Charlotte’s Webb is a story that most people will be aware of, even if they’ve never read it, thanks to it having become one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time. But what makes a story about a friendship between a pig and a spider stand out as something worthy of praise, and love, seven decades after it was first published?
Prior to the release of Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White was no stranger to the world of writing, having published a number of successful articles in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, attracting attention for his witty way with words, and for making the most unusual subjects accessible to casual readers. But it was in children’s fiction writing that he found the most notoriety, having already published Stewart Little in 1945. Whilst that is a name that would go on to become incredibly well known, it wasn’t as well received when it was first published. It would be his second children’s book, Charlotte’s Web that would find him the most fame.
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Charlotte’s Web tells the story of a small pig named Wilbur, who’s adopted by a young girl named Fern after she sees he’s the runt of the litter. Fern cares for Wilbur, and nurses him to health, but after a short while he’s grown too big, and is sold to Fern’s uncle, farmer Homer Zuckerman. Zuckerman puts Wilbur into one of the barns on his farm, and plans to fatten the pig up in order to slaughter him. Wilbur soon makes friends with Charlotte, a small spider who lived in the doorway to the barn, who hears of the farmer’s plan to slaughter Wilbur, and promises to find a way to save the young pig.
Charlotte comes up with an idea that she believes may say Wilbur, and writes a message into her web that says ‘some pig’. Zuckerman sees the writing, and as word spreads of the ‘miracle’ words, the barn, and Wilbur, become an attraction as people journey there to see it. As the excitement over Wilbur begins to die down, Charlotte writes a new word, ‘Terrific’. This again brings attention to Wilbur, and delays Zuckerman’s plans to kill him. After a third word, ‘radiant’, appears, Zuckerman decides to enter Wilbur into the country fair.
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Charlotte journeys with Wilbur in order to keep the pig company, and the two of them arrive at the fair, where Wilbur fails to win the top prize. However, he is given a special award by the judges, which prompts Charlotte to write the message ‘humble’. Charlotte tells Wilbur that the prize means that Zuckerman won’t take Wilbur to slaughter now, as he’d want to keep an award-winning pig. She also tells Wilbur that that would be her final message, as she’s close to dying of old age, and does not intend to return to the farm with her friend. However, she does give Wilbur her egg sack, and asks him to take her children with him. Back at the farm, Charlotte’s children eventually hatch, and whilst most of them leave the barn, three remain behind to live with Wilbur, and he takes care of each new generation of Charlotte’s children, as she once took care of him.
One of the things that instantly wins people over to Charlotte’s Web once they’ve read it is the ending. The brief summary of the plot I’ve given only goes some way to putting across how surprisingly emotional a story this tale of a pig and his spider friend is, but it’s honestly quite devastating when you realise that Charlotte is about to die after she saves Wilbur, and that there’s nothing that can be done for her. And Charlotte’s Web might contain one of the most emotionally devastating sentences I’ve read in any book, let alone a children’s book: “No one was with her when she died”. I’m an arachnophobe who hates spiders, but that made even me cry.
But the book isn’t just about death, as it contains wonderful messages about life, about helping those around you, and of the importance of friendship and found family. The book is filled with themes that will not only appeal to younger readers, imparting important messages, but will allow adult readers to find something with more depth and weight than a simple child’s story.
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And this is part of the reason why the book was so well received when it was released. The novel was seen as a story that appealed to readers of all ages, and received high praise in publications such as The New York Times, and the book would go on to receive the Newbery Honour from the American Library Association. Over the years, the book continued to sell well, and it’s estimated to have sold more than 45 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. It has been adapted to audio more than once, and even received a live-action movie adaptation in 2006, which also got a video-game tie-in. It’s been included in lists of the 200 best-loved novels by the BBC.
Charlotte’s Web is a story that has lasted the years because it’s open to all readers, because it has a strong emotional core, and because of the themes and messages woven into it. It has helped to teach children about death, and how it’s a part of life. And thanks to White’s short story Death of a Pig, in which he reveals his own story of trying to save a sick pig bought for slaughter, we can see Charlotte’s Web as his attempt to save a pig, even if only in his writing, as that death in his own childhood shaped the man he would become.
Charlotte’s Web was first published on 15th October 1952.