Study Guide

Charlotte's Web Analysis

By E. B. White

  • Tone

    Matter of Fact, Sympathetic

    When it comes to tone, our narrator can be a straight shooter. He tells us what's what and who's who without any fuss. If you want to know what's going down without much commentary, this narrator is here to deliver. Check out this matter of fact description of the weather one day:

    "The next day was rainy and dark. Rain fell on the roof of the barn and dripped steadily from the eaves. Rain fell in the barnyard and ran in crooked courses down into the lane where thistles and pigweed grew. Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and came gushing out of the downspouts. Rain fell on the backs of the sheep as they grazed in the meadow. When the sheep tired of standing in the rain, they walked slowly up the lane into the fold." (4.1)

    Here the tone is pretty objective. The narrator doesn't seem to feel particularly happy or sad about the rain; it just is. But we can't fully hop on the this-tone-is-objective-train because sometimes the narrator's opinion sneaks in. After all, the narrator has some choice words to say about Templeton's inherent evilness (go check out Templeton in "Characters" and then come back here).

    Plus, during the sad moments of the book the matter of fact tone becomes more sympathetic. Take Charlotte's death, for instance:

    "The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died." (21.52)

    The tone here is still pretty straightforward, giving us the details of Charlotte's death. But the tone also asks us to sympathize with poor lonely spider. She was important, and, because we're all nice people (right, Shmoopers?), we don't want an important and kind spider like Charlotte to die.

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Coming-Of-Age; Quest

    There's no doubt about it: Charlotte's Web is written primarily for young folks. We know this just by looking at our cast of characters. When you have lots of growing animals and a couple of kids taking up most of the story, you can bet the book is of the young adult sort. Of course, this doesn't mean adults don't enjoy this book too. (Just ask Shmoop.)

    And that brings up another genre for us: Charlotte's Web is a coming-of-age tale. This means that it tracks the characters as they grow from childhood to maturity. Often, coming of age novels cover years and years, so you actually see kids grow up to become full-fledged adults. But in Charlotte's Web we get just a peek into one year of our characters' lives as they grow older. (There's tons to say about growing up in Charlotte's Web. Head on over to the "Coming of Age" theme for more tidbits.)

    One last thing: for Wilbur, growing up means going on a journey. And that makes this novel fits into the quest genre. Actually, we think Wilbur goes on two quests in this tale: a traveling journey and a personal journey. He goes to the County Fair, which is a super important trip for our little piggy friend. Plus, he has to overcome his fear of dying and learn to rely on his friends. That makes the journey even sweeter.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Charlotte's Web refers, well, to Charlotte's web. Yep, in the novel Charlotte weaves lots of webs and they have a huge impact on the storyline. In fact, Charlotte's webs have a way of saving lives, since they convince the Zuckermans to let Wilbur live. So yeah, these webs are game-changers.

    All in all, Charlotte spins four webs filled with four different phrases:

    (1) "SOME PIG!"
    (2) "TERRIFIC"
    (3) "RADIANT"
    (4) "HUMBLE"

    Webs with words like this are no ordinary sight to see. But eventually every single character in the novel sees Charlotte's webs at one point or another. Talk about publicity. (We chat more about what these webs might mean in "Symbols" so weave your way on over there, and then come back.)

    All this talk of webs has us wondering: why does the title only refer to one "web"? Do you think one particular web is more important than the others? Or—here's an idea—is the "web" maybe the plot that Charlotte creates to save Wilbur's life?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Talk about a bittersweet ending. Here's why we're thinking the end of this book is one part sad and one part happy:

    • Hand us the tissues because…Charlotte dies. Alone. Do we have to say more? We'd gotten pretty attached to this spider and weren't ready to let her go. 
    • Color us happy because…Charlotte has children. And then they have children. And then there're oodles of grandkids and great grandkids! So even though Charlotte is gone, her family lives on, year after year. And that's pretty cool.

    So Charlotte's Web starts with a birth (Wilbur, the spring pig!). And it ends with a death (Charlotte's)… but also lots of births (spider babies!). This ending sure has us thinking about the circle of life. (Go check out the "Mortality" theme for more musings, and then head back here.)

