The Real Theme of Charlotte’s Web

It's a story about the vagaries of the writing process and not about the cycle of life, but then again writing is life...

E.B. White’s backstory

Elements of Style Elwyn Brooks “E. B.” White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985) was an acclaimed American writer who contributed to The New Yorker magazine and co-authored the quintessential English language style guide The Elements of Style, which is commonly known as “Strunk & White” ostensibly making him the writer’s writer.

He is probably best known by most as the author of children’s books Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970).

While re-reading Charlotte’s Web and then watching the movie version of Charlotte’s Web (Paramount, 2006) while thinking about the struggling writer in White (and all of us really), I’ve found a completely different theme in the piece as an adult that I certainly didn’t consider as a child when I viewed it simply as a maudlin, coming-of-age, commentary on the cycle of life.

An Alternate Theme

One can think of the characters Charlotte, the heroine spider, and Templeton, the despicable rat, as the two polar opposite personalities of almost any (good) writer. Charlotte represents the fastidious, creative, thinking, and erudite writer that writers aspire to be–which White espouses in The Elements of Style.

The rat was swollen to twice his normal size, Charlotte's Web, page 147 illustration, 1952, GM Williams
The rat was swollen to twice his normal size, Charlotte’s Web, page 147 illustration, 1952, GM Williams

Templeton is a grubbing, greedy, and not-so-discerning writer who takes almost any word to get the story written so he can feast on his next meal of left-over slop.

Wilbur, the runt Spring pig desperately wanting to live to see the first snow, represents the nascent story. It too starts out stunted and scrawny, and it’s not really quite clear that it will live long enough to get published.

Wilbur summersaults like any developing story
Wilbur summersaults like any developing story
The writers struggle represented by Charlottes Web
The writer’s struggle represented by Charlotte’s Web

And so the struggle begins between the “Templeton” in the writer, and the “Charlotte” that the writer wants to become.

Charlotte represents care, devotion, creation, and even life (she not only desperately tries to creatively save Wilbur’s life, but dies to give birth to hundreds), while Templeton is a scavenger, doing the least he can to get by and generally taking advantage of others. Charlotte is crafting art while Templeton represents the writer churning out dreck in hopes of making a buck.

Alas, once the written work emerges to finally see its first “Spring”, one finds that Charlotte has died the death we knew was coming, while Templeton remains–as selfish and dreadful as before–ready to gorge himself once more.

There’s also the bleak and looming fact that Charlotte is now gone and only the vague hope that one of her few progeny will survive to live up to even a fraction of her good name. (Will my next book be as good as the first??)

The Writer takes on the Editor

The other two voices a writer often hears in her head are those represented by the characters of Fern, the doe-eyed youngster, and John Arable, the pragmatic farmer whose sir name is literally defined as “suitable for farming”, but not too coincidentally similar to parable, but without the ‘p.’ The sensible farmer (editor) says kill the runt pig (read: story) before you fall in love with it, while Fern (the creative writer) advocates to let it live a while longer–naively perhaps–wanting to know what results.

Dont Kill Wilbur! John Arable fights with his daughter Fern over an axe as he intends to kill the runt Wilbur.
A visualization of the struggle between the creative author and the sensible and pragmatic editor.

Who will you be?

So as you work on your own writing process, who will you be? Templeton, Charlotte, Fern, or John Arable? Whichever you choose for the moment, remember that all of them are ultimately necessary for the best story seeing the proverbial Spring.

Though your story may not win the “blue ribbon at the fair”, the fact that it has a life that extends the winter is a special prize all on its own to the team that created it.

On Why E.B. White Actually Wrote Charlotte’s Web

E.B. White, author (September 29, 1952)
in a letter to his editor Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, who asked him why he wrote Charlotte’s Web

 

Now that I’ve sketched out the argument, I suspect that most writers will now know, as I do, why E.B. White wrote Charlotte’s Web.

–Achoo!

Syndicated copies to: