E.B. White had an amazing talent for capturing the joy of friendship, the beauty of nature, and the profound melancholy of growing up, all within a single story of a runty little pig and his guardian spider.
I’ve always loved Charlotte’s Web. I read it many, many times as I made my own way through childhood. The innocence of Wilbur, the strength and wily wisdom of Charlotte, and the cantankerous complaints of Templeton the rat were as much a part of my life as my own real family (and maybe a better part, since no one in my family ever bothered to sing my praises in a spider’s web, as I well deserved).
I’m not remotely an outdoorsy person, but E.B. White’s beautiful prose so completely captures the warmth and delight of small farm life that it’s almost enough to make me want to go outside, if only briefly.
Ultimately, I made a child in my own image, at least in part so I could share with him this very book, hoping against hope that he, too, will gain some bit of insight into the concepts of friendship, sacrifice, love, life, and even death.
Last night, as we reached the final lines of the chapter where Charlotte dies, alone at the fair but comforted by the knowledge that Wilbur will protect her children long after she’s gone, I noticed that Henry didn’t seem fazed by (or even all that aware of) the traumatic turn of events in our story. I suppose I expected some sort of emotional outburst, or even a soft acknowledgment of what had just occurred. But no—there was nothing.
We finished the chapter and headed up to brush his teeth before bedtime. But as he put the toothpaste on his brush, he paused for a second, little lines of concern appearing briefly on his forehead.
“Dad,” he said, “I wish Charlotte didn’t die.” Then he turned back to his task, his mind once again focused on the mundane, the moment passing almost as quickly as it came.
I always hated the part where Charlotte died, too. But, much like the lonely old stump at the end of The Giving Tree, I learned that life continues after we suffer loss, even if we ourselves are forever changed from what we once knew. Perhaps now no one swings from our branches or plays king of the forest or picks apples. Perhaps the great literary spider has put down her pen for the last time, leaving behind her beautiful web that’s now just a few ragged strands that fade away into the wind.
But maybe all we need is for someone to come sit with an old stump just one more time.
Maybe all we need is to know that Charlotte’s children, for generation after generation, will continue to bring joy and new experiences to Wilbur’s life, long after Charlotte herself has slipped away.
And maybe all we need is for a child to come alongside us, and just for a moment, as the sounds of the day fade away into silence and my boys make their reluctant way to bed, to briefly commiserate with us about the death of a small, gray spider who saved the life of a runty little pig.