Friday, December 3, 2010

Have I Outgrown Charlotte and Wilbur?

My new perspective on Charlotte's Web.

        The world is a much different place than it was in 1952 when E. B. White’s children’s story, Charlotte’s Web, was first published.
         I am different too.
         I am a lot older, sixty-one-years old instead of three. I don’t worry about monsters in my closet. I am married and have raised three children of my own. My parents, who read Charlotte’s Web to me many times in the Fifties, are both long gone. Many of my contemporaries have passed on as well.
Does this mean I have outgrown one of my favorite bedtime stories as well? Are Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig no longer relevant to my world or me?
           I should answer yes. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White’s novel, is after all, a children’s story. But denying the two famous friends a current place in my heart or at the 21st Century’s table makes my stomach turn and my head cringe. I have opened this book many times since growing up. Not to read it to my children, mind you. Our youngest left home a decade ago. Not to read to my grandchildren either--I might when the time comes but I don’t have any yet. No, I still read Charlotte’s Web because I love the story. It draws me in as an adult even more than it did when my children or I were young…for almost as many reasons as there are strands on a spider’s web.

            First off, I love farms. Growing up I was quite familiar with them. I never lived on one but there was a farm next door to my parents’ home. Even though we lived in the suburbs our neighbors raised unusual cattle and beautiful horses. More than anything else in the world I wanted a farm of my own so I could ride horses. I also visited relatives at their farms in Iowa. The small family ones, like the Arable’s and the Zuckerman’s, were especially magical. I love the fact that farmers never left Mother Earth for more complicated pursuits. I love a farm’s simplicity, its honesty and its unadorned necessity. Our culture longer needs horses and buggies or wood-burning stoves or LP records…but it does need farms. I love the animals and the crops--that farmers can fix a dinner merely by walking outdoors and picking it from the garden; the self-sustaining independence of this. Farms and their barns are a part of our heritage that is as important now as it has always been. Barns “often had a sort of peaceful smell--as thought nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.”

            I also like Charlotte’s Web because I am a sucker for friendship and friendship is a very important element in this story. Wilbur “realized that friendship is one of the most satisfying things in the world.” Like Wilbur, I only had a couple friends growing up. Unlike Wilbur, when my friends moved on to other interests like Fern Arable does, I didn’t really have anyone in the rafters…no egg sacks in my future…to fill the void.
           For a while it didn’t really matter--I was busy with college, then marriage and then with raising my family. But when my children left home it occurred to me there was a void in my life. My husband’s habit had long been to bury himself neck deep in his career so I tried to bury myself in mine. I took courses to advance in my field with all sorts of framed certificates to show for them. I got involved in community service--won all kinds of leadership awards. Then I gave classes in my field and was very much in demand. I traveled and I visited my children. My calendar was packed! But at the end of the day--in the dark of my bedroom--I was miserable.
           Finally, I realized the way to fill this void was with people--not awards to put on a bookcase, not meetings to attend and not places to visit. Even though my head said this was a crazy idea--that most folks I knew already had plenty of friends--my heart said otherwise. Not that anyone needed me but that I needed them. “After all,” Charlotte says, “What’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. By helping …perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.’”
           Unsure of my own value as a friend, it was still my goal to approach potential friends indiscriminately--with no regard for what they might offer me in return. I had a simpler calling--to seek out potential soul mates, as unnerving as that was because I was like Wilbur, a lowly pig that meant “less than nothing” to a barnyard goose.
            A funny thing happened with all this. I learned I was not the only person who needed friends. My efforts were almost instantly rewarded--the people I befriended came back at me by leaps and bounds--because they, too,were lonely! I haven’t wound up with five hundred and fourteen friends like Wilbur did when Charlotte’s babies arrived but the friends I made bring smiles to my face at the end of each day.

             And this is important because friendship is one of the few things that survive death. Death is everywhere in Charlotte’s Web. That life is temporary dominates from the very first sentence. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Fern asks her father.
             I am not impressed with children’s stories that speak so blatantly about death. Bambi comes to mind as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But unlike many other children’s stories, White offers alternatives and hope. There is Fern who saves Wilbur from the ax. There is, of all characters, a rat named Templeton who helps save Charlotte from Avery’s capture. There is, of course, Charlotte who saves Wilbur with her brilliant writing and there is Wilbur who saves Charlotte’s babies. All this is done in the name of friendship.

