Ethics and Edibility in Charlotte’s Web
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Ethics and Edibility in Charlotte’s Web

Dying in season evokes no terrors. (115)

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) has long been considered by scholars and educators to be a classic of children’s literature. Most analyses of the text retain the practice of seeing the animal body as a stand-in for human values, emotions, and experiences. Early scholarship on Charlotte’s Web focuses on its structural elements, including White’s proficiency with poetic language. Peter Neumeyer, for example, attends to the “mythopoetic dimension” (66) of the novel, clearly positioning it within the pastoral tradition. Perry Nodelman similarly examines the narrativity of the novel in the larger framework of folklore studies. Karen Coats, meanwhile, has recently approached the novel through a psychoanalytic lens, contending that “reading Charlotte’s Web through Lacan’s theory of subjectivity . . . enables us to come to an understanding of just how complicated the Other (as other people, as our own unconscious, as language itself) is in the formation of our identities” (105). Coats is correct in envisioning the Other as a means by which identity is formed, but her analysis remains focused on the creation of human identity, unproblematically using Wilbur as a stand-in for the human child. Ashraf Rushdy similarly prioritizes the human experience, positioning Charlotte’s Web as “a representation of individual and communal desires” (36), by which he is referring to human desires. Rushdy further characterizes Wilbur as becoming, by the end of the novel, “integrated into the human community” (37), despite the fact that, while occasionally visited by “friends and admirers” (White 183), the pig remains in the barn with Charlotte’s descendants for company. Although granted a reprieve from the fate of most livestock, Wilbur’s integration into human society is only partially complete, as he does not develop close relationships with any other human characters after Fern, and never returns to a fully domestic space. [End Page 327]

Examining the politics of animal subjectivity in Charlotte’s Web as part of the larger context of White’s other writings on animals, however, reveals a deeper ambivalence on the author’s part regarding the West’s culture of animal consumption. Through an animality studies reading of Charlotte’s Web, I aim to push the boundaries of what “subjectivity” and “community” mean in both the novel and in the larger framework of Western culture. An analysis that accounts for Wilbur as an actual nonhuman animal instead of as a representative of the concept of the human child calls into question the naturalization of what Jacques Derrida refers to as the “noncriminal putting to death” of the animal for human consumption (112).

In my analysis of White’s writing, I highlight the importance of animal subjectivity in a companion-species relationship. My examination of Charlotte’s Web accounts for the wider implications of granting subjectivity to a singular animal and not to all animals. More specifically, I investigate the crucially important relationship of ethics to edibility. Expanding on Donna Haraway’s conception of companion species, I explore White’s rhetorically sympathetic fusion of children and animals, as well as the possibility of interspecies friendship. Charlotte’s Web promotes a vision of subjectivity for the individual animal at odds with the West’s “carnophallogocentric” (Derrida 113) paradigm of meat consumption.

A Brief History of Hogs

Sanders Spencer, founder of the British Pig Association, characterized the pig as “a machine for the conversion of farm produce into meat” (132), a straightforward and utilitarian view of the animal consistent with René Descartes’s conception of the animal as an unfeeling beast-machine for the human to put to use as seen fit. As journalist William Hedgepeth posits, however, the development of human civilization advanced “hand-in-hoof . . . in a symbiotic sort of equilibrium” (43) with the domestication of the wild pig. Naturalist Roger Caras believes that, historically, this symbiosis facilitated the shift toward stable agriculturally based societies across Europe and Asia (118). The human domestication of animals in general had, between eight and ten thousand years ago, already encompassed other livestock, as well as dogs, but the stubborn...