In the world of trigger warnings, where one needs to wear kid gloves just to touch the kid gloves, the old 1973 animated adaptation of Charlotte’s Web is a relief. I see recent children’s movies from time to time, and I know that beloved characters still die, but nothing in kid’s movies of late rivals the horror of Wilbur the pig learning we must all someday shuffle off this mortal coil.
“I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!” he squeals, burying his head in the hay.
The horror in that moment, though, is not that children care for Wilbur and pity his cowardice. Rather, Wilbur is as unlikable a kid’s movie character as they come, and when he cowers at the thought of his own death, our horror is over our own apathy. Get the spider to spin “Delicious” over the sty and get it over with.
Wilbur, the runt of the litter, is saved by the compassionate Fern from an early death and later sold for no good reason down the road, against the girl’s tearful protest, to Homer Zuckerman. Up until he arrives at Zuckerman’s, Wilbur is a benign character, but from the moment he learns to speak, the pig appalls the senses. Wilbur is self-absorbed, stupid, and helpless, and Henry Gibson’s vocal performance grants him a pasty, quivering, jelly-like soul that repulses dignity. When I found out that twenty-seven years after voicing Wilbur, Henry Gibson played the Samuel Johnson-quoting chickenhawk who groomed Brad the bartender in Magnolia, quite a lot about Charlotte’s Web came together.
The Zuckerman farm feels quite a lot like a bar, actually, with a small cast of regulars, old and young, who are more or less stuck in a desperate pattern of life. The Goose is a chiding, schoolmarmish know-it-all incapable of smiling. Templeton the rat is the lech, the haunt of free clinics and welfare scams. The Ram is the educated one, the reader, the cruel revealer of fates. And Charlotte is the gracious sage— not exactly a regular at the bar anymore, but the one who shows up when she needs to, when the Spirit bids. She won’t live long, and while we don’t know that from the start, Charlotte obviously knows. Her nearest analog in human society is someone terminally ill who has resolved to live out her final months meaningfully.
Some prior meditation on the brevity of her own life surely inspires the uncommon grace she shows Wilbur, who isn’t fit for the rough world of the bar. He’s an innocent, a naïf. The Templetons of the world have a way of finding the Wilburs of the world, and unless the Charlottes of the world intervene, the Wilburs get devoured. While Wilbur fears the butcher’s knife, as I read the film, he has far more to fear in his peers than in his lords. Templeton would sell Wilbur out in a moment, and would probably let him die just so he could feed on his carcass. The threat of an undignified life hangs more heavily over the film than does death; Wilbur isn’t really afraid of dying, he’s afraid of his fear of dying and what terror awaits in the waiting. Charlotte can’t really save him, and the whiff of a (feigned) deus ex machina lays heavily about the farmer’s final proclamation that Wilbur will live a long life. With Charlotte gone, we know Wilbur doesn’t stand a chance.
Charlotte’s Web is an ode to Charlotte’s final act of pity for the weak and pathetic, perhaps to atone for the sin of having hung about the bar too long. She maintains some of her former perversion, for there’s nothing natural about her insect-eating ways, which turn Wilbur’s stomach well into the third act of the story. The road to repentance is rife with chances to look back. When Wilbur begins instructing Charlotte’s three weakest children in the closing moments of the film, we know he has failed to truly learn anything significant from the spider. Charlotte’s spiritual power drew from the certainty of her eminent death. Wilbur is still cowardly and his belief that death is a long way off has quieted him for the time being. Wilbur is teaching Charlotte’s children recherché synonyms for “hello,” when Charlotte’s greatest virtue was her ability to bravely say “goodbye.” He lacks the stiff upper lip and no-nonsense approach to life with which Charlotte commanded respect. He’s going to be inches from a freak-out until the moment it goes dark for good.
Alas, there aren’t enough Charlottes in the world, but thankfully there really aren’t many Wilburs either. The next time you find one, remember Charlotte for her mercy, but also for her stoicism.