    But even with all the new spider babies, no one could ever replace Charlotte. She's a one-of-a-kind gal. And that's what the last paragraph reminds us:

    "Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." (22.69)

    We're so happy Wilbur had such a good friend. And we're so sad that she is gone. But now it's your turn. What do you think: is the ending meant to be happy or sad?

  • Setting

    American farmland, sometime before the 1950s

    Close your eyes and picture this: a big barn, lots of hay, plenty of noisy animals, and a few insects. Throw in a farmer and his wife, some homemade blueberry pie (yum), a rope swing for the kids, and a trough for the pig, and you've got yourself the Zuckerman farm.

    Oh, and maybe toss some manure into the picture, too. Seriously, we're always hearing about how much manure there is on this farm. Apparently pigs really like a nice warm bed of manure. Smelly times.

    Manure aside, the farm life sounds pretty great. There's always fun to be had (on the rope swing!) and food to be eaten by animals and humans alike (more slop please!).

    For Wilbur, the Zuckerman farm just feels like home. (We've got loads more to say about this. Take a look at "The Home" in Themes, and then head back here.) He loves everything about it, from the way it looks to the way it smells. Nothing, not even a mean rat, can put a damper on the bliss that is the Zuckerman farm. Check out this tidbit describing Wilbur's return from the county fair:

    "And so Wilbur came home to his beloved manure pile in the barn cellar. […] There is no place like home, Wilbur thought […] The barn smelled good." (22.1)

    Wilbur loves his surroundings so much he can hardly stand it. Plus, see what we mean about manure? The praises abound.

    Sometime Before the 1950s

    White isn't too specific about when Charlotte's Web is set, but we know it's before he published the book in 1952. We can pick that up from its depiction of rural American life. These are simple people—no iPhones, no computers, and maybe even no TV. In fact, the biggest piece of technology is Mrs. Zuckerman's freezer.

    And here's something else. In the decades before (and including) the 1950s, advertising was really taking off. Companies were learning that it wasn't just enough to announce a new product—they had to convince people it was special. Radiant, even. Or "terrific."

    And notice how Templeton brings back advertising material from the dump? Yeah, that's where Charlotte gets her ideas. And notice how people start agreeing Wilbur must be special, just because it's written in print? Yep, that too. We think White is poking just a little bit of fun at the new-fangled powers of advertising.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    Charlotte's Web is the kind of book that you want to read while snuggled up in bed. E. B. White uses pretty simple words and short sentences, so it's an easygoing read. Plus, there are lots of illustrations by Garth Williams. And who doesn't love a good illustration? But even though it's easy to get the gist of this tale, it also takes up the topic of death a lot. So yeah, that's a bit of a downer sometimes.

  • Writing Style

    Detailed, Sensory

    In Charlotte's Web, details take the cake. Or the blueberry pie. Everywhere we turn, this story gives us tons of detailed description, which means that we get oodles of information about the little things. Take the Zuckerman barn, for instance. The narrator takes us on a tour of every nook and cranny in this place.

    On top of that, this style is always putting our five senses working in overdrive. Want to know what the barn looks like? We've got descriptions of the stalls, the pens, the stacks of hay, not to mention "ladders, grindstones, pitch forks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacs, and rusty rat traps" (3.2). That's a lot of stuff to visualize.

    Or maybe you're in the mood to know what the barn feels like. Well then here you go: "The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in the summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze" (3.2). Sounds pretty great to us.

    But then again, perhaps smells are what you're really after. A barn has to have tons of smells, and it sure does:

    "It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish." (3.1)

    By golly that's a lot of smells. Check out how this sensory style uses lots of lists to give us all the details. This means we get some repetition too. Put it all together, and you have a pretty realistic picture of life on the farm.

    Well, except for the talking animals of course.

