Over this weekend I plan to revisit a story I read in grade school: Charlotte’s Web. It is one of three stories by E.B. White in Charlotte’s Web and Other Illustrated Classics. I skipped Stewart Little–I will read it eventually but perhaps not as soon as I would like to–and turned happily to the tale of friendship which is Charlotte’s Web. There is a tragedy regarding Charlotte’s Web that is now being enacted: there are educators who want to ban Charlotte’s tale from children’s bookshelves because in the end the spider dies. To me this is as great a tragedy as Charlotte’s death is for little Wilbur, despite his having the opportunity to befriend all of her many children.
The truth is that a child must learn about the reality of death and loss eventually–for me I remember two great aunts dying in a car accident when I was 9 years old–and books like Charlotte’s Web help them process the loss they experience when grandparents, other older relatives, and eventually their own parents, pass from this world to the next. As a matter of fact, I would even say that the meaning attributed to Charlotte’s loss–especially after she saved Wilbur’s life from those who would transform him into a Christmas ham–is a way of teaching children how to understand and accept death. The truth that love can only exist in a way that eventually involves loss is a basic truth that all humankind must eventually face. Owning Charlotte’s Web is in this way similar to owning a pet: no cat or dog will live forever. One cannot anesthetize life, and those who try to do so at their peril: they deprive life of its most meaningful moments.
Of course, there is another reason, equally stupid, to ban Charlotte’s Web: its anthropomorphism in portraying animals. Children easily identify with nonhuman animals, and though those animals are not, in fact, like human beings, to force that knowledge on a child too young is to create a lack of sympathy with animals that is wholly unnecessary. Even traditional stories–like Joseph Jacob’s “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “The Three Little Pigs”–involve the interactions of humans-and-animals or animals-and-other-animals in a way which even very little children can identify with. Bruno Bettelheim suggested that these older stories offer a child the way to look at the world in terms of indulging or keeping in check in primal instincts.
Of course, compared to the animal characters in Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales and More English Fairy Tales, Wilbur is more complex: he becomes lonely and cries; he is anxious lest Charlotte be a good or a bad friend; and he grows to love and lose the friend of a lifetime in the Spider Charlotte. In that respect, Charlotte’s Web teaches children about life, love, and death. There is no reason to discourage children from reading a book which contains such wisdom.
Books like Charlotte’s Web become life long friends–I have not read it since grade school. Now I embrace the book with the warmth and tenderness of a childhood companion. I only read it once as a child, but I remembered it, and now I will live its story again.