Why Does Charlotte's Web Continue to Appeal to Readers? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White took the number one spot on the School Library Journal’s 2012 list of Top 100 chapter books.  Why do you think this book continues to appeal to readers?

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Why Charlotte's Web continues to appeal to readers

This is an interesting question because a while ago I saw someone specifically call out Charlotte’s Web as a book that should no longer be taught in the classroom because today’s students aren’t white girls growing up on farms and have nothing to relate to in the novel.  This argument, of course, overlooks that Charlotte’s Web does not have Fern as a protagonist, and although the story is set on a farm, it’s not about growing up on one. The protagonist is Wilbur (a pig), and the story is about his friendship with Charlotte (a spider), his unwanted confrontation with death, and the lessons he learns about believing in himself and taking control of his destiny.

None of us are animals, and few of us live(d) on farms, but the themes addressed in the book are nearly universal.  All of us need friends, some of whom we may find in unlikely places, and all of us need will eventually need to deal with the question of death, whether its our own or that of a loved one or a pet (hopefully the latter types are more common for the young target audience of the novel).

The book is oftentimes silly and borders on the fanciful (animals who can read, spell, and communicate among themselves!), but overall I think it appeals to readers simply because it’s moving.  Wilbur’s fear and sense of betrayal at learning of his impending planned death are real and valid; readers feel with him that he’s too young to die and he has so much left to do, think, and experience.  And his friendship with Charlotte, who genuinely believes he is amazing even if he, in fact, does not do anything particularly noteworthy, is inspirational.  We all need friends who love as we are while motivating us to be better, who believe that we’re special simply because we are ourselves.  And when that friendship ends with Charlotte’s natural death, it’s understandable because it actually is her time to go, but it’s still tragic.  Charlotte’s Web is one of the few books that has made me cry every time I’ve read it.  The ending is tempered with hope and the renewal of life, of course, when Wilbur meets Charlotte’s children.

While I find the rural setting of the book charming, and it obviously provides the set-up for why someone would be planning to kill Wilbur (that happens on farms in ways it does not really happen elsewhere), the book clearly is not about farms or farmers.  In a short space, E. B. White manages to movingly address sweeping and universal themes, making readers confront their own questions and fears about death and how they spend their time on this earth.