Fern Feeding Wilbur. Garth Williams, for Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White, 1952. Fair use rationale.

Charlotte’s Web is a fictional children’s story by E.B. White about some pretty hard life lessons learned on the farm. The principal players at the beginning of the book are humans, switching to animals later on. Wilbur is a pig, the runt of the litter, who is saved from immediate death by a little girl named Fern.

Fern is the main human character, a staunch 8-year-old who saves a baby pig in order for the rest of the novel to unfold. After she looks after him, he is transferred to a farm down the road, and saving his life becomes a task of a smart spider named Charlotte, for whom the book is named. This story is for young and old alike, with both literary merit and appeal to young readers.

At breakfast Fern won’t eat until she has finished feeding Wilbur from a bottle. Her innocence and love of Wilbur is clearly shown in her face. She genuinely believes her efforts will save him from his destiny. She pretends at being a mother with the baby pig, despite knowing that he won’t stay a pet forever. It ends up being the maternal instinct of a spider that saves the pig in the end.

In Garth Williams’ classic illustrations, Fern has a plain appearance and her clothing is consistent with what a farm girl would wear, trousers and the occasional dress, but sensible shoes and socks. In the image above, she is also distinctly feminine, embodying the nurturing and motherly skills that are expected of her by society. Rather than a baby doll, Fern holds Wilbur. Her expression reinforces this, as she looks lovingly down at her “baby.”

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