As many readers and critics of Charlotte's Web have pointed out, the novel begins in a rather shocking way, particularly when we consider that it was written for children; the book opens with an impending death and a rather violent one at that. The first sentence, voiced by eight-year-old Fern, is: "Where's papa going with that ax?" Fern's mother explains evasively, "Some pigs were born last night." Fern pushes for more, "I don't see why he needs an ax." Reluctantly, Fern's mother goes on, "Well...one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it." Fern presses her mother for clarity, "Do away with it...You mean kill it?"
Fern understands the situation and calls out the unfairness of it, "The pig couldn't help being born small," and she pushes onward with her case, "This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard." At hearing this reasoning, the father, who only moments ago was headed out to kill the runt, is overcome with concern. He carries the ax, but he does not strike; instead, he is struck by Fern's claim of injustice such that, "He seemed almost ready to cry himself."
On Democracy contains a piece White wrote in the fall of 1950 titled, "The Thud of Ideas," which laments that, nationally, language is not being used as a persuasive tool. He writes, "Americans are willing to go to enormous trouble and expense defending their principles with arms, very little trouble and expense advocating them with words." Here, in these initial sentences of the novel, White shows the reader how incredibly effective words can be as defense. Words can cause action to stop; words can save a life. Fern's father does not kill the pig; Fern is allowed to rescue the pig, bring it back to the house, and care for it.
The power of language is again exhibited, not only as a tool of defense, or even persuasion, but also as a tool for becoming, by virtue of being named. Fern names her pig "the most beautiful name she could think of: Wilbur." The name Wilbur has two roots: it is derived from the medieval "wildbor," a creature strong and known to be extremely difficult to hunt. And, two, it is rooted in Old German bearing the meaning "resolute" and "brilliant." Indeed, Wilbur evades the first hunt: Fern's father with the ax. And, soon, we will see how he continues to avoid what would at first seem the inevitable fate of a pig: ending up on the dinner table. Wilbur bears his name, remaining difficult to hunt, determined, and bright.
Under Fern's care, he has grown and thus has been sent back to the barn where he was born. It is there that Fern visits him, observing him with the other animals, but also listening to them. Fern's great discovery is that the animals on the farm talk! The animals speak and have feelings, moods, wants, and needs, but only Fern and the narrator are privy to all of this. For instance, the narrator describes the pig's lonesome state: "Wilbur stood in the sun feeling lonely and bored. 'There's never anything to do around here,' he said." He tells the animals in the barn that he wants "someone to play with," but the goose, the lamb, and the rat each decline. Just when he feels he could not "endure the awful loneliness any more," Wilbur hears a "rather thin, but pleasant" voice ask, "Do you want a friend...I’ll be a friend to you. I've watched you all day and I like you." We learn that this voice belongs to a spider named Charlotte. The name, Charlotte, is the name of the oldest Bronte sister, the author of Jane Eyre. Eventually, we will come to know that Charlotte the spider not only enjoys speaking to her new friend, but also writing, just like her namesake, Bronte.
"Salutations!" she sings to Wilbur to which he replies, "Salu-what?," as he looks for her. Charlotte "shows herself" to Wilbur directing his eyes to the silvery, wisps of thread that make her home – her web – in the upper corner of the barn doorway. Wilbur immediately observes the wild wonder and horror of Charlotte and her web: "A fly that had been crawling along Wilbur's trough had flown up and blundered into the lower part of Charlotte's web and was tangled in the sticky threads. The fly was beating its wings furiously, trying to break loose and free itself." With the fly caught and stuck, Charlotte explains as she works, "I dive at him...I wrap him up...I knock him out." Then stepping back to admire her work she states what a tasty breakfast this fly will make. Wilbur is horrified, "You mean you eat flies?" He goes on to tell Charlotte this way of life – trapping and eating bugs – is cruel. In doing so, he echoes Fern's adamant cry that it is cruel to kill the runt – Wilbur himself. But, Charlotte explains that if she didn't eat bugs, the bugs would no longer live in balance with the rest of the world and would take over. At this contrasting horror, Wilbur concedes: "Perhaps your web is a good thing after all." The goading goose (who had been listening) thinks to herself, "There are a lot of things Wilbur doesn’t know about life." Namely, as the goose points out, that just like the fly killed for Charlotte's breakfast, Wilbur will also be killed for Fern's family's Christmas dinner.
