Spots and Cuts Finding the Right Face for Charlotte in ‘Charlotte’s Web’
In insisting on an anatomically correct Charlotte, E. B. White was playing with fire: People hate real spiders.
This is Spots and Cuts , a column by Abby Walthausen that explores the nature of book illustration and the way images can shape the text for the reader.
It’s a shock I’ve experienced many times since becoming a mother, to cuddle up with my son and a fondly remembered book—featuring Babar the Elephant, for instance—only to find racism and colonialism. Or to dive into a beloved Beatrix Potter and end up stumbling through passages devoted to corporal punishment.
For my friend, who grew up in Germany, her shock in revisiting the 1845 classic Struwelpeter was more than a matter of badly aged politics: The book, whose harsh mission is to invoke fear, had titillated her, but terrified her son. A girl plays with matches and burns to ash, a boy makes racist taunts is dipped in ink by a giant named Agrippa, another boy sucks his thumbs until a tailor leaps in to cut off the tempting digits.
Much of the terror in Stuwelpeter is not in the stories and their fierce punishments, but in the illustrations. In the unsettling story of “Augustus who would not eat soup,” the boy’s head grows smaller with each successive image. His face ultimately disappears and his limbs become fine black lines. He first narrows to adult proportions, then to those of a rudimentary stick figure—so out of place in a picture book—just before he steps into the grave. The chubby, rosy-cheeked Augustus rejecting his mother’s soup is replaced by a provisional scratch, a pictograph of a person. The point is that empathy is now impossible, and not necessary to boot.
It’s an organizing assumption of a lot of kids’ books: If something isn’t cute, no need to love it. Witches, foxes, spiders, and bad guys are pointy. Kids and rabbits and puppies are round and sweet and loveable. Augustus transitions between the two realms.
In E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web , Charlotte never quite enters the realm of the flesh. Though she saves the life of Wilbur, and makes it worth living too, she is a spider, tiny and relegated to the corners of the book’s illustrations. She exists in lifelike scale, the size of a real spider squashed between pages. We can hardly see her face. When I was a child, I searched her pinprick of a head for a sign of her sweetness, of her dry, maternal confidence.
Children have great big eyeballs. They are still growing into them, after all. They seek that same sweet feature in the faces around them. As a child, I liked big eyes too. I was unsettled by Charlotte back then, chalking up the omitted face, the imperceptible eyes, to a mistake by the author and illustrator, or a failure of imagination. When I saw the video cassette boxes at my local rental store, I wished more than anything that the 1952 book was illustrated with the Charlotte of the 1973 cartoon. In the latter, Charlotte had sky blue eyes and lashes for days. I never saw the movie, but when I read the book, I imagined her wearing that feminine face.
E. B. White would not have approved of my preference. He had tried again and again to block the prettifying of the spider, and allowed the Hanna-Barbera film only because he was in a bad financial situation, struggling to afford long-term care for his ill wife, Katharine. By the time he OK’ed the movie, he had already spent seventeen years turning down animation proposals and and even vying for the pipe dream of a live-action film in spite of the challenges of making animals appear to talk in an era long before CGI.
In the middle of drafting this essay, I took my son to see a movie full of spiders: Miniscule , a French-Belgian kid’s film where cute animated insects struggle to survive in the live-action scenery onto which they are superimposed. It was very beautiful, with stunning views of the Alps and of Guadeloupe. Even more impressive and foreign to me was that the characters were silent. It strayed from the American template insofar as it bucked all future merchandising possibilities: Relationships are left ambiguous and names are omitted. I respected the film and enjoyed it, but its reliance on child-like eyes is staggering.
In Miniscule , the animals’ eyes are saucery, especially in the case of one black spider, a solitary character who likes to lie on a puffy pillow listening to opera, who comes dutifully to the aid of the other bugs when asked. At the film’s end, the spider returns alone to her lair, her pupils sparkling and her eyeballs welling. The big eyes are sad—this could be one of the Charlottes I dreamed of as a girl. But now, it feels wrong, though I still only know Charlotte by the faces I rule out.
Long before there was a whisper of a Charlotte’s Web movie, before the manuscript was even published, White was already determined to keep Charlotte’s head small and her face spider-like. That was a choice not just against the instincts of his readers—children—but against the wisdom of the market, the conventions of children’s books, and most notably against his friend and close collaborator, Garth Williams.
Williams and White had found great success in their work together on White’s first book for children, Stuart Little , seven years prior. White himself praised the “beguiling” portrayal of Stuart’s jaunty body and expressive face, proclaiming that Williams had captured just what he’d imagined. And what he imagined was a very put together, adult-looking mouse, quite the opposite of big-eyed Mickey Mouse. But since the duo had worked so well in striking a balance between Disneyfication and sophistication in their Stuart, why did White rail against even a trace of anthropomorphism in his next protagonist?