  • Spider Webs

    We know, it's probably pretty obvious that spider webs are important. After all, there's a spider web in the title. But you know what's not so obvious? What all these spider webs represent. There are a whole bunch of reasons webs are significant. Here are a couple that stood out to us:

    Looks Can Be Deceiving

    Just because a spider web is thin and dainty, don't go thinking it's weak. In fact, a spider web can be just the opposite of how it looks:

    "A spider's web is stronger than it looks. Although it is made of thin, delicate strands, the web is not easily broken. However, a web gets torn every day by the insects that kick around in it, and a spider must rebuild it when it gets full of holes" (9.55).

    Sounds to us like these spider webs are both strong and breakable. Hmm … a little like Charlotte herself, maybe?

    Webs are as Good as Paper…or Even Better!

    Charlotte is a top-notch writer and her medium of choice is the web. Nope, not the World Wide Web—although she'd probably be pretty great at that, too—but the barn wide web. She finds crafty ways to turn her spidery string into words people can read as if they are printed on paper. As Charlotte declares: "People believe almost anything they see in print" (12.28).

    Actually, we're thinking that Charlotte's words are even more influential because they're written in a web. This has us wondering: do you think Charlotte's words would have had as much of an impact if they were printed in the newspaper? Or on a banner? Or etched in stone?

    There's so much to say about these webs that we keep going in "What's Up with the Title?" so head on over there.

  • Fences and Freedom

    Did you notice how Wilbur is always getting kept in a cardboard box, or put in his pigpen, or locked up in a crate? Most of the time, Wilbur doesn't get to roam free. Instead, his owners have figured out precisely where they want their little piggy to stay.

    Sure, you could say he's trapped in these spaces. But you could probably also say that he's happy to be stuck inside them.

    Let's investigate further. Take a look at Chapter Three, when Wilbur makes a break for it. He busts out of his yard, pushes open the fence, and ends up in the vast land of the farm. So what happens when the little piggy cries wee wee wee all the way to freedom?

    Well, not much at first. Actually, Wilbur isn't even sure he likes freedom: "'I like it,' said Wilbur. 'That is, I guess I like it'" (3.17). Turns out freedom might be a bit of a letdown. (No one's bringing you daily slops out in the forest.)

    But then Wilbur starts to get into his newfound liberty. He does a little jig and goes digging around an apple tree. Maybe freedom is actually pretty great. Of course, Wilbur also does lots of dancing when he's in his pigpen, so he doesn't really need to be outside to get his groove on.

    So what do you think: do the fences represent traps? Or is life pretty good inside the gate?

  • Rope Swing

    Go free falling—on the Zuckerman rope swing, the best ride in town. Kids all around the county dream about this swing. That's how great it is.

    And what makes this rope swing so wonderful? For starters, there's nothing like the taste of freedom. When kids are on the rope swing, they don't have a care in the world.

    Plus, getting on the rope swing is probably going to make your parents a wee bit angry. So that's a bonus if you're a rebellious, parent-defying kid. According to our narrator, "Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman's swing. They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did" (10.24).

    And then there's the guts it takes to grab hold of that rope swing and jump. You've got to do it with gusto:

    "Then you got up all your nerve, took a deep breath, and jumped. For a second you seemed to be falling to the barn floor far below, but then suddenly the rope would begin to catch you, and you would sail through the barn door going a mile a minute, with the wind whistling in your eyes and ears and hair. Then you would zoom upward into the sky, and look up at the clouds, and the rope would twist and you would twist and turn with the rope" (10.23).

    Wow, that sounds like fun! It might take a lot of courage to start swinging, but evidently it's worth the ride. So the rope swing represents freedom, and rebellion, and courage. What else might the rope swing represent?

  • Food

    This book is so full of food imagery, it makes us hungry just reading it. Well, to be honest, some of the treats have our mouths watering more than others. Homemade blueberry pie? Two slices please. A bucket of slop? Eh, we'll pass.

