Charlotte’s Web: Our Connection with Food
In the American children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, the spring pig Wilbur learns that his purpose on the farm is to be raised up and killed for pork in the coming months. Distraught at his fate, Wilbur seeks deliverance from anyone who can help. Charlotte, a cunning but loving barnyard spider, offers to help Wilbur escape the dinner table. She uses her web to give Wilbur a new place on the farm; not only is he tasty, but also Terrific, Radiant, and Humble. Charlotte makes Wilbur out to be Some Pig with her web, and the humans in the story come to agree with her. The pig is not only delivered from the dinner table, but is also awarded a medal at the county fair for his outstanding character (White, 1952).
The story of Charlotte’s Web is a tender children’s fable, and a work of fiction. However, there is a surprising reality captured in Charlotte’s sticky strands. The complex food web we live in today has also dissociated us from the places, both geographical and existential, that our food comes from. We struggle to find where we fit in the world, in part because we have forgotten where the things we consume fit in the world. The dissociation of people from their food is not only silly (as in the story mentioned above), but also contributes to a host of societal woes. Reconnecting with the food we eat will reestablish a sense of place not only in the food web, but in the world generally.
It is imperative before exploring the social implications of food web dissociation to define what that means, and so we’ll start from the start. The first threads of the human food web were woven when the first humans started eating. Small, familial groups of hunter-gatherers foraged for whatever was available for their sustenance. This is the most basic human food web. The first major innovation to this system came approximately 13,000 years ago, when Mesopotamian clans moved away from nomadic hunting and gathering toward more stable, stationary agriculture (Agriculture Timeline). A couple thousand years after that, goats and pigs and sheep were domesticated, expanding the agricultural food web to quite a dietary variety. People planted, irrigated, weeded, and harvested their plant foods. They birthed, protected, nurtured, fed, and butchered their meats. This model kept humanity fed through several millennia.
The next major development in the human food web came with the advent of complex trade-based societies. As more people came together in ancient cities, the idea to trade between neighbors became a foundation for the success of urban civilization. However, trade also became the fundamental dissociating agent between people and what they consumed. As blacksmiths and potters and weavers and tradesmen became real places in society, the food web expanded to feed them. Because of limitations on transport and food preservation, though, the level of dissociation remained relatively small for about 10,000 years.
For example, on 25 August 1790, Martha Ballard prepared a meal of baked lamb with fresh vegetables and whole wheat rolls for her family in Augusta, Maine (Martha). She lived in the same basic food web that had been in place for millennia; Martha’s husband operated a grain mill for local farmers, and she was the town midwife. These labors provided a means of bartering with local farmers for the lamb and whole wheat flour used in her meal. The Ballard family also cultivated two large backyard gardens for fresh fruits and vegetables, and raised a milk cow, chickens, turkeys, and an occasional spring pig. Maintaining the health of these food sources required constant vigilance, and the Ballard kids would often be sent to the bean patch to squish pesky bugs or to the chicken yard with a bowl of table scraps for the hens. Such a lifestyle planted in the Ballard children a concrete awareness of where their lambs and fresh vegetables and whole wheat rolls came from. This experience was very similar to that of Fern, from Charlotte’s Web, who at the age of seven had to face the grim reality of the fate of small spring pigs (White, 1952).
If the classic market system kept people fed and close to their food for over 10,000 years, what changed that has moved people away from those barnyard experiences? How has the human family taken food as it really is – living plants and living animals that we consume to survive – and woven it to the outer reaches of our food web? Ann Vileisis, a writer and historian, explores this evolution of the human-food relationship in her book Kitchen Literacy (2008). Vileisis illustrates how several innovations in transportation technology, refrigeration, and large-scale agriculture changed the way people eat in America.
She acknowledges that railroads, canals and engines widened the geography of the food web in the first three decades of the 19th century, expanding the average farm-to-food distance from within fifteen miles of the eater to fifteen hundred miles (pg. 37). Then, changing social expectations of women at the onset of the 20th century to be better educated, better cultured, and more devoted to their children further ostracized people from their food. Moms simply didn’t have enough time to accomplish the housewifery and comply to the new ideals of motherhood. By the turn of the century, most Americans were too busy pursuing the American dream to worry about things mundane as food preparation.
Adaptations in food production and marketing solidified the cultural shift taking place. In the top image, a vendor is preparing a cut of meat for his customer the way all meat was prepared in the 18th century. The bottom image is a 1902 advertisement from Gustavus Swift’s meat packaging company. Swift revolutionized the meat processing industry by butchering cows in Chicago meat plants and transporting steaks to any household in the continental United States. His shipping model replaced the antiquated idea of sending the living heifers in crowded, dangerous, and inefficient livestock trailers. As demonstrated in the images, the butchers of yore advertised their meats by the animals they came from. According to Vileisis, it was common practice for a customer to ask about the life, growing-up, and disposition of the animals their butcher prepared for sale. The practice of marketplace inquiry became obsolete by the 20th century though, because people didn’t see the animals their meats were coming from. Swift’s business model delivered less damaged meats at a cheaper price, so consumers eventually accepted his pre-cut, government-inspected, finely wrapped cuts of beef. It was the wrapper, not the knife, that severed the strand between us and our meats.
