Throughout Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White swings back and forth between the human world and the animal world with supreme ease. The narrative relays the joys and concerns of its human characters’ lives just as easily as it inhabits and enlivens the inner lives and thoughts of pigs, spiders, and rats. Through the book, White argues that the mysterious workings of the natural world and the lives of animals are just as complex, profound, and worthy of justice, dignity, and respect as human lives.
Though the novel opens in the realm of the human world, the action quickly transitions to the animal world when Wilbur the pig goes to stay on the Zuckerman farm. There, his interactions with the other barnyard animals are at turns tender and tenuous. As Wilbur learns how to get along on the farm, his every emotion and observation is given just as much weight as the feelings of the human characters in the novel—if not even more. The animals on the Zuckerman farm are, in White’s careful hands, tenderly anthropomorphized. They have memories, feelings, and concerns that expand beyond the bounds of instinct and survival. For instance, Wilbur “faints” whenever anyone around him talks about matters too painful for him to conceive of, such as his own possible slaughter. Though White uses the novel to normalize death in the natural world, he also shows that animals value their lives and long to protect them just as intensely as humans do—Wilbur’s exaggerated, funny fainting spells show his sensitivity, and demonstrate that even though he’s a dirty pig who loves eating slop and rooting in manure, he has a delicate disposition. In another humorous instance, when Charlotte points out a nervous gander’s tendency to repeat his words several times, the gander replies, “It’s my idio-idio-idiosyncrasy.” Instances like this show that the animals have distinct personalities complete with points of pride and insecurities alike. While this kind of thinking is exaggerated in the animals for comedic effect, and to make them feel more familiar to White’s young readers, his effort in giving the animals deep inner worlds shows his reverence for the lives of animals and the ways in which they experience the world that they share with their human counterparts.
When Charlotte plots to show the humans how important and special Wilbur is in order to convince them to keep him alive rather than slaughter him for meat, White is consciously engaging in a kind of wish-fulfillment: if only animals could make their case for their own lives, and express to their human owners how “terrific,” “humble,” or otherwise spectacular, strange, and wonderful they are. His own reverence for the natural world is reflected in his animal characters’ desire to broadcast their innate worth to the humans around them. Charlotte’s loving descriptions of Wilbur, embroidered in the gossamer threads of her webs, are designed to shake the humans from their complacency and force them to think about what animals truly are capable of. Though the humans debate back and forth whether a spider really could spell, or whether a pig really could be “humble,” by the end of the novel their worldview is indeed altered: they understand that animals, and nature more widely, are often overlooked and decided for. The humans appreciate the animals around them more deeply because of Charlotte’s messages—this is evidenced in the Zuckermans’ choice to keep Wilbur alive, and in the county fair judges’ decision to award Wilbur a special prize and point out how his special story has enriched all their lives by giving them a touching tale to hold on to (not to mention a boost to the local economy through the droves of people who have come to the fair for a look at the “terrific” pig.)
White’s reverence for the natural world is clear not just in his descriptions of the anthropomorphized animal characters which populate his novel, but even in his writing about the birds in the background, with their distinct and beautiful cries, his images of swaying summer grasses and ripe berries full of bugs, and his musings on the ways in which the natural world must unfortunately often exist at the mercy of humans. In imbuing noisy pigs, creepy spiders, and fearsome rats with fears, hopes, and dreams, White demonstrates the dignity in all life—not just human life—and attempts to impart to his young readers the inherent worth of all nature’s creations.
The Natural World ThemeTracker
The Natural World 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.
“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.”
Now that school was over, Fern visited the barn almost every day, to sit quietly on her stool. The animals treated her as an equal. The sheep lay calmly at her feet.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.