E.B. White ends his classic Charlotte’s Web with the statement, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”1 Nor is it often that a literary spider comes along who is a sympathetic character. The typical reader, who likely experiences some discomfort with spiders, wonders at White’s choice of heroine and the means by which she saves Wilbur. Her femaleness is customary for a literary spider, but whereas in many non-Western cultures spiders are childhood pets and symbols of good fortune or wisdom,2 most Western literary spiders are depicted as deceitful vampires. Charlotte, a heroine, is thus an anomaly for western readers, but she is in fact the culmination of a long tradition of arachnoid imagery that links language and weaving with feminine power.
This paper will explore the various ways artists and writers anthropomorphize spiders, and then use White’s novel and the film adaptations from 1973 (animated) and 2006 (live-action) to analyze the story’s linkage of words, weaving, and womanhood to compare Charlotte to some of her fictional counterparts.
Spiders are wonderfully and widely suggestive. Like many bugs, they are associated with death and decay, and the presence of their webs in abandoned places like haunted houses give them a place of honor at Halloween. Webs also symbolize schemes, traps, and manipulation, often for selfish purposes; but more neutrally, networking, hence the Worldwide Web. A spider’s ability to spin without instruction symbolizes instinct, and the painstaking labor associated therewith, patience.
Authors often use bugs, especially spiders, to symbolize negative aspects of femininity. For example, the spider is usually cast as feminine because it is a weaver.i Weaving has traditionally been seen as woman’s work, so firmly so that the word distaff, a spinning tool, is synonymous with womanhood. The Germanic word spider comes from the same root as spinster (an old maid who spins thread for a living), and arachnid comes from Arachne, the woman transformed into a spider for besting the goddess Athena at a weaving contest. Writers spun this association together with arachnophobia to produce the image of a spider as monster-woman. In Pygmalion, Ovid uses the spider as an extended metaphor for temptresses’ feminine wiles. Joyce Tally Lionarons says that “Spiders have long been a symbol for the kind of dark, insatiable female sexuality that devours the male.”3 The black widow is the epitome of the female spider as dominatrix or succubus.
AUTHORS OFTEN USE BUGS, ESPECIALLY SPIDERS, TO SYMBOLIZE NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF FEMININITY
Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in the Western world, yet it is absent from the novel and animated film versions of Charlotte’s Web. The story persuades the reader that, as Charlotte says, “Almost all spiders are rather nice-looking.”4 In the live-action film, the other animals in the barn think her creepy and Wilbur crazy for saying she is beautiful. The difference in Charlotte’s portrayal is due to the medium. In 1973, the celluloid Charlotte is anthropomorphic and therefore friendly-looking, but in 2006, Charlotte is realistically rendered and therefore more disturbing. Her disconcerting appearance means the community must grow to appreciate her as they do Wilbur. Live-action Charlotte proves her worth; her book and animated counterparts have no need.
Charlotte, of course, is not a monster-woman, although the 2006 movie raises the question when one of the barn animals whispers conspiratorially that spiders “eat their menfolk”5 (a claim that is never addressed). Her lack of monstrosity is especially obvious when one contrasts her with another famous female spider of the 1950s: Shelob from The Lord of the Rings. Superficial differences are obvious. Charlotte is a motherly spider of ordinary size who lives in a barn doorway and whose web becomes the means of Wilbur’s salvation. Shelob, on the other hand, is a gargantuan terror who mates with her own offspring and then devours them, spinning nearly impenetrable webs in the tunnels of a mountain-pass to capture hapless travelers. Readers may also find their literary significance to be at odds. In “Of Spiders and Elves,” Lionarons reinterprets Brenda Partridge’s notorious reading of Sam’s fight with Shelob as a violent sexual encounter. Instead, she sees it as a contrast between Shelob and the ethereal Elven Lady Galadriel that depicts a triumph of the procreative and unitive aims of sex over animalistic lust.6 Sam’s is the victory of Galadriel over Shelob, a fight against appetite and objectification that Charlotte likewise wins. The key difference is on which side the spider falls.
