Charlotte's Web: Field Research, Psycho-Social Research, and a Textual Summary and Analysis
Introduction and Field Research Background
My niece Ariel, age 11, agreed to read Charlotte's Web by E.B. White with me, and to be my informant on this project (Shapiro, "Personal Interview"). Ariel is extremely bright (IQ over 140), and has already finished the 7th grade, having skipped second grade in elementary school (I bring this up not so much to brag about her, but because she may in fact be more advanced in her thinking and vocabulary skills than some of the other 9-11-year-old informants: arguably somewhere between Piaget's third (ages 7-11) and fourth (ages 11-15) concrete operational and formal operational stages of development). Ariel told me this was actually her second exposure to Charlotte's Web, though her first time reading the book on her own. Her third grade teacher had read it to her class, but Ariel said she didn't remember many details from the book, just "the baby pig and a huge spider." After she finished reading the book on her own with me, Ariel told me she had noticed many different things than when just hearing it read aloud.
Informant Interview Methodology
In order to make sure Ariel would actually read all of Charlotte's Web, carefully, and then also be able to answer all of my questions, in detail, so I could get enough interview material, I promised to take her ice skating (her favorite pastime) if she in fact did so. She then agreed, easily, to all my terms. In the end, she did (I felt) a very good job of answering all my questions. However, she did occasionally "fish" for help from me (I have indicated the places, within her answers, where she did so.) I resisted all impulses to coach her, and if she was too persistent in asking for help on a question or reassurance about an answer, I simply moved on to my next question. Again, I do not know if her answers are typical or not of the target age group of 9-11, but they were definitely very interesting.
I tape recorded my interview with Ariel, for accuracy's sake, instead of just trying to write down everything she said. In most places, I will quote Ariel's responses directly. In other places, where she gave longer or more rambling answers, or where she hesitated a lot and I turned off the tape recorder to give her a little more time to think and collect her thoughts, I will summarize her comments as accurately as I can.
Summary of Ariel's Understanding of Moral Values Presented in Charlotte's Web and Cognitive Understanding of the Text.
First, Ariel described four of the characters from Charlotte's Web to me (Fern; Mr. Arable; Wilbur; Charlotte; Templeton) as follows: "Fern was a very kind girl. She knew her father was being cruel when he was going to kill the little baby pig just because he was too small, so she stopped him when he wanted to kill Wilbur. She knew it was wrong for her father to kill Wilbur just because he was the runt. Fern's father Mr. Arable seemed mean at first when he wasn't going to let Fern keep the pig, but then he changed his mind. Wilbur was more like a person. It was funny when Fern put him in a baby carriage with her doll and wheeled them around. I liked that funny little picture.
Also, Wilbur was smart. He loved Fern and she loved him so much. They were so close all the time. It seemed like Wilbur and Fern were really in tune with each other. Like, when they understood each other, like, even before when Wilbur got sold to Fern's uncle for 6 dollars and then they put him in the barn. And then Fern started visiting Wilbur all the time, and she saw the other animals in her uncle's barn. The funniest animal was Templeton. The rat. You know, how he talked. Also what people [I think Ariel meant the other animals] said about him, like how he was selfish. But he didn't seem that bad. He got newspaper clippings so Charlotte could make words and he bit Wilbur on the tail to wake him up at the fair, that time he fainted."
I then asked Ariel: "Why do you think they said those things about Templeton and then he acted differently from how they said he was?"
Ariel answered: "I don't know. Maybe because they needed, you know, a rat 'cause a rat does certain things, like hunting for stuff they needed. He kept saying he didn't care about Wilbur but I think he did."
About Charlotte's death, Ariel said. "Charlotte's death was really sad. It was like she gave her whole life to Wilbur. She really helped Wilbur out, and then she just died. You knew she was dying because she said so, so you had time to get used to it. Maybe she used up all her strength saving Wilbur, or it was just her time to die. I'm not really sure."
Next I asked Ariel, "What did you think when Wilbur offered to take care of Charlotte's egg sac and raise her 514 baby spiders? Was that a good or a bad idea?" Ariel answered: "I thought it was nice. It was to pay her back, you know, because she saved him. Then she could die and not worry about her babies. Because Wilbur was taking care of them. I thought it was a good idea. The only thing was I couldn't figure out how was he going to keep track of them? But then they flew away, or they made up balloons or something."
I then asked Ariel, "Why do you think Fern was the only one who could hear the animals talking and everyone thought she was just making it up?" Ariel replied, "I think it was just a stage she was going through."
I asked: "Could it have been anything else?" Ariel replied. "I dunno. I think she was probably just imagining it. Like the guy who made the story up. Cause she never told anyone anything they couldn't see for themselves, like when the geese were born, they were already born.
I said, "Ok, but what if she really did hear them talking? Just pretend it's true."
Ariel replied, "Ok. Then it's a tepelathy [I think she meant "telepathy"]. She just knows what they think? Is that right? [I did not respond for Ariel's requests for help]. "She didn't really butt in or make them do stuff she wanted, like pet them, you know, or whatever. I don't think she even petted Wilbur. Yeah, her uncle said. Her uncle said you can't touch Wilbur anymore, you can just look him. But they knew she wouldn't hurt them. Sometimes, when Dweezil [the family cat] sneaks out and gets in a fight I'm usually right that he needs to go to the vet, cause I always pet him and he sleeps with me. That's probably not the right answer, is it? [I didn't answer this].
I then asked Ariel "Was Charlotte a good friend?" Ariel replied. "Yes. That was what the whole thing was about." "Why would any spider want to help a pig from the slaughter?" I asked. Ariel replied, "Because she was a good friend and she felt sorry for Wilbur, so she wanted to help him out." I asked Ariel next, "Was Charlotte showing off her intelligence to the other animals?" Ariel answered, "I don't think she cared what the other animals thought. But you know Templeton? He wanted compliments all the time, but Charlotte was just, like, ok, I'm gonna save you."
I asked, "Did you like this book?" She said, "Yeah, I thought it was good, except when Charlotte died." I asked her, "Would you tell your friends to read it?" She replied, "Yeah, probably, if they haven't read it yet." "What was your favorite part?" I asked. Ariel said she had two favorite parts and a third "sort of favorite part." Her "very favorite" part was when Fern first saved Wilbur and bottle-fed him and wheeled him around in a baby carriage. She also liked how Wilbur followed Fern to the bus stop when she went to school and waited for her when she came home, and how they went swimming together in the river, along with Fern's brother Avery.
Ariel's "second favorite part" was the whole section where Charlotte was figuring out how to save Wilbur, and then when Charlotte spun words into her web and everyone was so impressed with Wilbur when she did that, although he was just the same pig as before.
Ariel's third, "sort of favorite" part was when the Zuckermans and the Arables went to the county fair and Fern got to go on the rides with Avery and buy a snow cone, and also when Fern rode on the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy.