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Literature / Charlotte's Web

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Charlotte's Web is a classic children's novel written by E. B. White (known for such other children's works as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, as well as his adult writings in The New Yorker) and illustrated by Garth Williams.

The work is focused on a young pig named Wilbur, who, being the runt of the litter, is about to be slaughtered by John Arable. His owner's daughter, Fern, manages to save him and she raises him to be a strong, healthy pig. However, this means that he is sent down to a different farm, where he is being grown to be slaughtered for food. Determined to help, his spider friend Charlotte launches a campaign to save him. Reading the words brought to her on scraps from the rat Templeton, she begins weaving a series of words and phrases into her web, including "Radiant," "Terrific" and "Some Pig." Word spreads of these miraculous messages, but will it be enough to save Wilbur?

The novel, first published in 1952, has gained widespread acclaim and fame. It earned a Newbery Honor award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (in conjunction with Stuart Little) and has sold more than 45 million copies.

There was a stage adaptation (personally approved by E. B. White) written in 1983, which was later rewritten into a musical in 1989.

For the Hanna-Barbera adaptation see Charlotte's Web. For the 2006 live-action adaptation, see Charlotte's Web. A new animated series adaptation is in development for HBO Max and Cartoon Network by Sesame Workshop.

A follow-up to the cartoon, Charlottes Web 2 Wilburs Great Adventure, was released in 2003, Direct to Video, to celebrate the 30th anniversary. Nobody involved in the original film worked on it.

Not to be confused with Babe, which also features a pig in a prominent role and many of the same themes, but has no spider character.

Some tropes seen in the book:

