Life is full of some grim certainties. For animals on a farm this is even more true. But true friendship can do much more than make a short life more pleasant.
Fern is horrified to hear that her father plans to kill a new piglet, the runt of a litter born just that morning, with an axe. She manages to convince her father to spare the piglet but it is now her responsibility. It is nothing eight-year-old Fern can’t handle. She names the piglet Wilbur and feeds him from a bottle.
Weeks later, Fern’s father warns that it is time for Wilbur to be sold. He is now eating solids and his other siblings have already been sold. Though she cries and protests, her father has a solution. They can sell Wilbur to Uncle Zuckerman who sometimes keeps pigs. Fern makes the arrangements and soon Wilbur is living in the Zuckerman’s barn with other animals and is visited daily by Fern.
But Wilbur is soon unhappy in the Zuckerman’s barn. It is boring and lonely there. The other animals are not much fun and their advice can be unhelpful and overwhelming. Just when depression seems to be taking hold, Wilbur hears the voice of someone who does want to be his friend.
Charlotte, a spider, is clever, pretty and well-spoken. The pig and the spider form an unlikely friendship.
‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’
But the other animals find Wilbur very naïve. One day the sheep breaks it to Wilbur that the farmer is fattening him up to kill at Christmas. Wilbur, understandably distraught, weeps and weeps. Until his only friend urges him to cut out the hysterics and vows to save him. There is just the small matter of how a small, humble spider, no matter how clever, can save a farm pig?
I did not read Charlotte’s Web as a child. It came to be on my Reading List as a book recommended by my wife. I knew by reputation it to be a book that is somewhat sad but had not expected it to be quite so sad and, at times, dark. The reader is not sheltered from the harsh life-and-death realities of farm life. Even Charlotte, who may seem more ‘humane’, does not shy away from her nature. It joins a number of classic children’s books that makes a parent wonder if we really need to treat kids so gently when they are perfectly capable of handling more than we assume.
Like a lot of children’s stories that involve interaction between children and animals, in Charlotte’s Web, Fern understands much of the conversation going on in the barn, while the adults in the story, remain ignorant of the intelligence of the animals. So, like other stories, Charlotte’s Web contains the message of the intelligence of children, their closeness to nature and innocence that is lost when they become adults. Even with Fern’s understanding, in Charlotte’s Web the animals inhabit a world of their own and a complex life largely unknown to humans.
To me, the key message of Charlotte’s Web is of the nature of friendship. Charlotte decides herself to be a friend to Wilbur who badly needs one. She was not asked, she did not need a reason beyond her own and she did not require or expect any reciprocity. Her selfless efforts and sacrifices build a strong and durable bond between two new friends. Neither allow their differences to be a barrier to friendship. It reflects an ideal most of us have or would like to have with family, close friends and even beyond into our community. More than once Charlotte acts as a parent figure to Wilbur; giving assurance even when there is little reason for confidence, indulging him but only so far, even asking Wilbur to respect her need for a break. But their way is not the only way of having relationships with other people.
The contrast is provided by Templeton, a rat who lives under Wilbur’s feeding trough. Templeton deals with others in a transactional way based on mutual self-interest. Templeton points out that, like Charlotte, he too has had a large positive impact on Wilbur’s life. He has a point but his insistence on transactional relationships may mean that his complaint of being unappreciated can’t be taken as far as he would like.
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.
More than a different way of working with people, Templeton represents a different way of living. For both, he may have little choice in how he conducts it. Unlike Charlotte, a spider, who may be ignored on a farm; or Wilbur, a pig, whose life has a purpose on a farm, up to a point; Templeton, a rat, is seen only as a pest. His life would be forfeit as soon as the farmer discovers it. As such, he lives a live-fast-die-young lifestyle and is a bit of a hedonist. His transactional way with others may only reflect the fact that he does not expect anyone to stick their neck out for him and he must instead be his own best advocate.
‘A rat is a rat,’ said Charlotte. She laughed a tinkling little laugh.
Though he may at times appear selfish, like Charlotte and the other animal characters, he does according to his nature.
‘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 insects. 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.
‘Yes, it is,’ agreed Charlotte. ‘But I can’t help it.’
The contrast between Templeton’s and Charlotte’s relationships with Wilbur can be taken as an analogy for how we all conduct ourselves with others whether we are always aware of it or not. On one dimension, near the centre of our circle of concern, we probably maintain more selfless and loving relationships with family and friends. We know how things can become awkward and uncomfortable when we add a transaction to the relationship, say when loaning a friend a large sum of money. Far from the centre, we probably hold more transactional relationships, for instance in our role as consumers. In between there can be some conflict, often where people differ on how generous or transactional they wish a relationship to be, for example with government or employers.
On another dimension, the world does not stand still and in some circumstances we may find the Charlottes become the Templetons and vice-versa. When people find themselves caught up in a war, in a natural disaster, in a global pandemic; we see extremes in both generosity and transactional survival instincts.
I suppose one reason this aspect of Charlotte’s Web impacted me so strongly is because, at the time I read it, my wife and I were re-watching the TV series Lost. In Lost, there is a similar dynamic between characters. The more-selfless surgeon Jack is contrasted with the more-transactional conman Sawyer. It has probably been on my mind also because of certain world leaders who seem to take the transactional aspect of political deal-making to self-serving extremes at the expense of their other responsibilities.
It is impossible for me to say how I might have found Charlotte’s Web if I had read it as a child. The least I can say for this well-written story as an adult is that it was satisfying to finally read a classic. One that many people have lifelong affection for and is frequently alluded to in popular culture making familiarity with it essential.