The expansion of the food web has continued up to today, when the average tomato trades hands 8 times before ending up in our “homemade” salsa (B. Cox, personal communication, c. 2005). Essays and books and documentaries and protest speeches and supreme court rulings have all been written to address the myriad environmental and health and trade implications of our new and humongous food web, but I haven’t found in my research any conversation on what I believe to be a more foreboding consequence than the popular ticket items. How has food dissociation contributed to the lost sense of place in relation to things grander than ourselves?
Investigative journalist Michael Pollan discussed the role of food in planting us in reality with Oprah recently, on her show Supersoul Sunday (Winfrey). In this interview, Pollan reflected on a childhood experience he had in his grandfather’s garden. “It was magical to me,” he commented, “that we could put these little things [seeds] in the ground and they could become plants and even more!” Pollan explained that his wonder and fascination fostered a sense of outwardness in him, rather than just “me-me-me all the time”. If most Americans aren’t having those moments of self-actualizing wonder, what kind of people are we becoming?
Answers are often more evident in extremes, and the people with the most extreme dissociation from natural food processes are those living in highly concentrated urban areas. Because poverty restricts opportunities to travel to more rural places and experiences, inner-city populations are especially cut off from reality by the current food web. Moreover, many of these crime-prone areas are referred to as “food deserts”, due to crime risks dissuading major food market chains from investing in storefronts nearby (USDA). That of itself is an indication of the volatile social climate existent in inner cities. If Pollan’s experience with outwardness born in the soil holds true on a general scale, then gardening for inner-city populations will foster in participants a sense of place in the outward community and curb violent crime.
Gardening programs for inner-city youth are taking a step toward that change. In Oakland, Navy veteran Kelly Carlisle has organized the garden program Acta Non Verba. Oakland inner-city children and youth can participate in growing their own fruits and vegetables to eat, and sell extra produce to save money for their futures. Carlisle was prompted to start the garden when she returned to Oakland after active duty and found her neighborhood to have a 40% dropout rate and on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Dangerous Cities list. She was a master gardener, and found peace and identity in gardening. In her words, Carlisle wanted her garden to be “[a place] for youth to learn about nutrition, food, and themselves” (Carlisle). That dream has become a reality. Since the garden’s first season in 2011, hundreds of kids (like Jarome, pictured here) have come to learn, work, play, and eat together at the Acta Non Verba garden.
Kelly Carlisle isn’t alone in connecting people to their food. Will Allen, former professional basketball player and businessman, has also organized a gardening program to help the kids in his Milwaukee neighborhood find their place in the food web. “It’s way more than just putting a plant in the ground,” Allen claims in a short documentary of his farming project, Growing Power. “Kids that come in here, they are wired. And they are bouncing off the walls. But as soon as I put some soil in their hands they just calm down. So there is something very spiritual about touching the soil” (Winfrey). This grounding, calming effect is what Allen, Carlisle, and others hope will nourish a stronger sense of importance and self-value in kids growing up in dangerously underexposed neighborhoods.
I have personally seen the power of helping people find a place of value through producing food. Forgotten Angels, a mental health rehabilitation center in Pearland, Texas, saw the potential benefits of gardening for their residents. The labor to begin the project was beyond their means though, so the volunteer organization I was in town with organized a series of work days to clear fields, build planter boxes, haul soil and mulch, and perform a variety of other heavy labor tasks. Once the groundwork was laid, residents with various mental and cognitive disabilities had the chance to cultivate food that they later sold at a local farmers’ market. I’ve never seen someone more excited to talk about peas than Chris, a resident with hydrocephalus. “Look!” he said one week, brandishing his planter of newly sprouted pea plants. “They grow!” As my group returned week after week, I was able to see that Chris grew along with his peas. He was able to share something of value that he had helped create. His communication became more intelligible and purposeful. He learned the very practical skill of turning the garden’s water hose on and off. And like Will Allen described, Chris found remarkable peace when he was able to spend time in the soil with his peas.
Officer Kathleen Green has also started a garden as part of a rehabilitative program – only her office is at Maryland’s Eastern Correctional Institution, the state prison. If anyone has lost a sense of place in society, it would be prisoners. Upon conviction, they are punitively ripped from their dark cobwebs of criminal life and thrown into the prison system with no connections, no support, and no place to belong. Imprisonment could be viewed as cruelty; Officer Green prefers to treat it as a new start. “These guys have probably never seen something grow out of the ground,” she explained in a Washington Post interview. “This is powerful stuff for them” (Roselwald, 2015). Inmates can pay back their debt to the state by the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and the opportunity to do so engenders a feeling of appreciation for the officers that allow them to work in the prison garden. Their new connections aren’t founded in criminality, but civility. Fresh threads of cooperation, work, humility, interdependence, respect, and lawfulness begin to replace the old cobwebs of crime. Prison inmates are able to weave a new and improved social web by discovering the food web of which they have always been a part.
