When Pigs Cry

The importance of faith and kindness in Charlotte’s Web.

When Pigs Cry

There’s an internet rumor that claims Charlotte’s Web is banned from select children’s libraries in Kansas. It goes like this: In 2006, a faith-based group of parents objected to the book’s “blasphemous” talking animals. In response, administrators removed it from the curriculum and/or libraries.

To research this column, I read articles, blog posts, and message boards, but not a single person (school district or library) was named, leaving me unable to verify the story.  

On the face of it, a ban on Charlotte’s Web seems unlikely. In the broadest sense, all Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have inherited a creation story that involves a chattering serpent. Scripture go on to feature a loquacious burning bush. From Numbers 22, Balaam’s donkey, animated with the holy spirit, asks his owner, “What have I done to make you beat me these three times?”

Surely, no parent religious or secular would object to a children’s story from the 1950s that uses anthropomorphized animals to explore values like community, love, and sacrifice. Or perhaps some would.

E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, might’ve anticipated a little resistance. He telegraphs his response to critics in chapter 14, when Mrs. Arable visits the doctor regarding daughter Fern’s strange behavior. Her chief complaint? Fern sits for hours in the barn, watching animals. Worse, she claims they talk to each other. Especially Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig).  

“I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand,” says Mrs. Arable.

“None of us does,” Dr. Dorian replies with a sigh. “I’m a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.”

As a meditation on how to live with mystery, Charlotte’s Web invites readers to witness relationships and sagas that are, in some cases, reminiscent of Bible stories. In the beginning, Fern saves little Wilbur, who is about to be sacrificed by a patriarch. As the pig grows, his and Fern’s relationship changes, a painful separation that happens by degrees when Wilbur gets relocated to the relative “wilderness” of Homer Zuckerman’s barn. Here, in the first few chapters, the story is already rich with themes of mission, salvation, and motherhood-via-innocence.

The communion of articulate barn-dwellers likewise features recognizable personalities with age-old ambitions: Wilbur is lonely, searching for the love and guidance he once received from Fern; the stuttering geese (“Wilbur-ilbur-ilbur,”) go about their worldly business of sitting on eggs; the sheep pass judgment in order to feel superior; and the gluttonous rat, Templeton (my personal favorite), hoards objects and looks out for his own interests — or so it seems — while Charlotte, a common grey spider, tries to save Wilbur from The Big Sizzle. The inspired words about him that she weaves into her web are prayers meant to show Zuckerman that Wilbur is a miracle. “People believe almost anything they see in print,” says Charlotte, in a line that sounds prophetic.

As with many children’s stories, the wisdom tradition shines in Charlotte’s Web. From Charlotte’s practical advice to Wilbur (“Never hurry and never worry!”) to the between-the-lines warnings that being “important” is a lot of work, the lessons in this deceptively simple story go from mere best practices to meaning-of-life tenets (e.g., people, er, animals tend to live up — or down — to others’ expectations).

And much as in another beloved kids’ book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, readers are encouraged to contemplate whether we might become extraordinary by dint of our skills and talents, or through a different process entirely: being loved by those who will remember us when we’re gone.

What I appreciate most about Charlotte’s Web is the spider’s unwavering belief in goodness. True, she never professes it in so many words. The story would be less powerful if she did. Charlotte lives her convictions by helping Wilbur, using up her silk for his cause, and even leaving home at a terrible time (for her) to accompany him to the county fair. Because of this, she will die alone.

The word “friendship” comes up a lot in Charlotte’s Web, as well as in the blurbs and endorsements on its back cover. While it can be said there is friendship in the story, this has never been my primary interpretation. Friendship, after all, suggests mutuality between equals; Charlotte and Wilbur are not equal. In many ways, theirs is a one-way relationship.

Charlotte offers mentorship and guidance (and often mothering) to Wilbur when she instructs him about the world, tells him stories, sings him to sleep, and assures him that everything will be all right. And this is all when she is not busy weaving the words of affirmation that save his bacon. Perhaps it would’ve been harder to sell a book whose summary read: “Genius spider uses all her time and energy to rescue a needy, ordinary pig, then dies exhausted.”  

So why does she do it?

I think it is faith. The spider’s faith that, in time, the pig will find a way to enlarge the love she gave him and pass it on to someone else.   

It’s hard to imagine anyone — a school board or otherwise — objecting to that.

Dorothy Reno is the Independent’s classic-books columnist.

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