Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Meaning of "Charlotte's Web"

When my class was in eighth grade, our teacher Mildred Schwich read aloud to us the children's novel Charlotte's Web. Our class had several teachers that year, and I remember that she taught us literature. Perhaps she taught us another subject or two.

Mrs. Schwich was quite intelligent, and she tried to teach us students to read intelligently. As she led us through stories in our literature textbook, she pointed out nuances, allusions and other insightful elements. She led us through a reading of the early chapters of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, using his ambition and entrepreneurship to inspire such qualities in our own lives. She guided us through reading also part of Vince Packard's book Hidden Persuaders.

She strove to make us into self-motivated readers. She impressed me as the most intellectual of my teachers at St. John Elementary School.

Mildred Schwich, upper-grade teacher at St John Elementary School in Seward, Nebraska

The Schwich family was remarkable for its athleticism. The father, Luther Schwich, was a head coach at the college, and all the children excelled in sports. However, her brother was a famous theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, who wrote many articles and books about religion, especially its relationship to politics. The father of Mildred and Richard was a Lutheran pastor. Although Mildred's brother Richard was raised in this Lutheran family, he ultimately became a Roman Catholic priest.

 Mrs. Schwich's decision to read Charlotte's Web aloud to our eighth-grade class was strange for a couple of reasons:

1) The novel was written for younger children. The main human character is an eight-year-old girl.

2) We eighth-grade students were capable of reading the book ourselves.

Mrs. Schwich thought this particular book had some extraordinary quality that she wanted all her students in her eighth-grad class, including its lazy or less capable readers, to experience and appreciate. If she did point out that quality explicitly to us, I have forgotten it.

The story is about a farm family that raises pigs and other animals. When a litter of piglets is born, the father decides to slaughter the smallest piglet, the runt. The eight-year-old daughter, Fern, begs her father to spare this runt piglet, and the father relents on the condition that Fern take care of it. Fern names the piglet Wilber and raises it it in a fenced area at the barn. As Wilber grows larger, he communicates with the other animals, including a female spider, who calls herself Charlotte. As the piglet-spider friendship develops, Charlotte writes words about Wilber into her spider webs. The spider-web words eventually attract human attention, and Wilber becomes a famous public attraction. Eventually, Charlotte dies while giving birth to a multitude of baby spiders.

This strange story is one of the biggest sellers in children's literature. More than 45 million copies of the book have been sold, and two movies have been produced, in 1973 and in 2006.

The cover of the book Charlotte's Web.
The book comprises 22 chapters, and Ms. Schwich read a chapter to us every school day, so we spent about a month on the book. As I remember, she read to us right after lunch recess. She allowed us to lay our heads on our desks while we listened. Toward the end of the book, the spider Charlotte died, and some of us students cried. When Mrs. Schwich finished the final chapter, I thought that the long reading had been worthwhile, but I don't remember why.

 I was reminded about this story-listening experience when my wife and I recently watched the 1973 animated movie.
A scene from the 1973 animated movie Charlotte's Web.
The eight-year-old girl Fern taking care of the pig Wilber.
As I watched the movie, which was excellent, I remembered the story that I had heard Mrs. Schwich read to me a half-century ago.
A scene from the 1973 movie Charlotte's Web.
The pig Wilber looking at the spider Charlotte.
The entire movie is on YouTube:

Now watching this story as an adult, I immediately recognized the story's Christian allegory. Listening to the story as a child, I was oblivious to the allegory, but I suspect that this allegory is the reason why Mrs. Schwich read the book aloud to us. Perhaps Mrs. Schwich was told about the Christian allegory by her famous theologian brother.

I perceived the allegory as follows:

* Wilber the pig is humanity. Wilber was doomed to death for being the litter's runt. Humanity is doomed to eternal damnation for being sinful.

* Fern the girl is Jesus Christ. Fern saved Wilber from death. Jesus Christ saved humanity from eternal damnation.

* Charlotte the spider is God the Father's angel, communicating Jesus' miraculous significance.