Galadriel and Charlotte have parallel roles because they are both depicted in ways suggestive of the Virgin Mary. While Shelob resembles either Lilithiiii or Sin from Paradise Lost, Charlotte is portrayed as a maternal virgin. She occupies a place of high spiritual status. Physically situated above the other animals in the barn, she is contemplative and philosophical, with composure in the face of death. In the trinity that resides in Wilbur’s stall, Charlotte is the spirit while anxious Wilbur is the mind and gluttonous Templeton, the body. However, she is not a literal mother until the main thrust of the story is complete, and we never hear of the Mr. Charlotte who must have fertilized those five hundred fourteen eggs, so Charlotte seemingly reproduces by parthenogenesis (virgin birth). In addition to the wisdom of sparing child readers the grittiness of spider-procreation, it would have been cumbersome for White to introduce another character when the focus is Wilbur’s story. Therefore, in keeping Charlotte’s love life offstage, White also emphasizes Charlotte’s selflessness and makes her appear virginal. Meanwhile, her daughters make her death less bleak by giving her a kind of immortality. Her death signifies Wilbur’s passage to adulthood. When Wilbur tells Templeton, “She is going to become a mother,”7 he fails to realize that she has been his mother all along.
Marian symbolism ends there, as Charlotte takes on Christological overtones. Charlotte is probably the first Christological spider, although spiders’ vampiric diet makes them Eucharistic in the wrong direction, but feminine Christological characters are nothing new. For example, nineteenth-century fantasy writer George MacDonald filled his stories with them, inspired in part by the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who described Jesus as having maternal qualities. As a wisdom figure strongly connected with language, Charlotte is reminiscent of Logos, the Greek concept of divine wisdom and a title for Christ. Logos became Latin Verbum in the Vulgate and thence came into English as Word. Did White descend on this line of thought down to his depiction of Charlotte as a writer? Probably not, but the idea of word as metonym for wisdom is prevalent in Western imagination. Wilbur’s salvation by means of words written in a spiderweb parallels the salvation of humanity by means of the Incarnate Word hanging on a cross. Sacrificial love transforms these instruments of death into instruments of life. A commentative song in the 1973 film unites these symbols of cross and web through lyrics that reference a perpendicular intersection, characterizing it as a sign of the power of disinterested love. The song concludes with the lines, “Sometimes when somebody loves you, / miracles somehow appear, / and there in the warp and the woof is the proof of it.”8 Whereas the cross is a product of the masculine craft of carpentry, the web is of the feminine craft of weaving.
Like Christus Victor and Artemis virgin goddess of the hunt, Charlotte is both trickster and defender of the weak. Rowe argues that female tricksters fight for a cause, usually the protection of the weak;9 and Tatar calls female tricksters double agents, working to change an unjust system from within.10 While her predatory nature is important to her character, Charlotte is driven not by her own hunger as classic tricksters usually are,11 but by the goal of saving Wilbur from human hunger. Charlotte says, “The way to save Wilbur’s life is to play a trick on Zuckerman.”12 Tricksters win by their wits—as Charlotte tells Wilbur she does13—rather than by any physical prowess. In addition to inventing traps such as nets and hooks, tricksters use verbal trickery, such as riddles, doubletalk, and reverse psychology. The web makes the spider particularly apt to characterization as a trickster. Unlike most tricksters, which Hyde says often fall into their own traps,14 spiders cannot get stuck in their own webs because they know which threads are safe to step on and their oily bodies resist sticking. Such imperviousness to their own traps ought to win the spider a literary portrayal as a kind of super-trickster, but this is rarely the case; Anansi the Spider of African folklore, for example, falls prey to many of his own tricks. But female tricksters go beyond imperviousness. Because their trickery is more geared toward societal reform than is traditional trickery, which usually revolves around stealing or avoiding capture, it does not produce the kinds of traps to which their own makers will fall prey. The female trickster’s goal is to convince others—to trap them in a position she already occupies. The words in Charlotte’s web convince others of Wilbur’s attributes because Charlotte already believes in them.