There is a viciousness bound with the natural wonders and beauty on the farm. At the beginning of summer, the narrator tells us in a description both natural and artificial, innate and manufactured that life is everywhere: "Dandelion stems are full of milk, clover heads are loaded with nectar, the Frigidaire is full of ice-cold drinks. Everywhere you look is life." But surely enough, among this life lurks death.
The goose's eggs hatch and goslings emerge from the cracked shells, but one egg does not hatch. Echoing the language used at the very beginning of the novel in reference to Wilbur the runt, the goose refers to the egg that did not hatch as "a dud" and willingly gives it to Templeton the rat, as if her unhatched offspring was just another piece of trash. In fact, all the animals agree this egg is like trash because, as Charlotte points out: "If that ancient egg ever breaks, this barn will be untenable." Wilbur is struck by and curious about Charlotte's word-choice and asks, "What's that mean?" Charlotte responds, "It means nobody will be able to live here on account of the smell. A rotten egg is a regular stink bomb." Yet, just like that runt of a pig, Wilbur, even this "dud" of an egg has potential. Soon we see that this rotten egg saves Charlotte's life.
Fern's brother enters the barn to pester and tease Fern while wielding a stick around in a destructive manner with his eye on the spider web. White writes, "Avery put one leg over the fence of the pigpen. He was just about to raise his stick to hit Charlotte when he lost his balance. He swayed and toppled and landed on the edge of Wilbur's trough. The trough tipped up and then came down with a slap. The goose egg was right underneath. There was a dull explosion as the egg broke, and then a horrible smell." Avery runs away in horror and thus Charlotte and her web are saved from death by stick. As Wilbur says, "It was that rotten egg that saved Charlotte’s life!"
Shortly after this scene, Wilbur learns of his intended fate from the old sheep, "I'm an old sheep and I see the same thing, same business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the..." But the sheep is cut off by Wilbur, "Stop!...I don't want to die! Save me, somebody! Save me!" Just as Fern wielded the power of language to persuade her father not to kill Wilbur, Charlotte also uses convincing words to save Wilbur. "You shall not die," she says as she vows to save him alone.
Charlotte believes that if she "can fool a bug" then she "can surely fool a man" because "people are very gullible." She fools a bug with her web, and she will fool a human with the same. And in turn, by the same mercy of the rotten egg saving Charlotte's life, and the mercy of the gullible humans, Charlotte will save Wilbur's life. That thin pretty voice we heard at the beginning of the novel turns from sound to sight, with the silvery thread constructing words in the web.
Lurvy, the family's farm hand, may not "be particularly interested in beauty," the narrator tells us, but even he noticsd the words woven into the web that next morning: "SOME PIG!" At the sight, Lurvy drops his bucket and urgently gathers the family. And just as Charlotte suspected, the gullible humans consume the words. They gather around the "miracle" of the web and repeat "some pig." But what does "some pig" mean? "Some," rooted in the Old English "sum," can mean, when used as an adjective, on the one-hand, "undetermined or unspecified" and on the other hand, "deserving consideration or remarkable," but often with this latter meaning, it is used ironically. Thus the seemingly simple word, "some," is one Charlotte wields with irony and complexity: some is at once both "unspecified" and "remarkable."
The animals in the barn applaud Charlotte for her work, and she too congratulates herself: "The Zuckermans have fallen for it!" As Charlotte points out, "People believe almost anything they see in print."
Soon Charlotte tells the animals the humans need something new; they are "getting sick of Some Pig!" The spider encourages the animals to think of a "new slogan." Charlotte is at once an agent, an editor, and a writer. One of the creatures suggests "Pig Supreme," but she deems it too reminiscent of something you might eat, "It sounds like a rich dessert." Another, the goose, suggests: "Terrific." Then Charlotte is off again to build a new web, swaying the humans with her woven words.
The Zuckermans are undone again when they see "Terrific" in the web and embody the word. They feel terrific about their terrific pig: "I have a terrific pig. I want that pig to have clean, bright straw." Even Wilbur who was doubtful that the word terrific was a true and honest description of himself sees the word spelled out and suddenly he "really felt terrific." The word is consumed and digested so that all who see it, feel it, become it. Interestingly, the meaning of the word terrific changed over time.Initially, the sixteenth century meaning was "frightening" and "terrifying," but eventually the word came to be used in a positive, uplifting way: "amazing, impressive, excellent, exceedingly good, splendid." Thus, embedded in this word, and what the animals and humans have embodied, is both "frightening" and "splendid." And indeed, the ways in which the word has appeared to the humans (a mystery! a miracle!) is both frightening and splendid. Likewise, the ways in which the word is seen, therefore believed, consumed, and embodied, is also frightening and splendid. If you write it, they read it, they believe it, they become it. This fact is terrifying, yet impressive. Charlotte's words are clearly having a great impact. The words are read, so much so that the readers become what they read. The community surrounding Zuckerman's farm becomes hungry for the latest word in the web.