After I watched the movie, I searched the Internet to find anyone else who had recognized this Christian allegory. I found a superb series of essays on a blog that is titled The Moral Premise Blog: Story Structure Craft, written by Stanley D. Williams. He is a film producer and analyst with a special interest in Christianity. He has written a book titled Growing Up Christian: A Search for a Reasonable Faith in America's Heartland, which describes his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. His book has been summarized as follows:
Stan Williams was born into a Bible-believing, Evangelical home. But he was utterly confounded by all the versions of Christianity around town. Each claimed to be the exclusive caretaker of truth and interpreter of the Bible. Yet, each disparaged the others. Who had the truth? Why was the church he was raised in right and everyone else wrong? Was everyone out of step except his little denomination? How could that be true? 
The last place he considered was Roman Catholicism. He was taught Catholics were not Christians. And so, his life became a fascinating, odd, and sometimes humorous journey of faith. It led him where he least expected. 
From a little boy seeking adventure, to a denomination-hopping man crisscrossing America's Christian landscape, Stan Williams entertains and challenges us with over a 100 stories of his intrepid journey as he searched for a spiritual home that embraced both the faith of his fathers and the reason of natural law. 
Based on his interests in Christianity and movies, Williams wrote another book, titled The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success. This book has been summarized as follows:
The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success reveals the foundational concept at the heart of all successful box office movies and other stories. It is a principle that has been passed down from ancient times. It is a principle that modern research has shown is in all great stories that connect with audiences. 
If you ignore this principle, your story is doomed. But if you consistently apply it to each character, scene, and dramatic beat, it is the principle that will empower your storytelling, and illuminate all the other techniques you bring to the craft. It is the guiding principle of writing that allows films and all stories to be great. 
In brief, the Moral Premise describes how successful motion pictures are always structured around a psychological (or spiritual) premise based on true moral values, and how screenwriters can appropriate the structural elements of the moral premise to write successful movies. 
This concept has been at the heart of all successful story telling from ancient times. We find its controlling nature in the writings of Plato, the Bible, and Aesop. We find it in English Classics ... and in the many good stories of modern stage, movies, and television. Most respected writers on screenplays mention it, but they use a variety of confusing terms and never tell us how important it is ...
Williams writes a blog that develops his Moral Premise analysis of movies. The blog includes a series of four essays about the 2006 movie Charlotte's Web. These essays analyze the Charlotte story's Christian myth differently than I did. For example, Williams sees Wilber as Jesus Christ and sees Fern as God's angel. Below are some highlights from the second of William's essays.
... Charlotte's Web is a myth that subliminally reminds us of, and passes on truths from the story of Christ. Now, many people will misunderstand what I mean by "myth." There are many who connote the word "myths" with "falsehoods" and even "evil." But in this case, a myth is a story that passes on something that is true. A myth story does not necessarily pass on truths about what happens in the story's visual realm, but it does pass on truths about things in the invisible realm, e.g. values. .... 
In that way Charlotte's Web the movie (and to a lesser degree the book) is a Christ Myth. There are many "types" in Charlotte's Web that will resonate with the Nativity and other stories of Christ, but not so much that we can't enjoy Charlotte's Web for a story that stands on its own. .... they [the "types"] are very subliminal pointers of other things (physical and psychological or spiritual) that Christians hold to be true. Let me enumerate those ["types"] that I have seen ....
A. Wilbur is born a lowly pig, whose primary purpose in life is to die to feed others ...  
B. Wilbur is born in a stable, and lives in the basement of a barn. ... 
C. Wilbur eats from a manger. The Christ child slept in a manger. 
D. Wilbur draws attention from those beyond the farm because of a web hanging from what Wilbur later titles the "Hallowed Doorway". The web looks like a star .... In the Nativity story, as popularly told, wise men follow a star that hangs over the stable where Christ can be found. Just as there is a crowd of people come to see Wilbur in his barn, so there are many who come to see Christ is his stable. 
E. In Charlotte's web are words, that are proclamations or prophecies about the lowly but miraculous pig below. ....  
F. In the book, and implied in the movie, the minister in his sermon explains the words in Charlotte's web this way "words on the web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders." ... 
G. Shortly after Wilbur is born, Mr. Arable takes an ax and is about to take Wilbur off to be killed. Shortly after Christ's birth Herod sends his minions out to take the life of Christ. 
H. In the movie, Fern, the angel that she is, objects to killing Wilbur as a great injustice and thus protects Wilbur's life. In the Nativity story, an angel warns Joseph in a dream of the injustice about to be done with Herod's slaughter of the innocents. 
I. In the movie the smokehouse sits ever present on a hill near the barn, as a reminder that the pig's life has an end at the hands of humans. In the story of Christ, Golgotha sits ever present on a hill near the city that awaits Christ's death at the hands of humans. 
