The Dog Dies, Part II: Charlotte’s Web

Part I

Charlotte’s Web (1952, E. B. White)

Fern, daughter of Maine farmers, won’t let her father kill the smallest piglet. Instead she adopts it, names it Wilbur, and feeds it from a baby bottle. But Fern doesn’t get to keep Wilbur; instead he goes to her uncle’s farm to be raised for slaughter. Fern visits, has lovely rural experiences, and spends time with her beloved pig, who is going to be slaughtered.

Wilbur, a fully sentient being capable of understanding his fate, finds out what is going to happen to him. (This scene is played for laughs.) The barn-spider Charlotte, Wilbur’s friend and substitute mother, saves him by turning him into a local celebrity. Fern, Wilbur’s real mother-figure, abandons him because she is Growing Up and Discovering Boys. (She is eight.)

Charlotte dies. Alone. Surrounded by trash.

Wilbur is saved because he is special, the only one of his species who deserves to live. He lives out the rest of his days in a piggy death-camp, with the humans coming to lovingly scratch his ears with the smell of bacon on their breath.

Look, I know I’m going to catch hell for this one. Everyone loves Charlotte’s Web; but it’s a fake. E.B. White wanted to have it both ways. He wanted his world of anthropomorphized animals, in the vein of Wind in the Willows or even Bambi — a world with its own internal coherence, where both joy and horror are as real for these animals as they are for us. But he also wanted his slice of rural Americana, with barns and haylofts and the simple pleasures of chores, where raising animals for meat is part of the fabric of life.

White, born and bred urbanite, staff writer for that most urban and urbane of magazines The New Yorker, had a hobby farm in Maine. He liked to have emotional experiences at the birthing of baby animals, and craft reverential prose about the smell of barns, but between his New Yorker deadlines and his poor health it is pretty certain that he didn’t do the hard labor. His disconnect from real farm life can be seen in the first few pages of Charlotte’s Web, when Fern tries to wrestle an axe away from her father — a scene to horrify to any child raised to respect sharp tools.

More Dead Dogs (deer, pigs, etc.) in Part III

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