Theme of Death in Charlotte's Web

Instructor: Ellen Woods-Vaughter

Ellen has a bachelor's degree in in elementary education and a master's degree in reading education. Ellen has taught kindergarten for the past 6 years.

In this lesson, you'll learn how the theme of death is woven into daily farm life in E.B. White's classic tale ''Charlotte's Web''. A little girl and a spider both work to save a very special pig from death, while he learns to appreciate life in the process.

Death as a Part of Farm Life

Charlotte's Web opens with Fern, a farmer's daughter, trying to save a little runt piglet from being killed. On a farm, sometimes the smaller animals do not survive, and trying to take care of them causes extra work. Fern's dad knows that death is a natural part of life on the farm, but Fern is just not able to accept that the little pig she names Wilbur will be slaughtered (killed) simply because he is small. To Fern, the death of a tiny pig is an undesirable reality that she wants to prevent. Fern sets out to persuade her father not to kill the little piglet.

Fern finally wins her father over with a little convincing: ''If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?'' Faced with that kind of logic, Fern's father has no choice but to relent and spare Wilbur's life. While Fern is excited about the chance to save Wilbur and raise him as a pet, her father is more skeptical. He knows that raising a runt requires a great deal of time and effort, but Fern is too compassionate to abandon Wilbur to his fate.

Death as a Means of Survival

As Wilbur grows and turns into an adult pig, he no longer needs Fern's constant care and attention. He eventually goes to live on her Uncle Homer's farm. On Uncle Homer's farm, Wilbur gains some new animal companions: a rat, geese, several sheep, and a spider named Charlotte.

These new friends are Wilbur's first introduction to the topic of death. When Wilbur first sees Charlotte capturing a fly to eat, he is appalled at the thought of killing the insect and declares it ''cruel.'' Charlotte explains to Wilbur that catching and killing flies is part of her survival; it is not cruel, it is a necessary part of her life and she has no other choice.

Charlotte's explanation seems to make sense to Wilbur, and he accepts that death is part of Charlotte's life. He also learns that it might be part of his life as well. One fine summer day, one of the sheep causally mentions the fact that Wilbur is being fattened up to prepare him for his future - as Christmas dinner! Death may be a necessary fact of life, but when Wilbur learns that it may soon be his fate, he does not take the news well and fears his impending demise. Charlotte soon hatches a plot to spare Wilbur's life and save him from his fate as the Christmas ham.

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