As has been illustrated, food dissociation contributes to several major issues. A simple solution to those problems is to promote opportunities for people to cultivate their own food from the real, living plants and animals that food comes from. Now, to critics who see this proposal and cry out that people could never produce enough food on a small-scale level to provide for themselves – you’re absolutely right. In a society with such highly developed trade systems and urban culture, proposing that everyone ought to grow their own salads and raise their own Chicken McNuggets is irrational and inapplicable. There is not enough real estate in Manhattan to feed Manhattan, nor are there enough New York minutes in a New Yorker’s life for full-time agriculture. That is not the proposal of this paper. People do not need to be self-sufficient in order to have enough food-familiarizing experiences to change them. The kids of Acta Non Verba don’t provide for all their nutritional needs in the garden, nor do the prisoners of the Eastern Correctional Institution subsist entirely from their produce. Yet because these people participate in food cultivation to the degree that it is sensible, they know where they belong in the web of life. The ethical, financial, and environmental impact of agribusiness is a compelling topic that is largely irrelevant to this article, which focuses primarily on the personal and societal need of people to maintain a connection with their food.
The current food web that we live in efficiently provides for our nutritional needs. However, because we as eaters are removed from the reality of the eaten, we lose a basic opportunity to understand the world around us and within us. We started in Charlotte’s Web, and we can just as easily end there. E.B. White was the author of the story, but also a farmer in Maine. It wasn’t uncommon for him to raise a spring pig each year, to provide pork and bacon for his family through the winter. In 1948, the pig he purchased fell sick and died before it was ready to serve its purpose in the White household. Over the three-day course of attempting to nurse this pig to health and watching it die, White later recorded that “[the pig] had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world” (White, 1948). The reality of life for White’s spring pig affected him deeply – so much so that when he recorded the audiobook for the pig Wilbur’s story in 1970, his emotions mandated as many as 17 takes in a recording session (Lanzendorfer). The threads that connected White to his pig were stronger than death or time, and wove into his soul a kinship and compassion that we would all do well to seek after.
Agriculture Timeline. (n.d.). In Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/timeline/Agriculture/ Butcher’s Shop. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.safran-arts.com/42day/art/art4jun/art0628.html Carlisle, K. Acta Non Verba. Retrieved from http://anvfarm.org/about/stories/ Lanzendorfer, Joy. 10 Things You Might Not Know About ‘Charlotte’s Web’. 24 August 2015. Retrieved from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/67639/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-charlottes-web Martha Ballard’s Diary Online. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://dohistory.org/diary/ Roselwald, M.S. (7 June 2015). Can gardening transform convicted killers and carjackers? Prison officials get behind the bloom. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/can-gardening-transform-convicted-killers-and-carjackers-prison-officials-get-behind-the-bloom/2015/06/07/bf5c4cf0-0afb-11e5-a7ad-b430fc1d3f5c_story.html?utm_term=.f52b1af5beae Tip BIG for Summer Camp ANV. (2016). Retrieved from http://anvfarm.org/tip-big-summer-camp-anv-june-23/ USDA website. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/about-the-atlas/ Vileisis, A. (2008). Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back. Washington, D.C.: Island Press Winfrey, Oprah (host, CEO/CCO). Montgomery, T., Wishom, A. (producers). Interview with Michael Pollan. Supersoul Sunday. Interview retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/full-episode-oprah-and-michael-pollan-video White, E.B. (1948). Death of a Pig. The Atlantic, 181(1). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideastour/animals/white-excerpt.html White, E.B. (1952). Charlotte’s Web. New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers 1902 Ad Swift Premium Ham Bacon Pig Child Basket Meat Silver Leaf Lard. (1902). Retrieved from https://www.periodpaper.com/collections/vintage-advertising-art/products/1902-ad-swift-premium-ham-bacon-pig-child-basket-meat-silver-leaf-lard-victorian-201705-yyc2-064
Didacticism and Teaching in Animal Literature and Charlotte’s Web
Since the birth of Aesop’s Fables, originating over two thousand years ago, “animal literature” has been used as a teaching tool. That is, when a certain piece of literature centers on an animal, there is usually a certain moral, emotional, or ethical lesson to be learned. The method varies, as sometimes the animal exists realistically and other times the animal is anthropomorphic and teaches directly through words. Using animals as a teaching tool is necessary in many regards, because they act as symbols and totems for our real life morals and teach these in such a way that human characters could not.
