Sunday, May 5, 2013

Charlotte's Web

What is interesting to me when reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is that I am as little impressed with it as an adult as I was as a child.  I know so many people love this story and it is a great, imaginative story.  However, I have always founds something lacking in the reading of it.  As a child, the stiff and formal language bothered me, as did other things I couldn’t quite identify.  As an adult, I know exactly what it is.  There is at times an inconsistency in the storytelling that drives me nuts.  We are several chapters into the story before we are given Wilbur’s perspective.  It is not until that moment that we have any inkling that he will be a talking pig (well, of course, I knew this from my memory, but in writing, it was very jarring).  We are receiving a very wordy description of the family, the farm, the saving of Wilbur by Fern, his move to the Zuckermans’ farm and her visiting him.  Finally, finally, on page 16, we have a scene with Wilbur and he thinks, “There’s never anything to do around here.”  Suddenly, the tone of the entire novel is changed.  This is no longer the story of a young girl and her pet pig, but it is the story of a barnyard full of animals who can talk.  Perhaps this is the genius of this piece, but I find it disconcerting.  Why did we not have Wilbur’s perspective from the moment he was born?  Why were we not treated to his observations of Fern and her aunt and uncle’s farm?  Why now at the Zuckermans?

Other small things like this would bother me as well, in the reading.  For example, we have multiple scenes with Fern observing everything that is happening in the barn except we are not even aware that she is there.  The first time she leaves and goes home and tells her family about the animals talking, I am amazed.  While we were told that Fern visited the farm regularly, she was not actually placed in the scene and we did not have her impressions of that scene.  She never joined the conversation or said anything, so we had no idea she understood their conversation (or frankly that she was even there, unless we took note of the picture placing her in the scene).  It was only when she repeated the conversation to her aunt and uncle that we realized she was there and that she had understood the entire conversation.  Even when she shares it with her aunt and uncle, we don’t really get any sense that Fern understands that it is unusual for animals to be talking or for her to understand them.

Another example of this is on page 104.  We have an entire scene with the animals trying to decide which word to write into the web next and Wilbur performing tricks for Charlotte to help her determine if he is radiant.  We then have two stories from Charlotte and she sings to Wilbur to lull him to sleep.  The text then says, “When the song ended, Fern got up and went home.”  Really??  I had no idea Fern was even there.  She wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the scene.  It’s like E.B. White suddenly remembered that he was telling a story, not just about the animals, but about the little girl who could understand them, and threw her in at the last minute, just to remind us that Fern existed.

These inconsistencies and in my opinion, lazy writing, are what keep me from fully enjoying Charlotte’s Web.   I do find the story itself to be enchanting and there is a sort of hypnotic rhythm to the words that pulls you in and does not let you go.  However, I am consistently and constantly jarred away from the story by these little moments and it severely limits my enjoyment of the story as a whole and, as a child, kept me from re-reading the book endlessly.  I was always the type of child (and adult) who would re-read my favorite books until they fell apart.  This book never qualified for such love and attention.

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