“Once a man gets interested in spiders, there’s no time left for art,” White facetiously warned in a letter to Williams , sending him natural history books and photos from his own barn. But the artist struggled. White called Williams’ first try a “Mona Lisa face” and demanded he replace it with something biologically accurate.
White called Williams’ first try a “Mona Lisa face” and demanded he replace it with something biologically accurate.
In doing so, White played with fire: People hate real spiders. In a letter to his editor Ursula Nordstrom , White wrote that Charlotte’s image must rely not on a face but on the “eight wonderfully articulated legs (arms) which offer a great chance for ballet treatment.” Just beneath that facade of spider-love, there was a streak of contrarianism. In musing to his publisher at Harpers about the prospects for Charlotte’s Web , White wrote: “Whether children will find anything amusing in it only time will tell. No doubt they would like it better if my barn cellar were loaded into a spaceship and exploded in the general direction of Mars.” He saw the hazards of pandering.
I think of my son this past Christmas. The day had been long—cheerful and lovely at first. But, little by little, the more presents opened, the less joy, the more nerves and testiness. All day, the ugly streak snowballed with my sweet boy snapping at his grandmother, contradicting everything, until by dinnertime he was a wreck of potty talk, babbling, bad faces, fake shooting, feet on the table.
Just as he threatened to pull off the tablecloth, I snapped, barking at him and pointing out the candles at the centerpiece. My gravity caught him off guard and the sea change was incredible. In a moment, he snapped from his most reactive to his most reflective, and his voice softened to a whisper:
“And if the fire burned down our house and we had to leave, we’d say goodbye . . . to all our precious things and plants . . . and to our food . . . and to my toys . . . because they’d burn up.”
It was a Struwelpeter moment suspended. The bad boy didn’t burn the house down and he didn’t step outside our ability to empathize. Instead of shrinking down to nothing, his face flushed, his eyes dilated and glistened. The tears didn’t fall; they hung still in the most delicate possible balance.
I wanted to photograph his face like that, but how to point a camera at someone on the verge of tears? A fixed image would never capture this overripe, overwhelmed moment truthfully anyhow. Perhaps the hyper-childish cuteness of the giant eye is just sadness frozen, made static. Shimmering blue Hanna-Barbera eyes cast a cloud over all the dynamism of White’s noble Charlotte.
In the final call on the illustrations for Charlotte, White erased Williams’ accurate spider face and replaced it with a few rudimentary dots and lines. “I contend he cheated,” said Williams about this most provisional face, neither spider nor human. Years later White reported to a friend that the book’s success had depended on not “patronizing the arachnid.”
But why did White find specifics—human and spider both—so debasing to the arachnid? If White was concerned about accuracy, Wilbur would not weep fat human tears in Williams’ illustrations, nor would he gaze into Fern’s eyes like a transfixed infant Jesus. Templeton the rat would not smirk and the goose and gander would not frown at him. And the animals would not talk. Most of all, Charlotte would not write English-language messages into her web. Some Pig! Terrific. Radiant. Humble. Some Spider.
Perhaps that specific skill, shared between author and protagonist, was why she was granted no expressive face—because White knew she must express herself through writing. Charlotte was closest to his heart of all the characters, so much so that White could not allow a visual artist to overwrite the emotions he portrayed.
White famously avoided the life of a writer-celebrity. It was why he spent most of his time in Maine and not New York. It was why he once responded to the letter of a young fan by asking her to please begin a “Don’t write to E. B. White until he produces another book” campaign. It was why, when the child’s librarian wrote back to defend her against the crotchety author, White suggested to the librarian that she should be teaching children that “the book was the thing, not the man behind the book.”
When White erased the face of Charlotte, it was an act of self-protection. A shy writer’s dream—balletic movement does all the work, a blank face behind a web of words.
At the end of the novel, White memorializes Charlotte as “a good writer and a good friend.” Her legacy is hundreds of children who balloon away from the barn and three who stay on. Only their webs are visible in the illustrations. Charlotte may be a proxy for White as writer, but more importantly, she is an insistence on the ephemerality of beings, of words, of everything.
I haven’t read the book to my son yet, both because he is still a bit young for its bittersweet ruminations on death and because I am afraid of ruining it for him because I know that I will catch the big-eye thing myself, probably too much moisture to read intelligibly, too much to finish the book.
That is the magic of the work, though, which White and Williams in the end conspired on—they make us cry for a creature so unlike us, a creature transformed into a gestural hieroglyph. Perhaps Williams had to suggest a human face and a spider face before White could arrive at a transcendent neither. A neither never warns nor panders.
Charlotte’s wispy limbs represent another realm where what exists outside of the body, whether it is the threat of passing time or the light of the intellect, are constants. Another constant: Re-reading the book to myself has offered no strange surprises. It warmed me and unsettled me equally across a chasm of thirty years.