In Charlotte’s Web, the titular Charlotte is a spider who uses her worldly knowledge to help Wilbur the pig through his life (and at times, save it). Her position as a motherly, knowledgeable figure is unlike many other animal stories, though – she does not teach through her experiences in the novel but rather directly through words. She already has the knowledge necessary to aide Wilbur and speak of the complexities of life. She acts as his first real companion and teaches him about life and the nature of spiders, as only a spider could do, in addition to establishing her credibility and intelligence. She says, “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… Way back for thousands and thousands of years we spiders have been laying for flies and bugs” (White 39). Her use of “we” to refer to the family of spiders indicates the close relationship she has with her own kind. This establishes Charlotte as a trustworthy teacher and member of the spider species, especially since the first thing she says is “I have to say what is true,” telling us directly that what she says is believable. Charlotte’s position as a trustworthy and friendly character is necessary framework for her teachings later, as we now know that her philosophical statements later are founded on an intelligent background. A reader, particularly a younger one in the target audience for this novel, would likely be impressed at the cleverness Charlotte exhibits given her living habits and would be interested in her ideas later on.
Charlotte also asserts her intelligence in saying “I live by my wits. I have to be sharp and clever, lest I go hungry” (40). We learn that through her very nature, Charlotte is a witty character able to make claims that we can believe or at least consider to be true. Her ensuing explanation of how her eating habits help save the world around her from being infested with bugs (40) as well as her later mention of activities at the Queensborough Bridge (60) reinforce that Charlotte has a strong worldly background and knowledge that extends far beyond the limited realm of the barn in which she lives.
When Wilbur that he is to be killed for Christmas meat, the ensuing panic leads him to call his only close friend for help. It is not possible for a human to stand in for an animal in this position, of course; only an animal can help him since the humans (the enemy to him at this point) are in it together to have him eaten. Only Fern, the girl, may be considered an ally, yet she transcends the human group because she can talk to the animals, and thus from the beginning is the only human that does not side with their reasoning or desires. For the second time in the novel, now, Wilbur must be saved. Both times, he is saved by a transcendent figure: Fern, the girl who can talk to animals, and now Charlotte, the animal who can communicate with humans through web writing (80).
The animals’ discussions parallel human concerns and desires, so when Charlotte speaks to Wilbur about something, the reader can understand it as the solution to the problems human pose to animals, and thus, the solution in how to act with them. She says later of Templeton’s possible unwillingness to help in saving Wilbur, “I’m not sure Templeton will be willing to help. You know how he is— always looking out for himself, never thinking of the other fellow” (89). In saying this Charlotte has acknowledged multiple things at once. For one, she alludes to her own altruism in helping Wilbur, that is, “thinking of the other fellow,” but also to Templeton the rat who has not done so. She criticizes people here who do not consider the wants of “the other fellow” (animals) and act selfishly. She further criticizes humans in other areas, such as arguing against the nature of their fast-paced busy lives (60). Again, a reader may be inclined to see Charlotte’s views on people as a reflection of someone who has experienced it that way: someone who lives day in and day out in a rush, or with folks who are inconsiderate, would certainly have a more informed opinion on these matters. A spider, who lives calmly and outside of the bustling human life, offers a view outside the realm of human existence that allows us to reflect on ourselves and question our own lives. Charlotte’s commentary could only be done by a country animal outside of the busy and inconsiderate humans’ lives.
In addition, Charlotte has firm opinions on the concepts of life and death. Her opinions are quite philosophical; at one point she says “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” (164). Charlotte’s vast knowledge and clever wit are less significant than the friendship she has with a pig. Charlotte is saying that companionship and friendship are the most important things to cherish in lieu of intelligence or other endeavors. As an animal with a short life and repetitive lifestyle, the friendship she has with Wilbur is the most important thing to her. So, in our short lives (according to Charlotte, the length of any life is just “a little”) it is most important to find friends to spend the life we have with. Wilbur then takes this advice and quickly befriends three of Charlotte’s daughters after she has died (182).
Although it may seem counterintuitive to trust a spider’s advice on providing answers to deep questions like “What is most important in my life?,” it actually in this case makes sense. Charlotte’s realm of experience is huge, somehow, yet her existence is short and limited only to the barn in which she lives. For many of us, we have a breadth of knowledge that expands far beyond where we live, yet we do not have a chance to experience the entirety of that knowledge. Charlotte says, “do you know how long it took men to build [the Queensborough Bridge]? Eight whole years. My goodness, I would have starved to death waiting that long” (60). She goes on to discuss her own lifestyle and her content nature in not going out to explore everything, giving her more time to think and reflect on life. Perhaps Charlotte is not advocating that everyone do the same, but that they consider taking a moment to “take in” life.
So, why Charlotte? Why use any animal as a teacher of morals? Marianne Dekoven’s “Why Animals Now?” mentions that “only from the point of view of the human are other animals nonhuman” (Dekoven 363). This describes the character of Fern quite well, as she can act as both the human and animal, able to speak with both. She can see the animals as humans and through the eyes of Fern (a child) we see Charlotte and the other characters as possessing human consciousness. Dekoven goes on to mention a “massive interdependence between humans and other animals” (366) which implies our own need for animals both practically and as a tool to understand ourselves. These animals can be used, she argues, more specifically for political intentions or otherwise (366-7) although it is more apparent in works like White’s that animals play a more metaphorical or otherwise symbolic role that could not be fulfilled by humans, or is more aptly fulfilled by a fitting animal.
