31 March 2018
The Good Mother
When I started reading Charlotte’s Web, my first reaction to Charlotte’s treatment of Wilbur was one of concern. She started with little things, “ ‘Let Wilbur alone! … He has a perfect right to smell considering his surroundings’ ” (White 61), but then Charlotte began to solve Wilbur’s problems for him, “ ‘Oh, I’ll work [the web] out alone,’ said Charlotte” (64), and following his orders to please him, “ ‘Tell me a story!’ So Charlotte, although she, too, was tired, did what Wilbur wanted” (102).
The psychoanalytic portion of my mind began to think in Freudian terms. Would Wilbur become overprotected and incapable of living on his own in the future? Freud states that the Œdipal complex is innate (Armstrong); perhaps that is what was happening here. Was Charlotte a devouring mother type character?
Further reflection proves this idea to be false. There is a point up to which it is okay to do things for your child; specifically when they cannot do it themselves. Peterson believes that you should not “do anything for your children that they can do for themselves” (“Strengthen the Individual” 00:20:36 – 00:20:39). Wilbur has a problem that is beyond his control, but is within the ability of Charlotte, his maternal figure. The Œdipal issue does not come into relevance unless a mother is taking power away from her child; so if Wilbur never had the power in the first place, then Charlotte’s actions are not Œdipal. In this context, the relationship is more like that of a mother to her toddler. What got me confused was likely his difficult to determine age.
Nearing the Archetype
By the end of the story, Charlotte’s positive virtue comes to be beyond question. She takes on the symbolic role of an ideal parent to Wilbur. She gives a sacrifice and by dying she, in a manner of speaking, sacrifices Wilbur to the dangers of the world. To me, this is deeply reminiscent of Abraham’s symbolic sacrifice of Isaac to God (or to the “transcendent”) in Genesis (King James Bible, Gen. 22). The ideal parent, by this definition, is the one that is willing to sacrifice their child, and their relationship to them as “strictly parent,” to the independence of that child’s adulthood. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur’s independence is put upon him in a very literal sense. First by his separation from Fern: “Mr. Zuckerman did not allow her to get into the pigpen. But he told Fern that she could sit on the stool and watch Wilbur” (15-16). The second because of Charlotte’s death. Afterwards, Wilbur has no option but to grow up and become autonomous. A weak connection can be drawn between the Biblically archetypal nature of this story and Locke’s wishes for a more optimal and interesting way of introducing the Bible to children (Locke 260-261). The Biblical ideas of growth, independence, selflessness, and sacrifice are valuable and likely intriguing to a child, even if they are presented in alternate, and perhaps more appealing stories.
Wilbur’s ascension, his growing from childhood to adulthood, is shown in three distinct stages. The infancy stage is when Wilbur’s parent is Fern, and she does nothing but care for and love Wilbur (White 8), an appropriate thing to do with an infant. As a baby piglet, Wilbur lives in “a large wooden box full of straw” (9); a small room. The second stage is something similar to childhood. Wilbur outgrows his infantile life and moves into Zuckerman’s farm (12) where he meets other animals that are different from him (15-17), like a child in kindergarten. This is the reflective of two to four year old humans, who are ready to socialize with other kids, “your job as a parent is to make your kids socially desirable by the age of four” (Peterson, “Biology and Traits: Agreeableness” 30:55-31:00). The first thing Wilbur does is to listen to the barn goose and escape. He then quickly realizes that he would rather not upset his new owner (18), and that he would much rather be safe in Zuckerman’s farm where there is food, than to be free (23). This is somewhat interesting; perhaps safety is more important than freedom… Although I would say that statement functions specifically for a child, in reference to their guardian.
The Sacrifice of the Parent
The final stage is at the end of the story, after the death of Charlotte. Wilbur is something of an adolescent now, and he becomes another symbolic parent for the book; a parent to Charlotte’s children. This is made explicit in a couple places. First is when he protects the egg sac (170), and the second when he re-lives Charlotte and Fern’s experience of letting their children go. “This is our moment for setting forth” (179), one of the baby spiders informs the distraught Wilbur. Luckily for the pig, three spiders stay behind and, able to fend for themselves (and therefore technically adults), they remain with Wilbur and become his friend. Wilbur is rewarded with an ideal Lockien parenthood, one of a parent’s friendship with their adult children (Locke 145).
The conclusion is quite unique. Usually a story ends with an allusion the beginning. Charlotte’s Web does something similar, but it goes a step beyond, giving Wilbur, as God gave Abraham, many nations. He not only re-lived the story of the book, but he also re-lived parenthood repeatedly across the short lifecycles of a spider, and became not just a parent, but a grandparent and a symbolic ancestor.
Armstrong, Richard. “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background to Freud’s Oedipus Complex”. PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, 1 Jan 1999, http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/armstrong-oedipus_as_evidence_the_theatrical_backg.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ed. Roger Woolhouse. London: Penguin, 1997.
Peterson, Jordan. “2017/03/11: Strengthen the Individual: Q & A Parts I & II.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UL-SdOhwek.
Peterson, Jordan. “2017 Personality 17: Biology and Traits: Agreeableness.” YouTube, YouTube, 29 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1eHJ9DdoEA.
King James Holy Bible. King James Version, 2004, http://www.gpbc.ca/kjvbible.pdf.
White, E. B., Charlotte’s Web. Harper, 1980.
© Daniel Triumph 2018.
This is an essay I wrote for my Children’s Literature course. I’m far more proud of the connection of the unlikely ideas than the essay itself. Charlotte’s Web is a wonderful work of fiction.
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