I just finished reading Charlotte’s Web… I know it seems a little silly to write so much on a child’s story when I read and barely commented on Peter the Great: His Life and World or Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman–the second of which I will finish reading tomorrow. Yet sometimes the truths of a book like Charlotte’s Web please the heart while reading about Peter the Great or Catherine the Great of Russia interest the mind only. It is a rare book that can touch both heart and mind at the same time. Charlotte’s Web is a story even a child can understand, and yet there is something it satisfying for an adult: a parable about friendship.
The book is about the tender love of a pig (Wilbur) and a spider (Charlotte). Charlotte ultimately saves Wilbur from being butchered, and when Wilbur asks the question of why Charlotte did this, Charlotte says that she wanted something of her to last in Wilbur–more or less. This is what Plato said friendship was: a form of immortality in which the memory of a person lives on in a friend. That is why Plato said love was “the desire for immortality.” Plus, Charlotte adds, she likes Wilbur. The simple liking of one soul for another is a part of love that even the simplest people feel. It is only when the two come to get to know each other that a relationship when true friendship takes off from simple friendliness.
I will make a confession to the reader. I am not good at making friends myself. When I was young I tended to give people too much information whether from the books I read or about myself… I longed for friendship and yet I was prone to become an unwanted pest to many of the people I longed to be friends with. Yet somehow I believe I did overcome this short coming. I will not give a long, tedious list of friends, only to say that as an adult I am no longer the lonely straggler I was as a child. Friendship is, for those of us who are not social butterflies, a difficult art to learn.
That is why I am so glad I could work with the mentally ill. To be a friend to somebody who needs a friend is so rewarding, particularly if–like Charlotte–you can find meaning in the connection. More, though, you feel you have transcended the self-interest that Charlotte does in caring for Wilbur. You are not like the rat, Templeton, who is always thinking with his belly, always scheming with self-interest in mind. Eventually, Wilbur does pay Charlotte back in a way of pure gratitude, devoid of selfishness: he takes her egg sac and cares for it through the winter before most of the baby spiders that come from it travel on past the barn where Wilbur and Charlotte lived. Yet three of Charlotte’s daughters stay with Wilbur: Joy, Aranea, and Nellie. The love of Wilbur and Charlotte therefore lives on–but there is never an equal to the original Charlotte among her progeny. The true friend is always unique.