The Gender Stereotype of Motherhood of the Female Characters in Charlotte’s Web
The children’s novel Charlotte’s Web by E.B White is a story about a little girl named Fern adopting a piglet named Wilbur and raising him like her own. As Wilbur gets older, he lives in a barn and makes friends with all the animals. He meets a special spider named Charlotte who ends up ensuring Wilbur a safe and long happy life. As millions of children read this story throughout the years, many may never realize then underlying gender stereotyping that’s associated throughout the entire story. Although many may believe that the theme of this novel is about friendship, it’s actually based on the gender stereotype of motherhood of the female characters in the story.
The theme of Motherhood is represented all throughout the book from the very beginning to the end. We start with Fern, an eight year old tender and loving girl who takes on a motherly role to save and nurture Wilbur. She plays the maternal role by feeding Wilbur warm milk from a baby’s bottle, wrapping him in blankets, taking him for rides in a stroller and giving him love and affection just like a mother would do to their baby. She gets up early every morning to cater to Wilbur and won’t eat her breakfast until the pig is fed. This is a typical action that’s associated with mothers. They often times take care of their family members needs first before their own. Mothers are usually the first ones awake and the last ones to go to sleep. Fern also immediately fell in love with Wilbur from the second she laid eyes on him and stated “Oh, look at him! He’s absolutely perfect” (White 4). Those very same words are used when a mother sees their baby for the first time. It didn’t matter that Wilbur was a pig and fern was a human. To Wilbur, Fern was all he ever knew as a mother. He would gaze at Fern with “adoring eyes and everyday was a happy day and every night was peaceful” (White 11). That line from the story was an indication that just like a peaceful baby, Wilbur felt safe, loved and calm with Fern. He knew he had a loving home and was being taken care of. Even when it came time to sell Wilbur, Fern assures safe placement of him at her Uncle Homer’s farm, where she visits him as often as possible. Although she is not allowed in the pen with Wilbur, she sits on an old milking stool for hours never leaving his side. Even though Fern is not Wilbur’s biological mother, he’s a pig and she’s a human. It doesn’t change the unconditional love they have for one another.
Although Charlotte and Wilbur are known to be friends, their relationship goes a little deeper than a friendship. Charlotte slowly takes over Ferns role as a mother figure in Wilbur’s life. Her character seems to be very different than Ferns. Ferns character is very loving and nurturing while Charlottes character is seen to be a more of protective, intelligent and influential character with great leadership and determination. Charlotte raised, taught, helped and left Wilbur becoming a better person. Charlotte plays a maternal role by sacrificing herself to save Wilbur’s life. She calms Wilbur down from the thought of dying and comes up with a plan to save his life. It’s because of Charlotte that Wilbur is awarded a prize at the fair, leading on to live a long, happy life on the farm. She put him first without ever wanting anything in return. Wilbur never realized just how much Charlotte sacrificed till the very end. Just as most often times children don’t understand the sacrifices their parents make for their happiness until their either too old or it’s too late. When Wilbur cries to Charlotte ” I’ve never done anything for you” (White 164). It shows that he’s barely realizing that all this time while everything has been done for him, he never stopped for a second to see how Charlotte was doing. He wants to be able to somehow pay her back but realizes he won’t have the chance to. Wilbur symbolizes a child who’s just worries about himself while Charlotte plays a mother figure doing the thinking and planning of how to help him. When Wilbur was at the fair, “He would have been lonely and homesick if Charlotte had not been with him” (White 141). That quote clearly indicates that Charlotte gives Wilbur strength, courage and emotional protection. For example, you can be miles away from home but usually when your mother is with you, you never feel homesick and alone. Who would have thought, the tiniest animal in the farm would play the biggest role in Wilbur’s life.
The story is all based off of strong women figures. All the women in the story are portrayed to do some type of rescuing. For example, Fern saves Wilbur from being slaughtered, Ferns mother plays a helpful role by suggesting moving Wilbur to Ferns uncles farm, the goose informs Wilbur about realities in the farm and Charlotte of course guarantees a safe life for the pig. Not once do we see a male character in the story play the same role as the female characters. For example, when Fern’s brother Avery sees Wilbur for the very first time, he doesn’t show any compassion for the pig. He immediately insults Wilbur’s size right when he sees him. Even Ferns father Mr. Arable didn’t show compassion for Fern when he saw how upset she was about the pig and decided to let her keep it. The compassion Fern shows for the little pig, Wilbur, is an emotion typically associated with women. What Fern learned from her mother, is what she was portraying to Wilbur.
In conclusion, it’s interesting to see how two extremely different character’s like Fern and Charlotte had such a great influence on Wilbur. When reading this story as a child myself, I never noticed the link between the female characters and their maternal instincts by always helping and rescuing the male characters of the story. Now reading it again as an adult, I couldn’t help but notice all the gender stereotyping the story holds when it comes to the roles of males and females.
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