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I am presently rereading E. B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web with my youngest child, who is eight. She is much enjoying this classic tale about the pig Wilbur and his friendship with the spider Charlotte, who hatches a clever plan to save him from the butcher’s knife. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read the book, but it is one of the earliest novels I can remember reading, maybe the first. Upon this rereading, I have realized that it marked me as strongly as it did because one of its major themes—indeed, the central one—is death.

The paragraph in which Charlotte dies—and particularly its second sentence, which is so beautifully constructed that it should be carved into a monument somewhere—still staggers me with both its literary perfection and the unbearable metaphysical weight of what it conveys:

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

It is true that there is a theme of defeating death in the novel, in Wilbur’s rescue from the holiday dinner table and his continued tie to Charlotte through her children. But even as a child, I knew this was insufficient. Death remains unconquered in the message of the passage on Charlotte’s death. The crushing solitude of those words—the heroine of the novel, a noble and selfless character, is alone in the deserted fairground, to disappear forever—left me with a feeling that lurked in the background of my life for years. It was that universal feeling of unease, anxiety, and trepidation in the face of this terrible thing that can seem to have no solution.

Our deepest engagement with the meaning of death, of course, is in religion. I had a vague Christian faith at that point in my childhood, but it was inchoate and undeveloped and largely unsupported by any familial or institutional structures. The Christian response to death is not entirely absent in Charlotte’s Web. It is insinuated several times that people see the words that Charlotte weaves into her webs as indicative of a miracle or mystery or intervention from elsewhere. But the point is not elaborated, and it does not amount to a solid statement about overcoming the terrible loneliness of death as it meets Charlotte. Of course it is the intense anthropormorphism of the characters in the novel that makes this point so much more powerful to the child reader. The idea of an actual spider perishing forever is one thing; Charlotte was and is something much more than this.

And there is nothing in the book on immortality, other than the purely materialist and never fully comforting message that “you live on in your offspring.” Notably, the novel concludes before Wilbur reaches his mortal end, which he must, even if it is not on the Zuckermans’ dinner table. The reader is thus, thankfully, spared the entire brunt of the absence of spirituality. I am sure this helped make the novel less than completely heartbreaking for me as a child, even though I was deeply troubled by Charlotte’s death.

It is a wonderful story for many reasons. It is wonderful because of Charlotte and Wilbur and their friendship that is made all the more precious because they are so different; because of gentle Fern and raucous Avery; because of the personalities of the cows and the horses and the sheep and all the other animals in Zuckerman’s barn; because of the song of the crickets conveying the melancholy message of the change of the seasons; because of the tranquil and measured routine of life and all the earthy sights and smells and sounds on the farm; because of that barndoor swing on which the children play; because of the excitement of the county fair and its perfect representation of the seemingly endless thrill and promise of being young; and even because of Templeton, the selfish rat who ends up despite himself saving the day for Wilbur, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s children alike.

But as beautiful a novel as it is, it would be still more aesthetically perfect and more spiritually fulfilling if White had given us more hope. How this reader wishes that there had been some company and some consolation, at the very least, for that brilliant and steadfast arachnid friend in her last moments. I remember still, all these years later, the anguish I felt as a boy thinking of poor Charlotte. I know it would have comforted me immensely to find in the story some evidence that this being I had come to love so dearly had escaped the dreadful fate I too—and all of us—so desire to escape.

Happily, I was able to establish a more Christian perspective on her death for my daughter. She came away from the book with the right mix of emotion. She was saddened by Charlotte’s end, but this was well short of my anguish. For she is joyously certain of the reward that awaited this beloved character for her own acts of dedicated love of her fellows, and she knows that reward is within grasp for all of us, if only we want it enough.

Alexander Riley is a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Scholars.

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Image by Ka23 13 on Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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