              Life on a farm is not for the weak. Not for runts like Wilbur who “will never amount to anything.” Poor Wilbur is perhaps more preoccupied with death than any other character in the story. Repeatedly he says things like “Do you really think Zuckerman will let me live and not kill me when the cold weather comes? Do you really think so?” And yet Wilbur, the runt, not only lives but succeeds in accepting that we all die sometime.
             Charlotte also sensed her clock ticking…“knew she didn’t have much time” though she deals with it in a more mature manner than Wilbur. Her hours were limited not just for convincing the Zuckerman’s of Wilbur’s value before they butchered him but for creating her “magnum opus”  before she died. She says to Wilbur, “‘I guess I feel sad because I won’t ever see my children.’” White tells us that it is okay to be sad but not to dwell on it. “‘You’re carrying on in a childish way,’ Charlotte says to Wilbur. ‘Stop your crying! I can’t stand hysterics.’”
              No one can avoid the end of life. Even “the crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever…the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” Like the stalwart spider, we cannot wallow in self-pity but should pick ourselves up and carry on. And, Wilbur does. He goes from being a whiny and insecure piglet to a confident and caring pig that worries more about others (such as Charlotte’s babies) than himself. He has grown up and, as a result, “he was never without friends…and life in the barn was very good--night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall. ”

               Finally, it is the large themes in White’s story--the universal truths he relates--that lead me to keep it on my bookshelf.
               On the precariousness of friendship Wilbur says, “‘What a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty--everything I don’t like.’ Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend.”
              On growing up, Mrs. Arable says, after “the children…danced off…toward the wonderful music and the wonderful adventure and the wonderful excitement, into the wonderful midway where there would be no parents to guard them and guide them. ‘Well, they’ve got to grow up some time.’”
               And, on miracles Dr. Dorian tells Mrs. Arable, “Oh, no, I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
Just like life itself, a miracle is to be celebrated, to be danced about, to be wondered over and appreciated for everything it offers. Especially friends.

               Charlotte’s Web is not just a classic children's story, it is a literary classic. What defines this is, of course, debatable and subjective but, for me, it is a work that holds a great appeal for adults as well as children. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Red Pony, Charlotte’s Web holds this appeal because it is written from the heart--simply and honestly. White presents the emotions of fear, love, joy and loneliness in a way the whole world can embrace. He presents the struggles of growing up, of accepting mortality and of remaining loyal to our friends even in our darkest hours in a way that is not frightening but beautiful. He shows me that miraculous changes take place when we overcome these struggles. Most importantly Charlotte’s Web has held this appeal for generations, which brings me once more to my opening question.
Have I outgrown Charlotte’s Web?
                  Certainly I am much different than I was in 1952 and so is my world. Instead of the spreading influence of television we have the Internet; instead of rampant posterity spoiling us we have home foreclosures breaking our hearts and our bank accounts; instead of snuggling in a chair with a printed newspaper or magazine we hold e-readers while we ride a subway or stand in line; instead of watching ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ as a family we put the kids to bed and watch ‘Cougar Town.’
Yet, in spite of all this change, we still marry and raise children. Our children grow up and look forward to the day when they can venture out on their own. We still have farms and pigs and spiders. We have not devised a potion that allows us to live forever. We still face meanness and greed around every other corner. But, like Wilbur, we also see miracles taking place every day. Hopefully we have learned to recognize them.
               That is why the message of Charlotte’s Web will never get old. It is a message that holds meaning for young and old. I have not outgrown Charlotte and Wilbur and I hope I never do. To the contrary I would urge every adult to read this story to every little one in their life as many times as that child will listen.
               Let that child bond with Charlotte and Wilbur and Fern and even with Templeton; let him hear White’s words of wisdom; let him feel the rhythm of those words and appreciate the depth of metaphor and let him embrace the truisms our entire world. Let him learn about the simplicity of farm life, sense the urgency of mortality, but know the miracle of a spider’s web. It is the only way, I fear, that this world of ours will redeem itself.
               Lastly, let that child come to love a good book and the way it takes us out of the moment in order that we can better appreciate that moment. Our world is moving much too fast--some would say it is spinning out of control. Charlotte tells Wilbur, “They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they’d…wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no--with men it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute.” If Charlotte thought her world was rushing past, what would she think of ours?
              As his elder Charlotte taught Wilbur the value of love, loyalty and friendship. Wilbur passed that torch to her 514 babies. It’s been our turn ever since.

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