Additional studies have discussed animal fables more specifically, including Aesop’s short moralistic stories. Although longer novels and stories can serve a similar function, Jill Mann writes in her book From Aesop to Reynard that there is “an overlap of the human and the animal world; the animals are seen as having human characteristics although they lack a human complexity” (Mann 30). This view is not applicable to Charlotte’s Web, where the animals certainly have both human complexity and relationships. Thus Mann may not classify this book as a fable, but rather an extended allegory for life. The animal character of Charlotte is not the same as the animals in fables, who exist possess no context, being only what they are outlined as their animal characters define them. Charlotte does not conform to a pre-existing “spider” outline; she fills another role entirely, using real spider characteristics (web-weaving, bug-catching, etc.) to defend the character traits she creates for herself. This bolsters her teachings and lessons more because she has created a believable, deep character for herself that escapes the flatness of the common fables. In both cases, the didactic element is present, but rather than relying on what Mann calls an “essential character,” (31) White creates a new set of “characters” for us to experience as readers, creating a more meaningful relationship that does not rely on previous foundations or assumptions. Thus within the realm of Charlotte’s Web, we only need to be self-referential, as Charlotte provides all the necessary evidence we need to believe she possesses the ethos to make the claims and convey the messages she does for us.
While Charlotte’s Web may teach in a way unlike animal fables traditionally do, it is specifically the character of Charlotte as a humanlike animal that teaches the lessons a human could not. Her traits and breadth of experience give us reason to accept her teachings, which make sense in the context of the novel. Her reason and wit allow us to believe her. In the greater context of animal fiction, it is not presupposed assumptions that we must rely on, as Mann argues, but rather a relationship that is meaningfully established and defended. Dekoven’s commentary on how animals, especially in fiction, have developed a dependent relationship with humans refers back to this. We understand animals, those who are anthropomorphic, as an extension of the human world. So when the animals in Charlotte’s Web specifically teach us something, we can accept it because they as symbols, and not true animals, reflect ideals and morals we understand more effectively.
The Not So Subtle Portrayal of Supernatural Elements in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Louis Sachar’s Holes
In children’s literature, supernatural elements can be found throughout many novels and short stories. The definition of supernatural according to merriam-webster is “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature” (Webster). In E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web and Louis Sachar’s Holes, nature is the catalyst to all the events that take place throughout the two novels. Nature and the supernatural are often in correlation with one another since many things in the world are still unexplained and may never fully be explained. Humans have an innate sense of wonder and awe and often times seek the answers to such unexplainable supernatural occurrences. In Charlotte’s Web, the supernatural events that take place and portrayed mysticism of nature are the basis of the entire stories plot while in Holes, the supernatural elements of history, fate, and nature are the backbone to the events that unfold in the novel.
In E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web, elements of the supernatural can be found throughout the plot of the novel. The entire concept of this novel is based upon the supernatural ideas of talking animals, the “miracle” of words appearing in a spider’s web, and the sense of wonder at the beauty found in the natural world that is often seen as as safe haven. In terms of talking animals, it is a universally accepted concept that animals do not speak, but in the world of fantasy and supernatural occurrences, this concept can be disregarded completely. Fern’s mother, Mrs. Arable, follows the belief that animals simply cannot talk and worries about her daughters well being when Fern communicates the events that have recently taken place in the barnyard. Mr. Arable concludes that it is simply Fern’s imagination stating that “she’s just got a lively imagination. Kids think they hear all sorts of things” (White 54). He then suggests that maybe a child’s ears hear more than an adult’s do. Adults are often too busy dealing with the hubbub of day to day life, while children take the time to listen to the surroundings. Adults also attribute what children say to overactive imaginations, as did Mr. Arable. This idea of overactive imaginations ultimately detracts from the supernatural essence of this novel, even though many of events that take place would be considered out of the ordinary if such things happened in reality.
Although the adults in this novel do not believe that animals speak, it is an odd contradiction that they are gullible enough to believe that supernatural forces are at work in order for the words to appear in a spiders web. According to Trudelle H. Thomas, “The dopey adults who read these messages decide a supernatural sign has occurred – a miracle! Wilbur must indeed be very special to merit such praise” (Thomas 203). The adults are quick to dismiss the notion that an animal, let alone a tiny grey spider, is capable of communicating via writing. The concept of speaking animals could only possibly be understood by a child, whom due to their active imaginations, can comprehend. If a pig could receive a supernatural gift, the pig must be superior in one way or another. Wilbur’s life is ultimately saved by the end of the novel, but for no actual reason. The webs state that Wilbur is superior by saying he is “Some Pig”, “Terrific”, “Radiant”, and “Humble, although there is not actual evidence of Wilbur being such things (White 78, 94, 114,149). The characters in this novel simply assume and believe the ordinary pig is anything but, due to the miracle of the web. If “logical” adults are to believe that words in a spider web could be caused by a possible miracle or supernatural phenomenon, who really has the active imaginations here? If kids hear more than what is actually said or done, does that mean that parents seek signs and meaning in occurrences that are not actually there?