  • Animal Lover: Fern Arable loves animals and hangs out with the barn animals nearly every day. She saved Wilbur from being slaughtered at the beginning.
  • Animal Talk: Animals can talk to each other, but not to humans (except for apparently Fern).
  • Annoying Older Sibling: Avery, Fern's rather obnoxious but still good-hearted brother, He tries to catch Charlotte for his collection only to be stopped by the rotten egg breaking.
  • Appetite Equals Health: When Mrs. Arable consults a doctor about Fern, concerned that her interest in spending time with farm animals rather than other children is unhealthy, one of the first things the doctor asks is whether she is eating well, to which Mrs. Arable replies that she has as large an appetite as ever. Also, when Wilbur is Too Unhappy to Be Hungry after he's first sold to the Zuckermans' farm, the humans worry that he might be sick and give him sulfur and molasses as medicine (see Artistic License – Animal Care below).
  • Artistic License – Animal Care: Overlaps with Values Dissonance. In both the 1973 version and the book, Wilbur's refusal to eat earns him a spoonful of sulfur and molasses shoved down his throat. An old mountain cure, this "spring tonic" was believed to wake up the blood after the long winter while also serving as a laxative. Sulfur is actually a nutrient for both animals and human beings but not elemental sulfur. Dosing a pig in this way rather than just increasing the amount he'd get in his food is dangerous.
  • Babies Ever After: Although Charlotte dies and most of her offspring leave the farm, three of her daughters remain. And (in the 2000s film) found a whole dynasty of barn spiders. Also, the ending of the 1973 film brings a host of new babies to the farm animals — even Templeton.
  • Balloon Belly: Templeton, seen in both the original novel's Garth Williams illustrations after the fair.
  • Big Eater: Templeton. It's always by appealing to his fondness for food that the other animals convince him to help them.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Wilbur lives, Charlotte dies soon after the fair. Also Fern doesn't visit Wilbur as often as she used to as she grows up and starts dating Henry Fussy. Yet Charlotte's children live on, and Wilbur is happy to while away the years in the barn with generations of Charlotte's descendants.
  • Bizarre Beverage Use: Wilbur gets bathed in buttermilk.
  • Bribed With Food: Usually the only way to get Templeton to agree to anything.
  • Brutal Honesty: A major theme of both the book, with Charlotte, who says she sees no point in withholding unpleasant information from a friend, representing an especially noble variety of it, and Templeton, who is rather overt about his selfish motives for what he does, representing a rather less-than-noble variety. In the book and animated adaptation, the sheep represents a sort of middle ground, telling Wilbur about what farms do to pigs, while the live action version gives that role to Templeton, bringing his brutal honesty even further.
    Templeton: What? You're going to lie to the future football here? Okay, but it's a sad statement when I'm the most honest guy in the place.
  • Carnivore Confusion: Played with. Charlotte catches and eats insects as humanely as possible, and will defend her need to do this — not just on a personal level, but an ecological one. However, at the end of her life, she delivers the following quote:
    Charlotte: 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The rotten egg which Templeton has been hoarding saves Charlotte's life when Avery accidentally breaks it while trying to catch her.
  • Chickification: Fern comes down with a very abrupt case of this in the novel. She's a nature lover who likes to sit for hours on end, quietly watching and listening to the animals in the barn cellar, and remains so right up until Wilbur's moment of triumph at the fair. At that very instant, she loses interest in the proceedings, begins begging her mother for money so that she can go on a second Ferris wheel ride with Henry Fussy, finally gets it, darts off, and doesn't visit Wilbur as often as she used to.
  • Children Are Tender-Hearted: When Mr. Arable goes to kill Wilbur for being the runt of the litter, Fern stops him and tearfully begs him not to do so. She argues that just because he's a pig, he shouldn't be treated like a lesser being. Mr. Arable is touched and decides to spare Wilbur.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Mr. Zuckerman describes how a message praising his pig has mysteriously appeared in the middle of a spider web, and concludes that they have "no ordinary pig." His wife disagrees:
    "Well," said Mrs. Zuckerman, "it seems to me you're a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider."
    "Oh, no," said Zuckerman. "It's the pig that's unusual. It says so, right there in the middle of the web."
  • Cruel to Be Kind: The reason why John sells Wilbur, against Fern's protests. He tells her that it was fine when Wilbur was a baby, but now that he's grown to regular pig size, he can't be a pet anymore. It's better that Fern learns that now as opposed to when Wilbur gets too big to live at their small farm.
  • Dangerous Drowsiness: The eponymous spider becomes listless towards the end, claiming to be too tired to sing Wilbur to sleep. At the very end of the book, she dies.
  • Dark Reprise: In the animated film, Charlotte is dying in a few minutes rather than a few hours. After Wilbur bribes Templeton to move her egg sac to the crate, she sings to him "Mother Earth, Father Time" before her body gives out.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Or Newbery Honor, anyway. Charlotte dies at the fair after making her egg sac and saving Wilbur.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: At one point, Avery tries to knock Charlotte down with a stick and capture her for his collection. He fails, but when Mrs. Arable finds out, she sends him to bed without supper.
  • Disappeared Dad: Charlotte has 514 children and their father is neither mentioned nor seen. Given the courtship habits of Araneus cavaticus, this is probably for the best.
  • Down on the Farm: The Zuckerman's Farm is the main setting of the story but early on Wilbur is born on the Arable farm.
  • Dying Alone: Charlotte, left behind at the fair as she is too weak even to climb down to Wilbur's crate. Defied in the animated film, where she dies singing to Wilbur.
  • Faint in Shock: Wilbur is very prone to this. Standout examples include:
  • Food Porn:
    • Double Subverted with the discarded food from the county fair. Not appetizing at first glance but it is if you're a rat. Templeton takes full advantage of it.
    • In the book, the lavish descriptions of Wilbur's slop meals. Never has a mixture of milk, table leftovers and old garbage sounded so appealing.
  • Freudian Slip: Fern accidentally says "Wilbur" when the teacher asks her what the capital of Pennsylvania state is.
  • A Friend in Need: Charlotte's only real motivation for helping Wilbur: he's her friend and he's in danger, so she'll do everything she can to save him.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Fern, at least until she starts to "grow up" and care more about Henry Fussy than animals. Charlotte is also an example... except to the insects she eats.
  • Friendly Neighborhood Spider: The story is about Charlotte, a friendly spider that helps prevent the pig Wilbur from being slaughtered, even giving her own life to save Wilbur's as well being a kind of godmother for the rest of the farm.
  • Happy Rain: Wilbur is the only one who likes the rain.
