I decided to listen to the audiobook of Charlotte’s Web. It’s read by EB White from an old recording from the 1980’s. It has an epilogue read by George Plimpton. I read the book when I was in elementary school but didn’t remember it at all and wanted to give it another spin because it’s one of the world’s best-regarded children’s books.
When I was a kid, I remember it being a book about gaining confidence as you grow up. Wilber starts off as a runt and he becomes something great with mentoring from Charlotte.
But there’s another story of growing up in the book. White spells out the story of a young girl who sees something that adults can’t see, and how a child can see the miracles of the world that an adult misses. But eventually, just like Charlotte’s death, Fern’s childhood will die as well. All of this is spelled out in chapter 14, a very odd chapter in the book when Fern’s mother goes to talk to Dr. Dorian.
I’ve liberally quoted from chapter 14 with my italics representing my interpretation of the book’s message.
Little miracles are all around us. It’s like the line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off “Life Moves Pretty Fast, If you don’t look around once in a while you could miss it.”
“It’s about Fern,” she explained. “Fern spends entirely too much time in the Zuckermans’ barn. It doesn’t seem normal. She sits on a milk stool in a corner of the barn cellar, near the pigpen, and watches animals, hour after hour. She just sits and listens.”
Dr. Dorian leaned back and closed his eyes. “How enchanting!” he said. “It must be real nice and quiet down there. Homer has some sheep, hasn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Arable. “but it all started with that pig we let Fern raise on a bottle. She calls him Wilbur. Homer bought the pig, and ever since it left our place Fern has been going to her uncle’s to be near it.”
“I’ve been hearing things about that pig,” said Dr. Dorian, opening his eyes. “The say he’s quite a pig.”
“Have you heard about the words that appeared in the spider’s web?” asked Mrs. Arable nervously.
“Yes,” replied the doctor.
“Well, do you understand it?” asked Mrs. Arable.
It’s easy to spot the big miracles, but there are small miracles all around us.
“Understand what?” “do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable.
“I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle–it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian. Mrs. Arable shifted uneasily in her chair.
“No,” she replied.
“But I can crochet a doily and I can knit a sock.”
“Sure,” said the doctor. “But somebody taught you, didn’t they?”
“My mother taught me.”
“Well, who taught a spider? A young spider knows how to spin a web without any instructions from anybody. Don’t you regard that as a miracle?”
It’s easy to discount these miracles because you don’t understand them.
“I suppose so,” said Mrs. Arable. “I never looked at it that way before. Still, I don’t understand it, and I don’t like what I can’t understand.”
“None of us do,” said Dr. Dorian, sighing. “I’m a doctor. Doctors are supposed to understand everything. But I don’t understand everything, and I don’t intend to let it worry me.”
And we’re so interested in ourselves that we don’t listen for the little miracles all around us.
Mrs. Arable fidgeted. “Fern says the animals talk to each other. Dr. Dorian, do you believe animals talk?”
“I never heard one say anything,” he replied. “But that proves nothing. It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. People are incessant talkers–I can give you my word on that.”
“Well, I feel better about Fern,” said Mrs. Arable.
But soon she’ll grow up and be an adult and this will all go away.
“You don’t think I need worry about her?”
“Does she look well?” asked the doctor.
“Oh, yes, she’s always hungry.”
“Sleep well at night?”
“Then don’t worry,” said the doctor.”
Do you think she’ll ever start thinking about something besides pigs and sheep and geese and spiders?
“How old is Fern?”
“Well,” said Cr. Dorian, “I think she will always love animals. But I doubt that she spends her entire life in Homer Zuckerman’s barn cellar. How about boys–does she know any boys?”
“She knows Henry Fussy,” said Mrs. Arable brightly.
Dr. Dorian closed his eyes again and went into deep thought.
“Henry Fussy,” he mumbled. “Hmm. Remarkable. Well, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Let Fern associate with her friends in the barn if she wants to. I would say, offhand, that spiders and pigs, were fully as interesting as Henry Fussy. Yet I predict that the day will come when even Henry will drop some chance remark that catches Fern’s attention. It’s amazing how children change from year to year. How’s Avery?” he asked, opening his eyes wide.
And that’s where Dr. Dorian ended. And sure enough, at the end of the book, after Charlotte dies, Fern doesn’t care about the animals anymore and becomes interested in Henry.
Postscript: After reading Doctor Dorian’s explanation, I kind of felt like there’s an alternative, conspiracy version of the world where Fern has made up the whole story and she’s the one who’s been writing the messages. It would be a weird, not very well thought out conspiracy kind of like the Ferris Bueller / Fight Club conspiracy