- The Real Miracle of Charlotte's Web
From the time of its first appearance in 1952, reviewers and critics have heralded E. B. White's Charlotte's Web as a children's classic, but they differ widely on the question of what it is about. Taking his cue from a chance remark of White's (Letters 481), Roger Sale believes the book is a "hymn to the barn"—a hymn of "celebration and praise" of the life that begins and ends there (258). In a 1952 review Eudora Welty suggested that the book was about "friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time" (49); many others have seen friendship as the main theme. But to John Rowe Townsend, the animals in the barn are really people, through whom E. B. White teaches us about ourselves, some of us loyal and intelligent (like Charlotte), other poor, fat, and unheroic (like Wilbur), still others greedy and self-seeking (like Templeton)(241).
On the question of who the book is about, there is even less agreement. At least one reviewer thought Fern was the protagonist, and John Rowe Townsend finds Fern central to the meaning of the novel:
The death of Charlotte . . . is the death of a person, made bearable by the continuance of life through her offspring. The barn and farmyard are a world. The passage of seasons, the round of nature, are unobtrusively indicated.
Outside the life of the farmyard there is another world, not perhaps more real but on a different plane, which is that of commonplace human life; and perhaps the most poignant thing in the book is the passage of small girl Fern from involvement with the animals as people to a perfectly normal, but imaginatively regressive, preoccupation with the glittering actualities of the fairground. Fern has begun the saving of Wilbur, but by the end she has forgotten him; that is life, too. Childhood passes(241-42).
But while Charlotte's Web is about Fern, there is probably not a case for Fern as the protagonist of the story, for, as Rebecca Lukens maintains (17, 66), Fern's character is left quite flat and undeveloped. After the beginning, when she saves the runt pig with her child's argument for justice, Fern soon becomes unobtrusive in the story of Wilbur and Charlotte and the barn, almost invisible, to become visible only occasionally to remind us that the story is, after all, partly hers, and to represent the evolution of the species human beings. White spent two years in the research for and composition of Charlotte's Web, and then, sensing that the book was not quite right, put it aside for a year. When he returned to the story, he rewrote it completely, primarily to add Fern—a change that he later believed "a lucky move . . . a narrow squeak" (Letters 644, 649). Fern is important in White's tale in the way that Gatsby is important in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or that Willie Stark is important in Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, or Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. She is not the protagonist of the story, but the point cannot be made without her.
Rebecca Lukens identifies Wilbur as the sole protagonist of the story, for Wilbur's character develops, Wilbur changes (17, 66). But if the story were essentially about Wilbur, White might have called the book "Forever Wilbur" or "Wilbur and the Web" or "Just Plain Wilbur" or "The Oink of the Pig." He didn't. Instead, his title highlights another character and her creation—Charlotte A. Cavatica and her web. White himself, with characteristic economy, says that "the theme of 'Charlotte's Web' is that a pig shall be saved," and then proceeds in praise of spiders:
"As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else—the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than...