  • Housepet Pig: Fern is a young girl who saves Wilbur, a pig whose mother couldn't feed him due to having more piglets than nipples, and raises him as her pet. When he grows up, he moves to her uncle and aunt's house, and while they initially want to kill him for food, he eventually becomes their pet.
  • Humans Are Morons: Charlotte operates on the basis that people believe everything they read.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: In the book, Templeton only does the right thing when there's something in it for him.
  • Language Barrier: Humans and animals can't understand each other's noises. Wilbur the Pig has never seen snow and is distraught to find out he is going to be killed and eaten on Christmas, but the humans never realize the stress and fear they're causing him. Luckily for him, Charlotte the Spider knows English and breaks the language barrier by writing words in her web.
  • Legacy Character: All versions of the story note that there were always spiders who lived in Wilbur's sty, and Wilbur accepted the circle of life surrounding him. He never forgot the original, however.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: At one point, Charlotte sings Wilbur a lullaby about "the dung and the dark." It's appropriately sweet, soothing, and just happens to incorporate the fact that Wilbur sleeps in literal cow manure.
  • Magnum Opus: Charlotte describes her egg sac as her magnum opus, the finest thing she has ever made. Or, as it turns out, will ever make, as she dies, as spiders do, shortly after producing it.
  • Mayfly–December Friendship: Wilbur ends up experiencing this with Charlotte, as she ends up passing away just as he's become a full-grown pig.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Fern's surname is Arable, and she lives on a farm. The land on a farm (especially that used in growing crops) is called arable land.
    • Charlotte's full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica. She is also a barn spider, and the scientific name for a barn spider is Araneus cavaticus. When her daughter learns that mother's middle initial was "A", she decides to name herself Aranea.
  • Messy Pig: Type 2—Sanitary Swine. Or as sanitary as he can be, considering he sleeps on an enormous pile of manure. Played with when Wilbur has to go to the fair. The sheep advises Wilbur to struggle with being put in a crate. Wilbur's objection that it'll make him messy (after he'd just had a buttermilk bath by Edith Zuckerman) is overruled by the sheep warning him if he doesn't struggle, they'll assume something is wrong with him and leave him behind.
  • Mistaken for Insane: Fern Speaks Fluent Animal, but her father doesn't realize this, so when she tells him that the animals talk to each other, he thinks she has gone insane.
  • Only Sane Man: In the animated version, Edith Zuckerman is the only human to point out that a spiderweb with "SOME PIG" woven into it is more indicative that the spider is special, not the pig. Her husband immediately dismisses the idea. The live action movie uses a much more logical, realistic answer for this.
    Interviewer: Where's the spider who did all this?
    Homer: Well...we looked everywhere, but we couldn't find one.
    (cue to Wilbur and Charlotte giggling to each other)
  • Parental Bonus:
    • Children learn in the book that people will believe anything they see in print. A subtle satirical Author Tract from Charlotte.
    • In the book, when Charlotte talks about her ancestors, she always talks about females and never about males. Well, this is likely because spider females of many species tend to eat the male right after mating. Now try rereading the ending with this in your head.
  • The Power of Friendship: Charlotte works hard to save Wilbur's life.
  • The Runt at the End: Wilbur. This is why Fern takes a shine to him.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Charlotte (at least from Wilbur's perspective). Likely as not, her vocabulary introduced a lot of young readers to words like "languishing", "radiant", "versatile", and "salutations."
  • Sneaky Spider: A heroic example. Charlotte uses her spider-y powers of deception and manipulation to convince the humans not to butcher Wilbur. She has no malicious intent, plus Wilbur really is "Some Pig," so it's not like she's lying.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Downplayed. Fern is able to understand what the animals are saying when they talk to each other, although she is not shown speaking to them.
  • Speech Impediment: The g-g-goose has a rather pronounced stutter-utter-utter.
  • Stay with Me Until I Die: Inverted; all versions of Wilbur refuse to leave Charlotte when she's dying. He says he'll stay with her, and does in the animated film where she dies onscreen. In the other two, Charlotte tells him that Zuckerman is coming and there's no point putting up a fight to stay one more day; Wilbur reluctantly respects her wishes.
  • Tears of Joy: One of Charlotte's daughters names herself Joy when she sees Wilbur trembling with that same thing.
  • Translation Convention: The animals' dialogue is written in English, but it's made clear they are making their animal sounds In-Universe.
  • Twisted Christmas: Defied by Charlotte, who saves Wilbur from becoming the Christmas dinner.
  • Useless Protagonist: Wilbur, who pretty much does nothing the whole book. It could be argued he's more of a Decoy Protagonist (along with Fern), if you prefer to think of Charlotte as the actual main character. Or that the point of his character arc is his maturing from a passive piglet who needs to be rescued to a proactive, mature pig who ensures the safety of Charlotte's egg sac and watches over her children after her death.
  • Verbal Tic: The geese tend to repeat their own words as they talk.
    Gander: It's my idio-idio-idiosyncracy.
  • We Are as Mayflies: The unspoken reason Charlotte helps Wilbur. She lives only a year, and values the friendship for what little life she will enjoy.
  • What's In It For Me?: It's a continued theme that Templeton repeatedly asks this question, and is repeatedly answered with very strong incentives. One has to wonder why Templeton hasn't learned to expect it. Only twice is Templeton not threatened — and those are the two final times, first with promises of miles of food at the fair, and last of all when Wilbur promises to let him eat first from his trough for the rest of his life in return for bringing him Charlotte's egg sac.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: We're never told exactly where the story takes place, but E. B. White based the Zuckerman farm on his own real-life saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine. The 18th-century farmhouse where he lived still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Name-dropped by Templeton, who prefers just stuffing himself as much as possible to extending his lifespan with a proper diet.
  • Women Are Wiser: Both Edith and Fern notice that the spider is the one writing about Wilbur and that she's special. Fern even points it out in the animated film, praising what Charlotte wrote. Notably, after Charlotte dies, she realizes what happened and goes to comfort Wilbur.
  • Writers Suck: Inverted in the novel and all adaptations, as the final lines eulogize that Charlotte was a good friend and a good writer.
  • You Dirty Rat!: Templeton is a dirty, gluttonous, selfish Jerkass. Played straight in the original book.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: An old sheep reveals the bad news that Wilbur is going to be killed and served for Christmas dinner, so Charlotte must step up if he wants to see the snow.