In Charlotte’s Web, the social construction of gender comes to light yet again. It is interesting to note the fact that each work we have looked at thus far has introduced some sort of gender classification, whether it is the maternal role taken on by Wendy, the dominant and brave Peter Pan, or the curious, little girl presented to us in Alice in Wonderland.
The novel opens early morning at the Arable household. Instantly, the children are sculpted into a reader’s typical little girl and boy. Fern is extremely passionate, sympathetic, and playful, while Avery is quite adventurous, walking into the kitchen with an air rifle and wooden dagger. But it is not Avery, or the role of men, that I want to focus on. Rather, the portrayal and classification of women in the work.
E.B. White seems to present two vastly different perceptions of women. First, we have Fern, who, just as Wendy did, takes on a maternal role as she steps up to nurse Wilbur back to health. Immediately, White refers to Wilbur as Fern’s infant, and the reader can somewhat sense that feeling of a mother’s unconditional love for her child. Each day, Fern carries out the typical duties of a mother; warming his milk, feeding him his bottle, putting him to bed, etc. She seems to enjoy this role a great deal. Fern adores Wilbur, as he does her. When it comes time to sell Wilbur, she assures safe placement of him at her Uncle Homer’s farm, where she visits him as often as possible. Although she is not allowed in the pen with Wilbur, she sits on an old milking stool for hours never leaving his side.
Charlotte’s character seems to be constructed to be quite the opposite of Fern’s. With Fern we see a nurturing, loving motherly figure, whereas with Charlotte we see a female with great authority and influence. It is quite ironic that although Charlotte is by far the smallest animal in barn, she seems to be the one calling the shots. She calls meetings, addresses all the animals, etc. Upon forming her friendship with Wilbur, she vows to save his life. Throughout the work, she constructs different phrases in her web to highlight Wilbur, and people begin to think it is sign that he truly is a special pig. She never gives up, even as she begins to fall ill. It is because of Charlotte that Wilbur is awarded a prize at the fair, and therefore goes on to live a long, happy life on the farm. Her dominance, loyalty, intelligence, and leadership make her an exemplary character in the work.
It is interesting to note the different characteristics adopted by Fern and Charlotte. But, as different as they are, they both had a great influence on Wilbur, whether it is his upbringing or the assurance of his safety. Both characters helped shape Wilbur, and I believe it is the combination of their personas that make a great deal of this novel work.