make the most of the time she has left. Though Wilbur is devastated to lose Charlotte, she has prepared him—as, perhaps White hoped, she would prepare his young readers—to face the devastation of death with clear eyes, acceptance, and gratitude rather than anger, misery, and pain. Wilbur himself has been saved from an early death, but is perhaps better prepared to bear witness to the circle of life in his remaining years because of the lessons that Charlotte has taught him. Moreover, Charlotte gives Wilbur something to take back to the farm as she lies dying at the fair—an egg sac filled with the eggs that will soon hatch into her children. Charlotte’s death means the end of her physical life—but her legacy will live on both through Wilbur’s memories of her and through the many children she is sending out into the world. Most of Charlotte’s children leave the barn soon after hatching, but three—Nellie, Joy, and Aranea—stay behind to live with Wilbur. The circle of life goes on, as the barn—and the wider world—remains a place of continual renewal and rebirth.
Though Charlotte’s Web focuses on mature themes, such the frightening fact that death comes for all living things, White softens the heavy topic by pointing out that the other side of death is rebirth. Just as the seasons change from winter to spring, enlivening the world with new buds, new lambs, new goslings, and new birds, so too does Wilbur’s view of life flourish when he sees the natural order in earnest, unafraid and accepting of whatever is to come.
Mortality and Rebirth ThemeTracker
Mortality and Rebirth 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.”
“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.”
“What happened to the other egg? Why didn’t it hatch?”
“It’s a dud, I guess,” said the goose.
“What are you going to do with it?” continued Templeton, his little round beady eyes fixed on the goose.
“You can have it,” replied the goose. “Roll it away and add it to that nasty collection of yours.” (Templeton had a habit of picking up unusual objects around the farm and storing them in his home. He saved everything.)
“Certainly-ertainly-ertainly,” said the gander. “You may have the egg. But I’ll tell you one thing, Templeton, if I ever catch you poking-oking-oking your ugly nose around our goslings, I’ll give you the worst pounding a rat ever took.” And the gander opened his strong wings and beat the air with them to show his power. He was strong and brave, but the truth is, both the goose and the gander were worried about Templeton. And with good reason. The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it—the goose knew that. Everybody knew it.
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.”
“Hey, look at that big spider!” [Avery] said. “It’s tremenjus.”
“Leave it alone!” commanded Fern. “You’ve got a frog—isn’t that enough?”
“That’s a fine spider and I’m going to capture it,” said Avery. He took the cover off the candy box. Then he picked up a stick. “I’m going to knock that ol’ spider into this box,” he said.
Wilbur’s heart almost stopped when he saw what was going on. This might be the end of Charlotte if the boy succeeded in catching her.
“You stop it, Avery!” cried Fern.
Avery put one leg over the fence of the pigpen. He was just about to raise his stick to hit Charlotte when he lost his balance. He swayed and toppled and landed on the edge of Wilbur’s trough. The trough tipped up and then came down with a slap. The goose egg was right underneath. There was a dull explosion as the egg broke, and then a horrible smell.
“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.