Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Tear in White's Web

             I surprised my students when I hurled Charlotte’s Web against the classroom wall.  And I surprised myself.
            I love E.B. White which is why I’m teaching a course on him and his friend and New Yorker colleague, James Thurber.  When I entered the class the other day, I was ready to lead a discussion on the classic, Charlotte’s Web, a narrative that I know well.  Like most, I had read it growing up, and now, having two children, I’ve encountered it several more times.  In fact, I was using my daughter’s worn copy.
            There is so much I admire about the book.  The incredible economy of the opening line, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast, a sentence that sets everything in motion, and, at the same time gives characters, setting, time, and relationships.  The way White smoothly moves from realism to fantasy.  Not until Chapter Three do we begin to hear Wilbur’s thoughts and then he speaks and then the other animals speak.  The deft sleight-of-hand in dealing with the “miracle” of the writing in the web.  We understand the gentle poking fun of those who think it’s supernatural or the work of the divine, and yet we “believe” the fantasy of talking animals.  The fundamental point that language changes how you see the world.  The unflinching bluntness of Charlotte’s death with the line, “No one was with her when she died.”  The embedded political and philosophical questions:  How do we deal with an awareness of our mortality?  How do we decide who should die?  What makes life worth living?  Do we want “freedom” which can be terrifying, or the comfort of someone feeding and taking care of us?  How do we live together when some of us are bloodthirsty, or seeming so, like Charlotte, and some of us are amoral, definitely so, like Templeton.
            And yet . . .
            And yet . . .
            What bothers me about the book is what happens with Fern.  It starts off as her story, and she is prominent on the cover.  She is the moral center, working to fight injustice (as her father teases).  Then she disappears.  First, she becomes a silent observer, watching the barnyard.  Then, right before Wilbur’s big moment at the fair, she runs off to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. She’s not there to see the animal she loves and has saved from death receive a special award. 
I can’t decide if this portrayal is absolutely wrong or absolutely right.  Perhaps White sees clear-eyed how children suddenly drop their enthusiasms and run off, self-centeredly.  (It’s something J.M. Barrie recognized about children as well).  But what bothers me even more than that moment is that Fern doesn’t return.  Or rather she does only for the equivalent of cameo.  In a brief discussion with Avery later as they sled, she says the best thing in the world is being on the fair ride with Henry. This strong girl who can hear the animals talk, who retains a sense of the miracles and wonders of nature, at the end is completely boy-focused.
            Discussing this with my students, I became more and more worked up to the point that I threw the book.  I realize it was probably the wrong thing to do – whether for dramatic effect or not.  The sacredness of literature, modeling appropriate behavior, etc.  (And, my God, it's the most well-regarded American children's book ever published: "How E.B. White Spun Charlotte's Web.")  I will probably regret it.  Just as I regret taking a drill to a friend’s copy of Hamlet in college in a weird Freudian I’ll-show-you-I’m-not-intimidated-by-Shakespeare moment.  And, I recognize that I was wrong years ago when I pitched Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues across the room because, at the time, I disliked what I saw as its self-indulgent meta-techniques (something I’ve come to love and I’m a huge Robbins fan now).  I have acted badly many times in my relationships with books.
            Later, as I said goodnight to my daughter, I was tempted to ask about Charlotte’s Web, but instead we talked for a moment about a series she was reading called Tomorrow Girls.  She said, “I like it because it’s strong girls in a war book.  It’s almost always boys in war books.”  In two sentences, she may have summarized part of the appeal of The Hunger Games (a trilogy in her future).  I picked up the first one from her desk, and she said, “You can borrow it if you want.  But you need to take care of it.”
            As I turned out the light, I promised her I would. 

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