3/23 Charlotte’s Web

March 23rd:

E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web [any edition will do]. 

Wilbur is cute, has long eye lashes and he’s a white pig. I think all of this would appeal more to the adult sensibility as to why he deserves to be saved….in line with 1952 pub. date…but now? I’m not sure if all that would have really mattered to a child, then and now?  If Wilbur was a black pig or dark brown and described as not so attractive…then what? Would it have been more challenging for E.B. White to make this animal worthy of life while his cousin or aunt could have been frying on the pan that morning? And then what meaning would we have placed on a black/brown pig?  And yet even as a white pig, Wilbur is still “a body” (?) to be sold.

Besides reading Charlotte’s Web through an animal studies framework, the book also and naturally extends itself to feminist, queer, and critical race theory readings as well. VERY much so. If this novel is hailed so much as one of the ultimate and beloved human-species companion stories, how do these other readings get background(ed) (if that’s a word?)

This reminds me of the article we read earlier by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, “The Rights and Wrongs of Anthropomorphism in Picture Books” Fraustino writes:

“To work its humanist mystique, the anthropomorphized animal must trigger the “cute response” first identified by Konrad Lorenz in describing infantile features that bring out instinctive parental responses. Our anthropomorphizing theory of mind leads humans to extend these responses beyond our own babies to other small animals with big heads, big eyes, small noses, and chubby cheeks.” (p. 153) Also thinking here about the cover of this book, and all books with animals meant to bond with humans.

Amy Ratelle, “Ethics and Edibility in Charlotte’s Web,” The Lion and the Unicorn 38.3 (September 2014): 327-341.

Derrida’s “carnophallogocentrim.”  Wow – a lot to unpack here. Is this his way of saying white, male, hetero, able-bodied, meat-eating (and money earning)?

The difference between companion and edible animals is how they are treated (p. 329) I find it a difficult task, getting to animal subjectivity without anthropomorphism and Charlotte’s Web brings that into focus. (“Most analysis of the text retain the practice of seeing the animal as a stand-in for himan, values, emotions.” p. 327)…. So much of the fiction of children’s literature seems to be outside of animal studies. I feel like all I can bring to the table right now is see the human-animal relationship and ask “how do we know this animal would do this?”  Even in the way we want to treat animals are in a “humane” way. If it always seems to be rooted in the human experience then what true detachments can we employ as scholars to consider true animal subjectivity? I think we can certainly have respect for animals/all living creatures and say we won’t kill them and leave them all alone…but isn’t that a human decision as well while animals do their own biddings? Are we even capable? Perhaps this is part of who we are, a longer and natural chain of human consumption, a different kind of kill? I guess that’s what animal studies will ask us to do, think outside the literary lunch box to (re)consider our uses of the animal and open up an avenue to the understanding of yet another “other.”  The attempt is what we can go for now. Ethics come in play, which is a bit more problematic and deeper than the “-isms.”

(You can tell I’m a bit confused/all over the place?  🙂 )

3 thoughts on “3/23 Charlotte’s Web

  1. Ruwanthi Edirisinhe

    In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte justifies her predatory consumption of insects as a means of survival based on the fact that she, unlike the other animals on the farm, does not have food handed over to her in troughs etc., largely due to her insignificant status in an inherently anthropocentric capitalist system that profits from the killing of animals for meat. If, as critics such as Donna Haraway has argued, we are to achieve a sense of parity between animal and human subjectivity (qtd in Amy Ratell) , could such a statement, also, inadvertently, justify the ‘non-ethical’ positions of underclass populations who partake in the meat production industry due to their limited access to alternate lines of mobility within the capitalist system that values some bodies over ‘others’?

    1. Carrie Hintz

      Wow, Ruwanthi, what a fascinating question, and one that engages so well with the logics/ non-logics of the book itself (maybe more non-logics than logic!). This is a fresh angle on the book, and one I appreciate so much. CH

  2. Carrie Hintz

    Hi Jaïra, Thank you, first of all, for the question about the racialization of “cuteness” and “innocence” and being “worthy of life.” These are definitely the questions this very weird book inspires, and I’m so glad you asked them. I admire this post a lot, because it mimics my own reaction to the book. To use a phrase beloved of my old teachers: “This book raises more questions than it answers!” CH

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