    Here are some of the appetite-teasing moments that stood out to us:

    • Wilbur's slop: it's all the leftovers from the Zuckerman kitchen thrown together with some milk. Sounds pretty nasty to us, but Wilbur loves it.
    • Templeton's fair food: he gains a big fat belly when he gorges on food at the county fair.
    • Charlotte's flies: she's got a snazzy method for catching herself meals whenever she needs them.
    • Aunt Edith's pies: they sound great, as long as you don't get a slice that Avery's frog jumped in.
    • Bacon and ham: all over the book we see people eating bacon or talking about turning Wilbur into bacon. That sure is a scary thought for Wilbur!

    In some ways, foods help us tell the characters apart. (Hungry to read more about characters and their food? Go check out "Characterization" and then head back here.) Each character has his or her own signature meal. In fact, food is one way each character can show his or her individuality.

    Yet all this food imagery also reminds us that the animals must rely on one another. Here's the deal: without each other's presence in the barn, the animals would miss out on one of their most basic needs. Check out what Charlotte say about Wilbur's food: his "smelly pen and stale food attracted the flies that she needed" (9.24). So Wilbur may be a little stinky, but his meals help his buddy get some grub too.

    Or take a look at your unfriendly neighborhood rat, Templeton. The old sheep reminds Templeton precisely where his food comes from:

    "Wilbur's leftover food is your chief source of supply, Templeton. You know that. Wilbur's food is your food; therefore Wilbur's destiny and your destiny are closely linked. If Wilbur is killed and his trough stands empty day after day, you'll grow so thin we can look right through your stomach and see objects on the other side." (12.41)

    Templeton might not want to admit it, but he needs Wilbur just as Charlotte does. So it turns out some finger-licking food is pretty important in this book.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Charlotte's Web gives us a narrator who knows it all. Our third-person storyteller never shows up in the story and doesn't have much of a personality. But this point of view does give us a peak at everything that happens to our main man, Wilbur, and our leading lady, Charlotte.

    Here's the really good news about this point of view: since our narrator is omniscient, he can tell us what the characters are thinking, even when they don't tell anyone else. So when Wilbur feels lonely, we'll hear about it. Or when Mrs. Arable is worrying inside about her daughter, we'll read about that too.

    And when Fern is thinking about a boy instead of Wilbur, we get the skinny on her secret desires: "As they passed the Ferris wheel, Fern gazed up at it and wished she were in the topmost car with Henry Fussy at her side" (19.68).

    (Hm, maybe it's a good thing that we're the only ones who get to know what Fern is thinking. We're thinking Wilbur would be devastated.)

    Plus, the third-person point of view means that we can see things no one else does. When Charlotte dies, no one is around, not even Wilbur: "No one was with her when she died" (21.52). But the omniscient point of view gives us a look at this super sad moment. And in a way, we're with Charlotte when she dies.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition

    A Sweet Life on the Farm

    Wilbur is the runt of the litter, but Fern thinks he's still an awesome pig so she saves his life. The Zuckermans think Wilbur is pretty swell too, so they buy the little guy and take care of him. For this pig, life is looking good.

    Rising Action

    Don't Bring Home the Bacon!

    Things are chugging along smoothly until Wilbur learns that Mr. Zuckerman will probably turn him into bacon and ham. Yikes! Wilbur is super upset about this news, and so are we. We don't want to lose this little guy, so the conflict is: how is Wilbur going to escape this dire fate? And who is going to help him do it? Yep, it's Charlotte and her web.

    Climax

    And the Winner is…Wilbur!

    After all of Charlotte's hard work and Wilbur's eyelash-batting, he wins a special prize at the county fair. His life is saved! Hip hip hooray! The whole novel has been building to this one big victory.

    Falling Action

    Getting Sick and Heading Home

    Charlotte has been feeling ill for awhile, and now it's really starting to weigh on her. So at the fairgrounds she makes her last "masterpiece": an egg sac full of soon-to-be spiders. She knows she'll never see them hatch, so Wilbur takes over to make sure the eggs are safe. Charlotte's impending death lets us know that things are starting to wrap up in this tale.

    Resolution

    Lots of BFFs Forever

    Charlotte dies, which is super sad. But her children and grandchildren provide perpetual friends for Wilbur. So now he gets to live instead of being turned into bacon, and he gets lots of new chums every year. Once again, life is looking good for this little pig.