Haley, my nine year old, and Ian, my eight year old, are giggling as we read about Templeton the rat’s huge belly after he gorged himself at the fair. It isn’t the first time they’ve giggled while reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and every time they do, it’s bittersweet. I love the sound because it means they are enjoying a book that has meant so much to me since I first read it as a little girl. It’s bitter because, unlike them, I know the ending.
Reading this children’s classic with my kids is eye-opening in so many ways. I think most of us adults think of two things when someone mentions Charlotte’s Web: the fate of Wilbur the pig hanging in the balance, and Charlotte’s death at the end of the book. We seem to forget all of the life and humor found in the midst of those serious things: we forget about Fern pushing Wilbur around in a baby carriage, Fern’s mean big brother falling on a rotten egg Templeton has hidden away when he tries to knock Charlotte from the beams of the barn, Wilbur turning back flips to prove he is a terrific pig, the Arables concern when Fern tells them the animals can talk, and a dozen other delightful scenes. And isn’t that life? The bitter mixed with the sweet?
As a mother, I read many children’s books with different eyes, and Charlotte’s Web is no exception. As a child I would have said the theme of the book is friendship, and that’s true. As a mother, however, I see the theme of seasons coming and going. I see the bittersweet passing of time. Fern starts the book as a little girl who feeds her pet pig with a bottle and spends her afternoons listening to her friends - the animals - talk in the barn. By the book's end, she scarcely cares when Wilbur wins a special prize at the fair: she’s too busy asking for money so she can meet Henry Fussy at the ferris wheel. In short, she’s growing up. Mrs. Arable is relieved because it means Fern is not so obsessed with talking animals.
But it’s a little sad too, isn’t it? Any mother understands the tension. We want our kids to grow up and experience all the joys that each season of life will bring. At the same time, we can’t help the tears that well in our eyes when we see the doll carriage that is no longer played with. Fern no longer can hear the animals talk, and we mourn a little.
Charlotte’s death follows this thread of time moving on. Spiders don’t live for very long, she tells Wilbur. It’s fitting in a way that she dies quietly at the fair; the same place where Fern begins to grow up.
The book, however, isn’t just about endings. The passage of time means new things too, like the hatching of Charlotte’s babies. There’s also the beautiful theme of unconditional love and friendship - the kind of friendship that looks at the heart and not at the outward appearance. Charlotte is a gray spider. Wilbur is a pig. The last two animals in the world we would consider beautiful and cute, yet White writes them in a way that makes us see them that way. As they see the beauty in each other, we see it too, right along with the people flocking to see the words Charlotte writes in her web. Through Charlotte's eyes, Wilbur truly becomes terrific, radiant, and humble - some pig indeed!
As I read this book to my kids, I also couldn’t help being filled with hope that love and friendship can overcome differences. Can you think of a more unlikely pair? A spider and a pig? It speaks to the cry of our hearts: peace and love. Something only unconditional love can accomplish. The kind of love Christ brought to the earth.
It’s no wonder this book still moves people, no matter how old they are. It can make a child giggle, a mother’s heart break, and a grown up consider that maybe there’s hope after all. It also just happens to have what I believe are the best closing lines ever written:
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
I am a former English teacher turned homeschool mom of three who writes Christian romance novels on the side. You know, in my huge amount of spare time.