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Fern Arable, an eight-year-old farm girl, sees her father carrying an ax and asks her mother where he is going with it. Her mother, Mrs. Arable, explains that a runt pig was born the night before and that Fern’s father, Mr. Arable, will kill the pig because it’s too small and weak. Fern becomes extremely upset and races outside to stop her father. Sobbing, Fern insists that killing the pig just because it’s small is unfair. Moved by her pleas, her father agrees not to kill the pig. He tells Fern to go back inside, where she can feed the pig with a bottle like a baby. Mr. Arable brings the pig into the kitchen in a box. Fern peeks inside and is delighted. She kisses her father and mother and then lifts the pig out and holds it against her cheek. Fern’s brother Avery enters the kitchen armed with toy weapons. He asks if he too can have a pig, but Mr. Arable says no—he didn’t rise early enough. Fern feeds the baby pig milk from a bottle. When the school bus honks, Fern and Avery hurry to meet it. On the bus, Fern thinks of a name for her pig: Wilbur.
Fern loves Wilbur. Every morning, she feeds him warm milk from a bottle. Every afternoon after school, she jumps off the bus and races home to feed him some more. Fern also gives Wilbur a bottle at suppertime and again at bedtime. Mrs. Arable helps by feeding Wilbur at noon, when Fern is in school. At first, Wilbur lives in his box in the kitchen. Soon he moves to a bigger box in the woodshed. When he is two weeks old, Mr. Arable fixes a large box with straw for Wilbur outside under an apple tree. Wilbur tunnels into the straw to keep warm while he sleeps, which makes Fern feel relieved. Wilbur follows Fern everywhere. Sometimes Fern places him in her doll carriage and wheels him around. When Fern and Avery go swimming, Wilbur follows and plays in the mud onshore. When Wilbur is five weeks old, Mr. Arable says he must be sold. Fern cries, but her father insists. Fern calls her aunt and uncle, the Zuckermans, who agree to buy Wilbur for six dollars, and so Wilbur goes to live on their farm.
Charlotte’s Web begins by establishing the fight for Wilbur’s life as the primary conflict in the story with eight-year-old Fern pleading with her father to not kill the pig. Mr. Arable views the matter of Wilbur’s life as impractical and a cause for future woes. He views the harsh realities of farm life and the need to raise and sell a healthy litter as more important than the compassion of saving a runt. This contrasts with Fern’s hopeful optimism as she argues that killing the runt simply because he was born small is a gross injustice. Wilbur’s right to life is not a given.
The importance of friendship between Fern and Wilbur is established in the first chapters. Fern’s commitment to regularly bottle-feeding Wilbur to keep him alive, along with playing with him throughout the day, deepens their bond. In turn, Wilbur’s life becomes centered around Fern. Both young, their lives become centered around each other.
Wilbur grows quickly, and his growth establishes both the pleasant and unpleasant realities of growing up. Beginning as a runt that is bottle fed and held inside the home like a human baby, Wilbur quickly progresses and is then moved first to the woodshed and then to the outside like the other animals on the farm. He becomes more independent outside and eventually grows to the point that he needs to be sold. While Wilbur begins his life entirely dependent on Fern, their bond continues to grow as companions as Fern plays with him like a doll, and he follows her around, devoted to her. Despite the joys of growing up and becoming friends, Wilbur is sold and he and Fern are separated.
The continued conflict over whether Wilbur will live or not is foreshadowed by his sale to the Zuckermans. Although Wilbur escaped death at the beginning of his life through Fern’s pleas to her father, selling Wilbur as a farm animal puts his life in danger again. The reality of livestock, particularly pigs, is that they are raised and sold to be slaughtered. Although the grief of Fern and Wilbur being separated by his sale to the Zuckermans is more obvious to the reader, the underlying conflict of Wilbur’s fight for his life continues.
The reality of death contrasts the naivety of both Fern and Wilbur’s youth. Fern, an eight-year-old, is more concerned about saving a runt than she is about the reality of living on a farm. She sees a weak pig that needs protecting, not a farm animal that is raised for food. Even as her parents allude to the purpose of raising a pig, she does not acknowledge it and becomes attached to an animal that her parents know will be sold and slaughtered. Similarly, Wilbur’s young life revolves around food and Fern. He does not know why he is moved from his home under the apple tree at Fern’s house to the cellar at the Zuckermans’, let alone the reason behind his sale.