In "The Thud of Ideas," White writes that “the letters-to-the-editor page, strange and wonderful as it always is, is one of the chief adornments of the society we love and seek to clarify for the world. The privilege of writing to the editor is basic; the product is the hot dish of scrambled eggs that is America." Charlotte defends Wilbur's life with words. She is the author of the opinion piece that appears in the web. She writes the letter to the editor: upholding her principles, her opinion, her argument with the words she writes. Indeed, the assortment of words – plundered from the rat's garbage, garnered from advertisements, pieces of newspapers, the vocabulary of the animals – is in fact a kind of linguistic scramble, a "hot dish" of leftovers assembled to share with a wider group, the community surrounding this farm.
The community of readers Charlotte writes for expands when Wilbur is taken to the county fair. Charlotte and Templeton sneak into the crate with Wilbur and accompany him. Charlotte immediately sends Templeton out to find a word, so she can create one last web in hopes of not only saving Wilbur's life, but also in hopes of helping Wilbur win first prize. Charlotte tells Templeton, "Bring me back a word...I shall be writing tonight for the last time." He returns with a newspaper scrap with the word "humble," which means “modest, unpretentious,” but also originates from Latin roots which can be interpreted as "low to the ground." Wilbur is figuratively perhaps, "modest, unpretentious," but he is also literally "low to the ground," his stature short, his belly nearly brushing the earth. The "miracle of the web" is repeated, and Wilbur, hanging on "humble," wins first prize at the county fair to the delight of the Zuckermans. Thanks to Charlotte, he has been saved yet again from a future on the Zuckerman's table.
"Humble" may be the final word Charlotte will write in the web, but it is not her last work. Her "magnum opus" as she calls it, is her egg sac, containing 514 eggs. She tells Wilbur it is "the finest thing I have ever made." This great work complete, Charlotte begins to "languish," as she tells Wilbur, and will die soon, but her eggs will hatch next spring. Wilbur wails out at this news, but is admonished by Charlotte. "Don't be ridiculous," she tells him. He sadly says goodbye to his friend and holds hope through the autumn and winter for the arrival of spring and the hatching of Charlotte's eggs.
The observant old sheep, who has seen so many seasons come and go, announces the arrival of spring and with it the arrival of Charlotte’s spiders, which hatch from the sac and disperse – all 514 of them. Wilbur trembles with joy at the birth of Charlotte's spider babies. The narrator assures us that the Zuckermans never forget the wonderous pig and keep him safe and sound and well fed through his years. And, in turn, Wilbur never forgets Charlotte: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." Wilbur's life depends not on the friendship he had with Charlotte, but on the words that Charlotte wove on his behalf. Life is hanging by a thread – whether the word woven into the web that sustains Wilbur's life, or the thread that secures Charlotte's sac of spider eggs. Through this image of the delicate strands of thread that make the web, White speaks to the precarious nature of life on the farm – held together by fragile but strong threads.
Similarly, in the essay "Temple of Democracy," White argues that democracy "always hangs by a thread." Academic freedom, he states, remains central to democratic values: "A healthy university in a healthy democracy is a free society, in miniature. The pesky nature of democratic life is that it has no comfortable rigidity; it always hangs by a thread, never quite submits to consolidation or solidification, is always being challenged, always being defeated...A campus is unique. It is above and beyond government...This is its secret strength and its contribution to the web of freedom; this is why the reading room of a college library is the very temple of democracy."
Each precarious thread, contributed to the "web of freedom," is built from the string of words that one encounters when reading, that one links together when writing. White tells us the "temple of democracy" is the reading room of a college library; it is academic freedom, it is intellectual freedom, it is freedom of speech. Language is at the heart of democracy and, White argues, life itself. Through Charlotte's Web, White speaks to the youngest generation about the power and possibility of language; it is a novel rooted in hope. And on this hope, hangs democracy.
From guest contributor Amy Hezel, Regis University