by E. B. White
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both” (White, 184).
This one’s another re-read, but I don’t care. I happened to see the above quote floating around on tumblr and I thought – Hey, I should read that. I remember liking it. So I did.
The basic story is that Fern Arable saves the runt of a litter of springtime pigs. She names him Wilbur and takes care of him until he gets big enough for the family to sell to her uncle Zuckerman. While living on the farm Wilbur becomes friends with Charlotte, a common barn spider that spins her web overhead. Wilbur also discovers that he’s going to be killed when summer ends to make bacon and ham, etc. Wilbur is terrified of this future, but Charlotte promises to save him.
First, Fern Arable.
I liked her tenacity in saving Wilbur when he was a baby. It might not have been the most sensible thing, but it was heartfelt and sincere. And I can always get behind someone who helps animals (as long as no one’s culture is being demeaned and criticized).
The text’s tendency to describe Fern’s attitude toward Wilbur as akin to a mother was a little odd to me, probably because it felt like it was just normalizing that little girls want to mother others. On one hand, I can see how having a baby animal would do that, especially if the person wanted to save the animal. If you save a baby animal, you better enjoy feeding it constantly and having it around you. So yeah, in that sense, it’s good that Fern gets so much absolute joy out of taking care of Wilbur. On the other hand, the references to “infant” when she feeds him his first bottle, and “baby” when Wilbur shares the doll stroller with Fern’s doll heavily re-enforce Fern’s role as a proto-mother.
Later I was pleased by how Fern preferred the company of the animals on Zuckerman’s farm. When she tells her mother about all the stories and events that happen there and how the animals talk, Mrs. Arable is alarmed that her daughter is spending so much time alone with animals. Mr. Arable thinks it’s fine, as does Dr. Dorian who Mrs. Arable visits to discuss her concern.
I liked how Fern wasn’t critiqued (at least by men) for acting different. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with her preferring animals and having imagination. I didn’t like how it was the female voice dissenting Fern’s choices. And furthermore, how Dr. Dorian alludes to how Fern will lose interest in animals and become interested in boys. There’s this lingering thread that there’s nothing to worry about Fern’s “quirks” because eventually she’ll start to grow up “proper” and like boys.
Also, I was a bit bothered by how Mrs. Arable says she’s not worried about Fern’s brother Avery, who “‘gets into poison ivy and gets stung by wasps and bees and brings frogs and snakes home and breaks everything he lays his hands on. He’s fine'” (111-2). So, that’s supposedly normal for a little boy, but a girl who spends all her time listening to animals isn’t?
There’s a strong binary gender existentialism in the word choice and how the characters speak. Girls are like this and boys are like this. The fact that a female character (Mrs. Arable) showed concern dismantled any possible female support for Fern, and the fact that it’s just taken for granted that Fern – as a girl – will eventually grow disinterested in Wilbur is disheartening.
And the worse part is that the story confirms this is true. By the time summer is coming to end and Wilbur is entered into the Country Fair, Fern runs into Henry Fussy and they ride the Ferris wheel together. After that, she barely has time to think about Wilbur.
Take the last day at the fair. When the Arables, the Zuckermans, and Lurvy, the Zuckerman’s hired hand, arrive and see that Wilbur didn’t win the blue ribbon, they’re upset. And Fern asks is if she can have some money to go to the midway. When her mother says no, she cries.
She doesn’t seem the least bothered by the fact that Wilbur didn’t win anything, meaning his life could be in danger. This is especially disconcerning for me since it’s established that Fern knows about Charlotte’s plot to write words in her web, so Zuckerman will believe Wilbur is special and not eat him come winter.
Soon after this, the loud speaker announces that the Fair has a special award for Zuckerman and his famous pig and to bring him to the judges. Everyone is delighted, and Fern repeats her request:
“‘Can I have some money?’ asked Fern.
‘You wait!’ said Mrs. Arable. ‘Can’t you see everyone is busy?'” (153).
Once Wilbur is in the crate, Fern sits on top, but “[a]s they passed the Ferris wheel, Fern gazed up at it and wished she were in the topmost car with Henry Fussy at her side” (154)
And once they arrive, Fern is more distracted by Henry Fussy than anything to do with Wilbur.
” Look!’ Fern cried, pointing. ‘There’s Henry!’
‘Don’t shout, Fern!’ said her mother. ‘And don’t point!’
‘Can’t I please have some money?’ Fern asked. ‘Henry invited me to go on the Ferris wheel again, only I don’t think he has any money left. He ran out of money.'” (156).
After her mother finally gives her some, “Fern raced off, ducking and dodging through the crowd, in search of Henry” (156).
So Dr. Dorian was right. Boys are more interesting to Fern now than the pig she raised or animals in general. And now we can add romantic heterosexual normalization to Fern’s characterization. Not only is she a girl, she instinctively seems to like boys in a way that hints at further romantic interest.
But you know what the nail in the coffin was? When Wilbur is getting his award, Fern’s brother Avery is with Wilbur the whole time. It felt like this subtle flip where now that Wilbur was doing something public and renowned, the boy could be around the pig, while Fern just wanted to go on a Ferris wheel with a boy. Ugh.
So, yeah, I wasn’t too pleased with her development. I’d rather she just stayed interested in animals, maybe worked with them. Did something in veterinary work. Although she still could. Who knows? I’d like to think after her fascination with Henry Fussy (and maybe boys in general), that her love for animals retains a place in her adult life.
Next week I’ll talk about Charlotte herself and my many, many feelings.
White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952. Print.