Charlotte's Web | Study Guide

E.B. White

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Charlotte's Web | Symbols

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E.B. White does not use obvious symbolism in Charlotte's Web. He's not that kind of writer. Several times in his letters he states there is no "meaning" to what he writes beyond what appears on the page. He is quite firm about this. In a 1953 letter to a friend, White says, "Any attempt to find allegorical meanings is bound to end disastrously, for no meanings are in there. I ought to know." But it is impossible not to see "meaning" in two natural elements of this book: webs and eggs.

Webs

It may seem obvious to say Charlotte's web is a symbol—but it is. To take the figurative meaning first, a web is a network of connections. This meaning of web can be both positive and negative—"trapped in a web of deceit," for example. But in the book, it is clearly positive. The humans and animals on the farm are all linked to one another, and often the links are reciprocal. These are some examples.

  • Mr. Zuckerman feeds Wilbur. If his plans come to fruition, Wilbur will feed him. As it happens, Wilbur ends up "feeding" the Zuckermans in a different way: he wins a cash prize at the fair.
  • Fern rescues Wilbur when he is born. When she sells him to her uncle, Mr. Zuckerman, she passes her symbolic responsibility to Charlotte, who rescues Wilbur twice. First she saves him from loneliness by becoming his friend. Later she literally saves his life by weaving messages into her web.
  • The old sheep almost severs her link to Wilbur in Chapter 7, when she tells him he's going to be killed. In Chapter 12 she reestablishes that bond by suggesting Templeton find words Charlotte can use in her web. She also reminds Templeton if he doesn't help Wilbur, his own food source will disappear after Wilbur is slaughtered. "Wilbur's destiny and your destiny are closely linked," she points out.
  • The old sheep says this at an all-animal meeting called by Charlotte. The meeting's purpose is to come up with words Charlotte can use in her web. Until this point, it would seem the different species in the barnyard don't pay much attention one another. They share space without being especially friendly. But when Charlotte informs the assembly she thinks she can save Wilbur's life, everyone shouts "Hurray!" He has become one of them.

Charlotte's literal web is a symbol of both life and death. Charlotte uses it to catch her meals but also to save Wilbur's life. For a time it seems the silk she uses is inexhaustible. But in Chapter 21, when she is dying, she tells Wilbur, "I doubt if I have enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground." It's a terribly sad moment and the first time White makes it clear that orb weaver spiders use up their silk making their egg sacs. They provide for the next generation, and then they die.

After the fair, Charlotte's web hangs "torn and empty" through the winter. In spring its last wisps of silk blow away, gone just in time for Charlotte's eggs to hatch. Three of Charlotte's daughters settle in the barn. They'll die, and their webs will disintegrate, but a new batch of spiders will arrive the following spring.

Because White doesn't want readers to look for hidden meanings in this book, he might be irritated to discuss one classical reference the story seems to contain. It is difficult to avoid comparing Charlotte to the three Fates in Greek mythology. According to myths the Fates were goddesses who controlled people's destinies and determined when they would die. Clotho ("spinner" in English) spun the thread that represented each person's life. Lachesis ("allotter") measured it, and Atropos ("inflexible") cut it. Once the thread was cut, the person died. Similarly, Charlotte "writes" Wilbur's fate in her web.

Eggs

"Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch," says the narrator in Chapter 22. Eggs are everywhere in Charlotte's Web. At different times they symbolize birth, rebirth, and death. White first mentions eggs in Chapter 4, when the goose tells Wilbur she can't play with him because she has a nest of eggs to hatch. In the following chapter, when the goose thinks about Wilbur's upcoming death, she "poke[s] her eggs a little further under her." Her job is to protect new life.

At the end of the book, Wilbur will be in the same position with Charlotte's eggs. Frantic at the thought of leaving them behind at the fair, he acts decisively for the first time in his life. He rousts Templeton out of bed and persuades him to get the egg sac so Wilbur can bring it back to the barnyard. Back home, Wilbur tucks the eggs into a safe place and waits for them to hatch the following spring. He is the parent now and wants to protect new life.

The goose's one unhatched egg has more complicated associations. When Templeton realizes there are only seven goslings, he asks about the eighth egg. "It's a dud, I guess," replies the goose. Templeton eagerly asks for the egg, and the goose and gander let him roll it away. There's a note of anxiety in this action. Both parents know Templeton can kill goslings if he wants to. The rotten egg is a sort "protection money" they're paying so Templeton will leave their babies alone.

Paradoxically, the dead, rotten egg saves Charlotte's life. In Chapter 10, "An Explosion," Avery tries to knock Charlotte off her web into a box he's holding. He trips and falls into Wilbur's trough, crushing the rotten egg Templeton has hidden underneath. The resulting terrible smell drives everyone as far away as possible, including Avery. And the smell hovers around the barnyard for hours, a noxious reminder of the death it carried.

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