Nature is often seen as a a safe haven where love can blossom, as a saving grace, or as an outlet to the realities of life. In terms of Charlotte’s Web, all three of these concepts apply. Almost the entire novel is placed in nature, and nature is where Charlotte and Wilbur develop and grow a selfless pure plutonic love for one another. E.B. White states that “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” (White 184). The love he has for Charlotte is carried out long after her death through the many generations of her offspring, although no one love surmounts to the love he has for Charlotte. Wilbur can never replace his love for Charlotte, due especially to the fact that she had dedicated a good portion of her life to saving his life. Wilbur in return sacrifices his life in a sense and dedicates it to the caring of Charlotte’s offspring, generations after she is gone. Nature is where these loves develop and without the natural surrounding itself, there wouldn’t even be a story to tell. It is in nature itself, specifically a spiders web, that ultimately saves the life of an all too ordinary pig.
Charlotte’s natural ability to form a web is heightened to a supernatural circumstance due to humanities natural draw to nature as a source of supernatural activity. According to Sue Misheff, “Charlotte’s web is a true-to-life spider’s web built by an all-too-realistic spider who devours flies in seemingly bloodthirsty ways. Is she evil, or just doing what comes naturally?” (Missheff 132). Charlotte is simply an ordinary spider with an extraordinary gift. Charlotte selflessly performs these acts out of love due to the fact that she is never given credit for such feats, and instead, Wilbur is the one given praise. It is in nature itself that Charlotte produces a web that she naturally creates due to her biological instincts in order to be the saving grace Wilbur needs to stay alive. Misheff also states “It is [Charlotte’s] imagination that transcends the natural way of things and inspires her to save her friend through her masterful weaving of words” (Misheff 132). This transcendence of natural ways is what leads the human characters in the novel to seek this miracle of nature as a source of escaping reality. The human characters, specifically the adults, use this “supernatural phenomenon” as a possible source of hope, awe, or a sign to something more. Children in the novel are depicted as simply being intrigued and in awe of such occurrences, rather than seeking more from what it is, a spider web. Nature is seen in this novel as being Wilbur and Charlotte’s safe haven in order for their friendship to grow, it is where Wilber is ultimately saved, and it is where humans go to seek more than what is simply put in front of one’s eyes.
In the novel Holes by Louis Sachar, the theme of fantasy and/or the supernatural is prevalent throughout the story. The entire novel centers around the supernatural occurrences of fate and nature being a source of refuge. In terms of fate, the book is crawling with instances where fate has brought characters together. An instance of such supernatural occurrences as told by Pat Pinset, the author of “Fate and Fortune in a Modern Fairy Tale: Louis Sachar’s Holes”, “Magic formula[s] are not lacking either, from the curse that ruined Elya, to the song that Elya should have sung to the old woman on the mountain in Latvia but that, much later, his great-great-grandson sings to her great- great-great-grandson, Zero” (Pinset 207). Elya Yelnats and his descendants were bestowed their curse due to the breaking of Elya’s promise to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain where the piglet she gifted him had drank. Madame Zeroni’s great- great-great-grandson Zero, or Hector Zeroni, crosses paths with Elya’s great-great grandson 100+ years into the future after that incident due to fate. Fate brought these two descendants together after both were arrested for two separate charges of theft that are seemingly unrelated, but we later learn this to be untrue. Zero states that “I should have just kept them. […] If I had just kept those old smelly sneakers, then neither of us would be here right now” (Sachar 184). It is supernatural fate that Stanley finds the Clyde Livingston sneakers Zero originally stole and attempts to bring them home for his father’s Zeroni curse induced failed shoe stench remedies. Fate also brings the boys together in order to break the curse that was placed by Hector’s great-great-great grandmother Madame Zeroni. After escaping from Camp Green Lake and seeking refuge on God’s Thumb, Stanley carries Zero up the rest of the mountain once he has fallen ill and is too weak to continue any farther on his own. Stanley then proceeds to sing him the song Madame Zeroni had requested Elya to sing to her when he promised to carry her up the mountain all those years before, ultimately fulfilling the obligation to a Zeroni. At this moment in time, the curse is lifted. It is fate that has brought Stanley’s and Hector’s families back together in order to break the curse in a setting that is all too familiar.
Nature is heavily portrayed as a refuge to both Stanley Yelnats and Hector Zeroni (Zero) in the novel. Nature saves the lives of Stanley and Hector not only once, but three times throughout the novel. Kirsten Møllegaard’s article “Haunting and History in Louis Sachar’s Holes” explores the concept that landscapes are haunted by their pasts and states that
[Holes illustrates] the turn to the supernatural in the process of recovering history
emphasizes the difficulty of gaining access to a lost or denied past […]. In Holes,
storytelling constructs the reality of the characters. Stories provide frames for
understanding bizarre occurrences, seemingly arbitrary acts of violence and injustice, and
for establishing bonds and meaningful relationships between people (Møllegaard 139).
