It’s a classic, right? You’re supposed to love it. Well, I don’t. I’ve read it twice recently, once to my own children and once to my class, and I must say it’s not that great. I will admit that it’s a memorable story. Who could forget a spider spinning words in a web to help save a pig from being Christmas dinner? Charlotte’s death is definitely striking too. I got choked up reading about her demise to my boys but was able to stone-face it to my class. Still, this is one seriously flawed piece of children’s literature.
My biggest complaint is with the character of Fern. She starts out completely three dimensional, outraged that her father is going to kill the runt of the litter. “If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” She pretty much forces him to spare baby Wilbur’s life. From the way the book starts you’d think she’d be a pivotal character throughout the story, but alas that is not how it plays out. Apparently having served her purpose of rescuing Wilbur from an early death, E.B. White has no further use for her. She’s strictly cardboard from that point on and has absolutely no further bearing on the plot.
It’s doubly insulting that Fern is not only relegated to the background of Wilbur and Charlotte’s tale, but she loses interest in the animals and discovers that boys, particularly Henry Fussy, are better worth her time instead. Come on! She’s the only person that can hear these animals talking. Some stupid boy is going to make her forget all that? I might be able to accept it if she were a little bit older and the adolescent hormones had started kicking in, but in the story she’s all of eight years old.
I’ve got other problems with Charlotte’s Web too. So if the pig’s purpose is to be eaten, what about the plentiful geese on the farm? Aren’t they destined to be future meals as well? No one seems to care, care, care about them. And are people really so dimwitted as to believe Charlotte’s pro-Wilbur propaganda? Apparently so. It’s the spider that’s extraordinary, a fact that Mrs. Zuckerman initially picks up on, but these podunks obviously aren’t too bright. Then there’s the whole saving the pig angle, which is the crux of the story. Why would a spider give a rat’s ass (sorry Templeton) about Wilbur’s date with a dinner plate? Are our eight legged friends really so altruistic toward swine? It just doesn’t make sense, I tell you!
I’m being semi-sarcastic about these last few things but the Fern issue truly does lessen any enjoyment I might receive from the story. There must be plenty of people who disagree as the book continues to be published and there was even a recent film based on it. To me it’s overrated and there are dozens of books I’d recommend before it.