“‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’”
Charlotte’s Web finds me in the impenetrable darkness of these harrowing times. It is a book I’d like a friend to read to me on my deathbed – a story that redeems humanity while condemning the finality of death.
Here is why you must indulge yourself in it: I refute the idea that E.B. White’s book was made for children. Sure, farm animals typically make appearances in media geared towards adolescents – but White’s creatures are mere catalysts for a very mature message. Quite frankly, I doubt a child could pick out the hidden motifs and commentaries on premature loss and the grieving process. It’s a work that speaks to the unfair nature of death, the cruelty of its timing, and the difficulty of accepting it. Naturally, these are concepts even mature adults wrestle with. Thus, I think it’s improper to boil White’s novel down to a mere bedtime story.
I’d wager a few things about you, reader. Most likely, your parents forced you to endure Charlotte’s Web as a child – the plot was simple, the story easy to devour. I’d also make the assumption that death confuses you.
You know it must happen eventually, but you fail to understand its sporadic sense of justice. It’s a cruel pill to swallow to acknowledge the inevitability of life’s ending while also knowing that most of the time, it is unfair.
Charlotte’s Web captures this dynamic and portrays it through the friendship of Wilbur and Charlotte. Wilbur, like most of us, does not understand why Charlotte must die. Despite the fact that her lifespan was designed by nature to be significantly shorter than Wilbur’s, he cannot help but apply his own moral expectation to her impending loss (I.E she was a good friend, therefore she doesn’t deserve to die).
This is a representation of how humanity often projects its own ethical standards onto ambiguous natural events: a coping mechanism to create some sort of senseful meaning in the midst of loss. Oftentimes, we will find that this comparison leads us nowhere good. I’d like to lead with an example.
I had a conversation with a friend recently whose mother was diagnosed with cancer. As I’ve found out, many of my peers carry around heavy burdens like this on the daily and handle them with unfathomable grace. In the process of talking to her, I expressed how sorry I was to hear the news of her mother’s diagnosis, a common response to tragedies outside of our control.
She asked, “Why? It isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just happening. It just is.” It just is. I’m not sure what kind of maturity or strength it took for her to believe that her circumstances were not a reflection of how good of a person she was, or how kind or fit or smart her own mother was, but rather an ambiguous, natural event that was simply happening.
So much of life is composed of choices we didn’t make, circumstances we didn’t choose. The epiphany I’m not so subtly hacking at is that whatever prerogative we think we are owed by God, or any higher power really, is a reflection of our flawed sense of justice.
The universe (and by this I mean the natural chain of events) does not operate on a causation/effect basis. In fact, it’s fair to say that at best, we can describe the world as organized chaos. All of this to say that loss is a natural part of life, but it is not a measuring tool for how “good,” we have been – only we can decide that.
Good things are not generational, they are eternal. John Steinbeck once said, “evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal.”
What makes Charlotte’s Web such an extraordinary book is that it gives meaning to Wilbur’s loss. Charlotte dies after laying her eggs, leaving behind a part of herself in her children. In a sense, Charlotte never truly passes away because she is present through the new life she has created.
This is true for all things – when you love someone, they stay alive in your heart. You see them in all of the beautiful things: pink skies, daisies on the side of the road, children playing games on the street. White seems to have an understanding that I find most people lack: bereavement loses its permanence when love intercedes.
Love is the common denominator in loss – the exception to the long-standing rule of “death do us part,” a notion that suggests love is not a spiritual act, but one of the flesh, fallible to age and decay.
Let it be said that love and affection are not elements that death can touch – they are immortal, transcendent, generational.