CHARLOTTE IS THE HEROINE—IT IS HER NAME IN THE TITLE, AFTER ALL—YET SHE RECEIVES VERY LITTLE CREDIT
Bound up in the characterization of female tricksters is the idea of the voice as vehicle for feminine power. In other famous literary works, Scheherazade and Philomela rescue themselves from victimhood through storytelling. Charlotte’s web, like Philomela’s tapestry, demonstrates that weaving is a woman’s recourse when she is unable to use her primary vehicle of power: her voice. The aforementioned song15 draws numerous parallels between the web, human spinning, and words: “her tracings” are “lyrical” and a “silent song.” White is careful to show that Wilbur cannot spin a web, lacking spinnerets and know-how.16 As the only writer, Charlotte is the lone animal in the barn cellar able to communicate with the humans, who Dr. Dorian says have forgotten how to listen. She uses human gullibility—“People believe almost anything they see in print”17—to reshape the community’s conception of Wilbur.
The story contains one last bitter truth: motherhood can be a thankless task. Charlotte is the heroine—it is her name in the title, after all—yet she receives very little credit. Mrs. Zuckerman, herself a woman, is the only one to speculate that “we have no ordinary spider,”18 only to be dismissed by her husband: the web clearly says the pig is the unusual one. For the rest of the book, everyone attributes the extraordinariness to Wilbur, because “spiders cannot write.”19 Live-action Charlotte even hides herself so there appears to be no spider at all. Even Charlotte says, “Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success,”20 failing to recognize that it was almost entirely her success, even if no one recognizes it. The task is not wholly thankless, though, because her surrogate child understands what she did for him. In the book as well as both movies, Wilbur gives a speech to Charlotte’s daughters that ensures a terrific, radiant, and humble legacy. Motherhood may go unsung by society, but not by the children, who grow up to honor the woman who gave them life.
It is tempting to take such commentary too far and conclude that Charlotte’s partial discontentment for her spiderhood as analogous to internalized misogyny. When she first meets Wilbur, she tells him:
I am not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made. … Way back for thousands and thousands of years we spiders have been laying [traps] for flies and bugs.
…it is [a miserable inheritance]…But I can’t help it. I don’t know how the first spider in the early days of the world happened to think up this fancy idea of spinning a web, but she did, and it was clever of her, too. And since then, all of us spiders have had to work the same trick. It’s not a bad pitch, on the whole.21
Charlotte does not hate being a spider; she simply recognizes that the spider condition could use improvement. The fact that every spider mentioned in the novel is female underscores spiders’ femininity in this tale, but if Charlotte’s reflections on spiderhood are a comment on womanhood, they are applicable to humanity in general. This is clear near the end of the book, when she tells Wilbur:
A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.22
Everyone’s life could do with lifting up, including Wilbur’s. Spiders’ lives could do with improvement, but no more so than the lives of other animals. Women’s lives could do with improvement, but not any more so than men’s lives. Charlotte understands that life is wretched, but ultimately good.
FOR SIXTY YEARS, CHARLOTTE HAS REMINDED US THAT NATURE ENDOWS THE FEMALE WITH UNIQUE POWER THAT SHE USES TO RESHAPE HER COMMUNITY
Other positive Western portrayals of spiders exist (Mrs. Spider, Rosie of Disney-Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life,” etc.), but they all seem to have come about in the last sixty years, suggesting that Charlotte was the first, and that her successors owe much to her. Charlotte’s femaleness is inseparable from her role as weaver, writer, and mother. For sixty years, Charlotte has reminded us that nature endows the female with unique power that she uses to reshape her community, build bridges, and protect those she loves.
Rebecca Baumgarten ‘20
Rebecca Baumgarten ‘20 is a first-year graduate student from Schertz, Texas, working toward an MA in English. She has a BA in English and a minor in history. The summer of 2019, she interned as a proofreader at Aggie Press, and now she is a graduate assistant in the Texas A&M Department of English.