Beauty and Unbearableness in Charlotte’s Web

I recently purchased Charlotte’s Web for one of my daughters. Her school teacher has been recounting various episodes from the book and she wants to read the book for herself now (God bless enthusiastic and inspiring teachers). I read it myself when I was a child, though like many of us of a slightly younger generation (I suspect) I have more vivid memories of the 1973 film version. 

The particular book I purchased is the 60th anniversary edition, and it contains a foreword written by Kate DiCamillo [1]. It’s a brief, beautiful, and poignant meditation not only on the text itself, but also  on the complex unbearableness and joy of the world we live in. I wanted to share this excerpt in particular:

Things didn’t turn out well.

But they also did turn out well.

And that, for me, is the crux of the miracle of this book: within the confines of its pages, something terrible, something unbearable, happens. And yet, we bear this unbearable thing. And in the end, we even rejoice.

E.B. White said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

White loved barns and pastures, dumps and fair grounds, ponds and kitchens. He loved pigs and sheep and geese and spiders. He loved rain and, harnesses, pitchforks, springtime, fall. He loved spiderwebs, monkey wrenches, Ferris wheels.

Every word of Charlotte’s Web bears the full weight of White’s love for the people, seasons, animals, and arachnids of this world. And every word of the book shows us how we can bear the triumphs and despairs, the wonders and the heartbreaks, the small and large glories and tragedies of being here.

We can bear it by loving it all.

These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world….Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur–this lovely world, these precious days….

This is Charlotte’s promise to Wilbur.

It is also E.B. White’s promise to his reader: things will continue, life will go on. It will be beautiful, astonishing, heartbreaking. And as long as you keep your eyes and heart open to the wonder of it, as long as you love, it will be okay.

We in this community might see this more as Charlotte’s blessing upon Wilbur, a sealing upon him that no matter what happened to him he would be enabled to endure in loving the world and seeing it truly in both its beauty and its unbearableness and so not entirely be overcome in hopeless despair.

Echoes of a divine voice, perhaps, first uttered before the foundation of the world:

Things will not turn out well. But they will also turn out well.

[1] Kate DiCamillo, “Foreword,” Charlotte’s Web (HarperCollins, 2006).

Comments

  1. What a beautiful meditation for this Sunday morning. Thank you.

  2. Jacob, you made me cry. Thank you. This is beautiful.

  3. Thanks, man. This is lovely.

  4. Jacob, my favorite children’s book of all time, none. I’ve read it so many times I know the first chapter by heart— yet you just gave me something new to think on. Thank you.

  5. H. A. Worle says:

    Yes, those are beautiful thoughts. You are obviously possessed of some significant literary talent yourself. Why then can you (and many, many folk like you) not use the English language properly? The thoughts of Kate DiCamillo that impressed you (and me) so much were NOT found in a forward (a position in several team sports), but rather in a foreword (a preface to a work of literature). Sorry, and thanks for letting me vent. I feel much better now that I have gotten this off my chest.

  6. I went to church this morning angry, aggravated and full of resentment. I did not want to be here. The Sacrament talks did not soothe me; I let them feed my pique. I came to BCC hoping for a Sunday message, and I got it. I have to love these maddening people and this maddening world. I do love them. I forgot that for a while. I had a good cry about it. It’s bearable again. Thank you.

  7. H.A. Worle, thanks for pointing that out. Fixed. Consequences of writing with a frenzied 19 month old interrupting me every 10 seconds. (Also, I believe it is spelled “whorl” :).

  8. Dovie, and J., thank you for responding.
    Tracy, thank you. One of my favorite children’s books as well. There is much truth that is best expressed in children’s literature.
    Karen, your response means a lot to me. Thank you for sharing that.
    Melissa, I was feeling somewhat the same until I read this last night. Always a significant grace to read or hear something that allows you to push the reset button and begin again. We need that constantly.

  9. “Why then can you (and many, many folk like you) not use the English language properly?”

    Ah, the tactful subtlety of a sledgehammer.

    Thank you for the great post, Jacob.

  10. Thank you for this–my son is having a difficult time with September 11, a really difficult time. I think we will read the book again with this in mind.

  11. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Beautiful! I dug out Tela Charlottae yesterday and brushed up a little on my Latin. The first sentence: “Quo vadit pater, illam securim portans?” Ferna matri dixit dum ientaculum parant.

  13. What Karen H. said. Thanks for sharing these beautiful thoughts. “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.”

  14. A year ago from last weekend, my life was turned upside down when my husband out of the blue committed suicide. I miss him terribly and I never thought I would ever be able to survive something like this. But I have. A whole calendar year, every holiday, every anniversary, every birthday. I see the world so much darker than I ever have, but at the same time, strangely, I feel like I see and recognize the beauty and tender mercies even more. In my husband’s last words he wrote ‘Life is beautiful and anything is possible.’ And over the past year I’ve finally understood and realized that despite everything, I have been immensely blessed. Thank you for sharing this and helping put words to something I have learned and felt over the past year.

  15. Thank you for such a heartwarming post. As an avid, young reader, I loved Charlotte’s Web. I often boasted that I had read it as many as ten times, and I think that’s probably true. Reading this beautiful post reminds me that I probably read dark literature a little too often. I need to reflect on the simple pleasures and beauties of life. And read Charlotte’s Web for the eleventh time! Once again, Jared, thank you.

  16. Loved this so much.

  17. I wonder how many adults have experienced E.B. White only through Charlotte’s Web? His essays are worth reading, especially “Once More to the Lake” if you are a parent of children on the cusp of adolescence and the child of parents now beyond middle aged.

  18. John Mansfield says:

    “‘Why then can you (and many, many folk like you) not use the English language properly?’

    “Ah, the tactful subtlety of a sledgehammer.”

    Cute Pigs Correcting Your Grammar would be more topical.

  19. The original was great, but I still belive the sequel will be better: http://xkcd.com/1087/

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