It was stated earlier that fate brought these two young men together, but along with fate, the surroundings themselves brought Stanley and Zero closer than ever. This can be seen when Zero escapes from Camp Green Lake, he is protected from the environment by a piece of this lands history that has long been forgotten. Zero is being protected by Sam’s old overturned boat that provides him nutrients from the jars of decaying peaches he names sploosh. When searching for Zero, Stanley stumbles across the overturned boat as well and seeks refuge from the heat under this haunted piece of history, luckily finding Zero during the process. After hiding out underneath the boat and eating the last of the sploosh, Stanley decides that in order to survive, him and Zero must climb God’s Thumb. Ever since Stanley had arrived to Camp Green Lake, he had a heightened attraction to God’s Thumb and referenced back to the story of Stanley’s great grandfather finding and seeking refuge on God’s Thumb when he was robbed by Kissing Kate. After a treacherous climb up the mountain and ultimately fulfilling the obligation to carry and sing the obscure song to a Zeroni, Stanley and Zero are saved by the abundance of onions and water at the top of God’s thumb. Nature provided Stanley and Zero a place to recuperate and ultimately saved their lives once again when they encounter the yellow spotted lizards when recovering the suitcase full of treasure where Kissing Kate’s lipstick tube was buried. According to Sam the onion man, “The lizards don’t like onion blood” (Sachar 224). No one knows this though since this knowledge was lost in history when Sam was murdered. Nature, or in this case onions, saves the boys’ lives when they are caught digging up the suitcase. Nature also saves them due to the fact that the hole was filled with yellow spotted lizards. If Stanley and Zero had been caught without the immediate danger of being surrounded by poisonous lizards, Stanley would never have obtained his family’s treasure and Zero most likely would have been severely punished or even possibly killed. In relation to Møllegaard’s theory that the landscape is haunted by the past and ultimately draws people together and sets events into motion and nature being used as a refuge, the story of Holes draws heavily on the supernatural qualities of nature.
Both Holes and Charlotte’s Web use nature as a form of supernatural refuge. The novel Holes plays on the concepts of fate and nature as a form of refuge, while Charlotte’s Web focuses in more on the supernatural ideas of talking animals, the “miracle” of words appearing in a spider’s web, and the sense of wonder at the beauty found in the natural world that is often seen as as safe haven. Although these novels have different plots, themes, and motifs, both stories have undeniable traces of supernatural nuances throughout the entirety of the stories being told.
Misheff, Sue. “Beneath the Web and over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 29, no. 3, Sept. 1998, pp. 131-141. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gwclib.nocccd.edu/login?url=http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=11305724&site=ehost-live.
Møllegaard, Kirsten. “Haunting and History in Louis Sachar’s Holes.” Western American Literature, vol. 45 no. 2, 2010, pp. 138-161. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/wal.0.0117
Pinsent, Pat. “Fate and Fortune in a Modern Fairy Tale: Louis Sachar’s Holes.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 33, no. 3, Sept. 2002, pp. 203-212. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gwclib.nocccd.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph&AN=11305812&site=ehost-live.
Sachar, Louis. Holes. Thorndike Press, a Part of Gale, Cengage Company, 2000.
“Supernatural.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ supernatural.
Thomas, Trudelle H. “The Arc of the Rope Swing: Humour, Poetry, and Spirituality in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, vol. 21, no. 3/4, Aug-Nov2016, pp. 201-215. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/1364436X.2016.1228618.
White, E. B., and Garth Williams. Charlotte’s Web. Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.
E.B. White’s Faith in Nature: The Critique of Christianity in ‘Charlotte’s Web’
In Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White juxtaposes a conventional children’s story surrounding the anthropomorphism of farm animals with relatively difficult concepts such as death in order to call readers to question their own faith and morality. This is an intriguing structure, for it goes against the traditional tendency to use children’s books to impose values, historically Christian values, on children. It is from this structure that White is able to comment on concepts of mortality, salvation, after life, and the existence of God, all of which are themes one may find striking or alarming in a children’s book. E. B. White effectively utilizes themes of faith, mortality, and nature to argue against a more traditional Christian understanding of morality, while simultaneously emphasizing a naturalistic vision of morality in which the laws and forces of nature are the basis of morality.
