Student Essay 4: In Search of Lost Time (1993)

E. B. White and Charlotte's Web

It takes a special person to write a child's book. This person must challenge the child's imagination and encourage the child's participation. They must do this using language that the child can understand without talking down to the child. Elwyn Brooks White, known by his pen name, E. B. White, was one such man. E. B. White was born July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., he was the youngest of six children. He was born during a time of great prosperity and lived through the depression (1).

E.B. White began his literary career as a reporter for the Seattle Times -- and continued as a staff writer for the New Yorker where he remained a contributing editor until his death. His contributions to children's literature include Stuart Little, published in 1945, Charlotte's Web in 1952, and The Trumpet of the Swan in 1970. His children's books are considered classics. In addition he has written and co-written books of poetry, essays, commentaries, novels for adults, and self-help writing books (3).

E. B. White became interested in writing children's books after he had a nervous breakdown in 1943. Although he recovered from this illness, it taught him him much, not least because his cognitive and emotional difficulties continued. He made the following statements about his illness, "there seems to be a kite caught in the branches somewhere," "I never would have believed that someday my head would get overcharged, like a battery on a long drive," and "I have mice in the subconscious (3)." His Trumpet of the Swan is about a swan who is born mute. The swan learns to use a trumpet and carries a board to write upon (3). White himself reads the unabridged cassette of this book aloud (6).

It was after the onset of his illness that he decided that writing for children would be gratifying and important work. The contents of his children's stories, the places, things, and people come from all sorts of experiences in his own life. The major themes in two of these stories are dramatized through animals. E. B. White loved animals and spent much of his life on a farm. He was also troubled by the double-dealing relationship between man and animals. And this is where the theme for Charlotte's Web, his second children's novel came from.

The theme of Charlotte's Web is the power of loyalty and loving friendship. The novel is a story about a pig named Wilbur who is saved by a spider named Charlotte. They live in the same barn and first become acquainted when Charlotte overhears Wilbur lamenting his loneliness and offers to be his friend. Wilbur thinks she is beautiful and, as he gets to know her, finds her fascinating. When he hears that his owner, Mr. Zuckerman, plans to butcher him at Christmas time, Charlotte calms his fears by promising to save him. A loyal and talented friend, she is as good as her word. She makes Mr. Zuckerman believe that Wilbur is an exceptional pig by writing words into the webs she weaves in the corner of the doorway to Wilbur's home in the cellar of the barn. The Zuckerman family and all the neighbors are amazed when they read Charlotte's legend SOME PIG, and take it for a miracle or a mysterious sign. And the wonder grows, along with Wilbur's reputation when Charlotte extends her campaign with other legends: TERRIFIC and RADIANT.

When Mr. Zuckerman takes Wilbur to the County Fair, Charlotte goes along in Wilbur's crate, hoping to help him win a prize and believing that if he does, Mr. Zuckerman will not kill him. During the night before the prizes are awarded. Charlotte weaves one more word, this time above Wilbur's exhibition pen, where everyone could see it. She chooses the word HUMBLE for her ultimate praise, a word she thinks appropriate because its dictionary definitions, not proud and near the ground, fit Wilbur, who has remained modest in spite of his fame. The board of governors of the Fair give Wilbur a special award ceremony in front of the grandstand, and Mr. Zuckerman's delight assures Wilbur of a long life.

At the Fair, when she has finished writing HUMBLE, Charlotte turns all her energies to making an egg sac and laying five hundred and fourteen eggs, after which achievement, she knows, she will languish and die. The news of her impending death crushes Wilbur, but when Charlotte says she doesn't even have the strength to get to the crate in which he will be returned to Zuckerman's barn, Wilbur has to persuade his friend Templeton, the rat, to detach Charlotte's egg sac carefully from its place high up on the wall of his pen and bring it to him. Wilbur then carries it safely back home, where, in a scooped out place in his warm manure pile, he places the eggs for safety during the long winter.

When Charlotte's children begin to hatch on a warm spring day, Wilbur's heart pounds and he trembles with joy. When they are all hatched, his heart brims with happiness. Wilbur never forgets Charlotte. Although he loved her children dearly, none of the new spiders ever took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. We are told (comically) that it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both (4). The adult reader can see that Charlotte has played the part of the powerful mother to Wilbur and he has reciprocated to the best of his ability.

As a child Charlotte's Web appealed to me because I spent much of my life in the country surrounded by animals. I was an also adventurous child and easily intrigued by the melodrama in life. And reading became my passion, as we did not have television. I was drawn to E. B. White's ability to give personalities to the animals because as a child I daydreamed a lot and had a vivid imagination. I playacted my life out, using animals and all sorts of objects all the time. This drama helped me to resolve the conflicts in my life. I also dreamed of helping my friends resolve their conflicts or problems, as Charlotte does for Wilbur. As an adult I like to think my friends and family come to me for help too. Charlotte's Web also has all the ingredients I needed to weave stories, a heroine, the downtrodden, the scoundrel, and the love affair. I admired Charlotte because she was such a smart, talented, and loyal friend to Wilbur.

The heroine of the tale, and maybe the true central character is Charlotte. She saves Wilbur's life, while teaching him how to live his life without her. And contrary to a popular theme in many female heroism stories, this plot does not end in unnecessary self-sacrifice. Charlotte does not save Wilbur by dying; death was coming to her, and she saves him by following her instincts, by using her intelligence, and by being true to her individual self without being false to her general nature. Charlotte reminds me that heroes from ancient times have been people in a class by themselves because they used their unusual gifts to protect others. Charlotte had a great love for Wilbur and called him her one and only. She gives him two reasons for saving his life, she likes him and perhaps she wanted to lift up her life a little or be a little better than she had been (4). The story combines female heroism and myth. The depth of the story comes from Charlotte's sacrifice as a poweful mother and conveys the loss as well as the heroism. It's not sentimental for Charlotte is replaced by Wilbur and her other children.

Not many children's books deal with the truths of human conditions like the fear of death and death itself. Nor do they so clearly shown that love can cure fear, show that death is a part of life, and reveal a love that is strong without being possessive. Charlotte's Web is a kind of fable that affirms these ideals and values for adult and children readers. It does this without prejudice to the superiority of human beings or of one sex over another.


  1. Anderson AJ EBWhite. NJ: Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1978.
  2. Blount, Margaret. Animal Land: The Creature of Children's Fiction. NYWilliam Morrow, 1975
  3. Egoff, Sheila. Thursday's Child. Chicago: American LIbrary Association, 1981.
  4. Elledge, Scott. EBWhite: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1984.
  5. White, E. B. Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little. New York HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 2000.
  6. ----------------. The Trumpet of the Swan. Unabridged Audiocassette read by E. B. White. New York: Bantam Books Audio, 1992.

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