J. Charlotte looks down from above and is omniscient. One of the movie's tag lines is "Help Is Coming From Above." In the story of Christ, God looks down from above and is omniscient, and it is Christ that is sent as help from above. A tag line for the Bible could be: "Help is Coming From Above." 
K. In the movie (and the book) Wilbur escapes his home and chases after the school bus on which Fern rides to get an education. Wilbur soon returns, obediently, because that is where food, shelter, and his friends are. In the Christ story Jesus "escapes" to the temple, a religious school. He soon returns, obediently, to his home with his parents. 
L. In the movie, Wilbur looks like an ordinary pig, but his life is miraculous. In the Christ story, Jesus looks like an ordinary man, but his life is miraculous. 
M. In the movie, the narrator tells us that Somerset County is an ordinary place with ordinary people and animals, except that "here a little girl did something that would change everything." In the story of Jesus, a young woman, Mary, lived in an ordinary village except she would do something that would change everything. 
N. In the movie, Fern cares for Wilbur over whom the threat of death is constantly present. In the Nativity story, Mary cares for Jesus over whom the threat of death is constantly present. 
O. In the movie, it is Wilbur's respect for the beauty of all life (even ugly spiders), which brings a greater degree of grace to Somerset County. In the Christ story, it is Christ's respect for all kinds of people, no matter their heritage or race, which brings a greater degree of grace to mankind. 
P. In the movie, what appears ordinary, is quite miraculous. Jesus Christ appeared to many as quite ordinary. But he was quite miraculous 
Q. Charlotte prays over her food before she drinks its life giving blood. Her action is an offense to most in the barn at first. But Wilbur and his friends come to understand that it is Charlotte that keeps the pesky flies and other insects from being worse. A priest prays over the gifts before Catholics drink Christ's life giving blood. It is an offense to those that do not understand (John 6:66). It is God's grace, through Christ, that helps to keep sin from getting worse. 
R. Charlotte, the omniscient looks down from above, she always keeps her promises. God, the omniscient looks down from above, and always keeps his covenants. 
S. Wilbur always looks to Charlotte for friendship, comfort, assurance, and oversight, and she provides all that and protection, too. That is how Jesus looked to his father, and how Christians look to and trust the Trinity. 
T. In the movie, Avery, Fern's brother, takes a pitch fork and stabs it at Charlotte trying to kill her, while Fern watches. In the story of Christ, while Christ hangs on the cross a soldier spears his side to see if he is dead, while Mary watches. 
U. In the movie, Wilbur draws a crowd due to the presence of miracles, literal signs like "SOME PIG", and wonders. In the Christ story, Jesus draws crowds because of his miracles, signs, or wonders. 
V. In the movie, at the very end, Wilbur promises to Charlotte's daughters, now spinning their web in the "hallowed doorway": "I pledge to you my friendship forever." Jesus' last words to his followers (as recorded by Matthew) are: "I am with you always, until the end of the age." 
W. Charlotte repeatedly reminds those in the barn to be patient and "Never hurry, never worry. Don't be afraid." Christ repeatedly reminded his followers "Do not worry. Do not be afraid." 
X. While Wilbur sleeps, Charlotte works. Wilbur doesn't always see what Charlotte is up to, but what she does is always for Wilbur's good. Jesus told his followers that they will not always see or understand, but the hidden wholeness of God's providence will always work out for their good. 
Y. Miracles can have a conversion affect on people. In the book, when the farm hand, Lurvy, first sees Charlotte's "SOME PIG," he drops to his knees and says a short prayer. In the movie, when the sloppy farm hand, Harvey, sees "SOME PIG," he goes to town, gets a haircut and new clothes. Christ's miracles had a similar affect on people. 
Z. Charlotte says to Wilbur "I will save you, trust me."...which Charlotte reinforces to mean, do what I say. God promises to save us if we trust Him and do what he says. 
GL. ... At the very end of the movie, hundreds of Charlotte's babies throw a thin thread of silk up into the air, and trusting the wind to carry them aloft, they float off to places far and wide to spin their own web. This reminded Gus of how Christ sent out his disciples, and later the church, trusting the winds of the Spirit to carry the Good News into all the world. And in each new city they settle they would cast their nets (look like webs) and proclaim the Good News with both their words and actions. ....  
ZZ. There are four times that Charolette writes in her web, communicating with humans. The words are "SOME PIG", "TERRIFIC", "RADIANT", and "HUMBLE." There were four events in Christ's life that correspond to these words. ... The first was when Jesus was born and God revealed the birth to shepherds and wise men essentially saying this is SOME BIRTH and you need to pay attention to it, which is what Charlotte is saying about Wilbur's arrival. The second time, was when Jesus was baptised, and a voice came down from heaven saying "This is my TERRIFIC Son, with you I am well pleased." The third time, was when Jesus was transfigured and shone RADIANT as he talked with Elijah and Moses. The fourth time, was when Christ took on his most HUMBLE estate and was crucified.
The Charlotte's Web story seems to involve various Christian motifs, and that's why the story became so extraordinarily popular, and that's why Mrs. Schwich wanted her eighth-grade students to listen to it.