It is first necessary to understand the way in which White trivializes religion in order to understand the way in which he wants to move beyond traditional morality to a more naturalistic understanding of values in the world. White most profoundly trivializes faith in God, through Charlotte’s web. He begins this process by repeatedly utilizing the word “trick” to refer to Charlotte’s plan. From the first mention of the plan, Charlotte emphasizes the gullibility of humans and the way in which she could “trick” them into the most outrageous of beliefs (67). As Charlotte’s engagement in trickery is developed and she spins the first web, Mr. Zuckerman immediately identifies the “trick” with a miracle from God. White draws out the way in which Mr. Zuckerman immediately appeals to God, as Mr. Zuckerman goes to discuss the trick with the minister (82-83). The juxtaposition between a trick and a miracle intends to reveal how easily the work of a mere spider is confused with divine intervention. He forms a contrast between a trick, something trivial and childish, and a miracle, something that traditionally holds incredible weight. Further, the way in which White depicts the animals as essentially the ones with true knowledge of the situation, as opposed to humans, he portrays an unusual hierarchy in which humans are confusing lesser beings, animals, with the work of God. Thus, White ultimately equates the animal to God, which is an attempt to trivialize the concept of God, for he suggests that an act of God is truly the work of a lesser being. This is an excellent commentary on the ways in which faith can bring people to irrational conclusions, for he demonstrates how the work of something as trivial as a spider can be misunderstood for the work of the highest divine entity. This is not the only instance in which White questions the blind faith of religious persons through reference to the words on Charlotte’s webs. In Chapter 11, the goose suggests that Charlotte use the word “terrific” to which Wilbur disagrees on the basis that he does not believe himself to be terrific. Charlotte responds, “People believe almost anything they see in print,” (89). Here, White is again highlight the Christian practice of putting faith into religious books such as the Bible. One may go so far as to suggest that White is critiquing the Creationist tendency to interpret the Bible in a literal sense. Again, White trivializes this concept by having a lesser being, a spider, critique the complex idea of blind faith in a manner which portrays such blind faith as absurd. From this attempt to draw away from a faith-based understanding of the world through the trivialization of miracles and the Bible, White can successfully lead his readers to a new sense of morality away from religion.
The new understanding of morality that White proposed throughout the book is one that has a naturalistic understanding of values, relations, and guiding principles. Perhaps the most famous instance of this naturalistic understanding of morality, as well as the way it impacts views of mortality, is in Chapter 21 when Charlotte states, “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,” (164). Here, Charlotte describes the natural cycle of life without any mention of salvation or afterlife. Again, this goes against traditional Christian tendency to remain hopeful in an afterlife or to work towards salvation, in favor of a more naturalistic perspective. It is also important to note the ironic use of the phrase “Heaven knows…” for White is drawing attention to Charlotte’s lack of reference to heaven even though she clearly has knowledge of the existence of the concept. White continues his attack on the Christian understanding of working toward salvation as a guiding moral principle when he describes Charlotte’s death stating, “No one was with her when she died,” (171). This is White’s final attempt to comment on the Christian notion of salvation. One may argue that this statement directly implies that no one was with Charlotte, not even God. From a Christian viewpoint this statement would be absurd, as they ascribe to the belief that God is always with his followers. Further, it is at death that Christians believe they will be judged by God for their actions. Again, White wants readers to turn away from these religious understandings and instead turn to nature. From this statement, he is remaining true to the natural world by stating that Charlotte, a spider, dies alone. However, the phrases “We’re born, we live a little, we die,” as well as “No one was with her when she died,” have slightly nihilistic undertones which is not White’s ultimate intention. One may argue that this is clarified by Charlotte’ statement to Wilbur, “Maybe you’ll live forever—who knows?” (142). Here, White attempts to address the fact that humans do not have access to such information regarding mortality, for it is something that neither humankind, nor the animal kingdom, may ever understand. It is from this quote that White shows that it is not necessary to become nihilistic towards the naturalistic interpretation of mortality, yet at the same time he argues that we must willfully admit partial ignorance towards the subject.
By laying out his attack on Christianity, White’s argument for a naturalistic morality in which the laws of nature hold moral value becomes clear. White proposes nature to be a powerful force, perhaps subliminally competing with the excessive power that religion carries. White uses the forceful, ever-present cycle of the seasons to demonstrate nature’s power. He argues that despite the acts of humans or animals, seasons continue to cycle. Further, they determine natural events without anyone’s say. Thus, nature has a power over humans and animals alike. The cyclic nature of the seasons as a representation of the powerful force of nature ensures throughout the book that life and death coexist in harmony. This is exemplified by the way in which Charlotte leaves behind her children who become friends with nature. These children, like Charlotte, will also die in a year. However, they too leave behind children for Wilbur to become friends with. White states, “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,” (183). Here, White reinforces the power of nature and the continuous cycle of season, not in a nihilistic way, but in a manner which produces a hopeful, more naturalistic understanding of mortality. This morality is more orderly and logical, going hand in hand with the natural world. White’s preference for this morality is exemplified through Dr. Dorian who states, “When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out the web itself is a miracle,” (109). White uses the doctor, who represents science and reason, to point out that the web’s existence itself is miraculous. This sets up a contrast between religion and science, and White effectively uses it to demonstrate to readers that one who adheres to a naturalistic, perhaps more scientific, morality is left with miracles, as well. It is a moment where White highlights the way in which the naturalistic morality can and does provide a sense of hope and mystery, the same hope and mystery people often find attractive in religion.
Charlotte’s Web is an unexpected critique of religion, faith, and Christian values, yet White does not fall victim to the often nihilistic attitude of the atheist. Rather, White turns to nature and its tendencies to propose a more logical, impartial, yet ultimately hopeful conception of morality. From the cyclical nature of the seasons, to the promise of recurring generations, to the rationality of scientific claims, White exposes his youthful audience to a new understanding of the world, one which is not often found in books for children.