Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

In Defense of E. B. White's Talking Animals

Simcha Fisher has up an interesting post in which she takes on, as the title puts it "The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White", crepuscular being a word which a boy character in The Trumpet of the Swan notes down to look up at the end of the book. The word refers to animals which come out in twilight, and Simcha finds it an apt metaphor for the dark world implied by White's classic children's books.

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.
It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine.

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?
A number of Simcha's additional criticisms have specifically to do with The Trumpet of the Swan, and I'm hampered in addressing them by the fact that although I've read Charlotte's Web several times and Stuart Little many time, I've never read The Trumpet of the Swan. As such, consider this more a general defense of White's oeuvre than a point by point argument with Simcha.

The talking animal is a staple of stories as far back as we have stories, perhaps because we humans are so clearly animal in our bodies, and so to our reason it seem natural to wonder what it would be like if other animals had some degree of reason as well. Since animals do not, in fact, talk, authors have wide latitude in how talking animals are portrayed. C. S. Lewis in some sense takes the easy road, in that his talking animals in Narnia are themselves totally set apart in kind from "dumb beasts". In Narnia there are both talking deer and non-talking deer. You may hunt and eat a non-talking deer, but to hunt and eat a talking deer is considered as wrong as to hunt and eat a human. Lewis's talking animals basically are humans in animal costume. His animals are clearly different from those in our world, and our thinking about them bears no relation to how we think about animals in our own.

What White does is, I think, more interesting and more realistic (if one can speak of realism when dealing with talking animals.) His talking animals are animals and fill the place in the world that animals fill in our own. Wilbur is a pig. He is, thus, potentially food. He's even potentially waste. Fern's father is originally planning to go out and kill him because he's the runt. Fern demands to know whether he would kill her because she was small. He wouldn't, of course, because Fern is a human. We don't kill humans because they might not thrive. We do sometimes kill animals for that reason. Fern is given the pig to care for, not because it's fundamentally wrong to kill a pig, but because Fern (as small children often do) forms an instant empathy towards a creature which may not be fully deserving of it.

Don't get me wrong. Wilbur is Some Pig. But he's still a pig. It would not have been fundamentally wrong to kill Wilbur as a runt any more than it would be fundamentally wrong to put down a sick pet.

Children, however, are still figuring out what should be related to empathetically and how much. I remember an occasion, many years ago, when my sister (probably then around six or seven) named a cockroach we found in the backyard Antigone and wanted to care for and nurture it. I disliked cockroaches intensely (remembering our old apartment building which had been assailed by them) and so I did the natural older-person thing and stepped on Antigone lest it perpetuate its kind. (I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether such experiences of older brotherly behavior may have contributed to my sister's distinguished career of writing YA Fantasy which involves its share of bloody maiming, particularly of kin.) My sister angrily remonstrated with me, describing in detail the moment of terror and pain that Antigone must have suffered as I stepped on her. My reply was prosaic: It's a cockroach. It's meant to be stepped on.

And this is what I find interesting about the world of E. B. White's animals. They communicate and have feelings and motivations, and yet they also clearly belong in their animal place in the world. In Stuart Little, which is my own favorite, we see this made particularly clearly because the main character, Stuart, is a mouse born into a human family. Stuart, having been born to humans, seems to be "a person" in ways that the other animals (many of which talk and think in their own animal ways) do not. The family cat, Snowbell, would not really mind killing Stuart if the chance arises. This is not because Snowbell is evil. It's because Snowbell is a cat, and that's simply what cats do. They try to kill small animals.

This animal-ness of the animal characters is perhaps most clear when we look at the relationship between Stuart and the small bird he falls in love with, Margalo. Stuart falls in love with Margalo from the first time they meet -- on a cold winter day when Stuart is sick in bed and Margalo is found on the windowsill by Mrs Little and brought inside to warm up. Margalo, however, though she saves Stuart's life at a key point, never really seems to relate to him in the same way that he relates to her. He wants to be with her always, but one day, with the threat of the cat looming over her, she feels the urge to fly north, and she does so without a word to him.

Stuart's love for her, which eventually leads him to leave his family and set off on a great American journey, is almost like that of Thurber's moth for the star -- he admires her and yearns for her, but there is not truly a mutual relationship between them. Indeed, when he goes on a date with a woman just his size named Harriet -- a date on which all plans seem to go awry -- she shows more concern for his feelings than Margalo did in their significantly longer time around each other. Harriet relates to Stuart like a human, Margalo like a bird.

Perhaps having animals that talk and think and yet are clearly animals, who eat each other or end up on zoos or may be eaten, is a strange and ambiguous thing, but if so I think it to an extent brings sense to the strange and ambiguous world which as children we create in our heads. Children are still sorting out the fact that they may feel great empathy for a cat, and very little for an annoying neighbor, and yet the cat may be put down if it's sick while the neighbor may not. White brings to life the kind of world that children are already creating in their imaginations, but brings to it also the reality that animals are animals and humans are humans, and each have their places and limits in the world. This is, I think, why Fern naturally grows away from the world of Wilbur, and why the book doesn't see this as any kind of betrayal. Fern must inevitably grow up and take her place in the strictly human world, the possibility of talking animals abandoned. As, in the end, must we all.


Sally Thomas said...

This is a really good response. I found Simcha's analysis bewildering -- at least, it just seemed on another planet from my experience of those books, though Trumpet of the Swan is the one I read only once, whereas I read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little over and over as a child, and then over and over to my children, some of whom are now adults. Whatever she as a child or adult reader brought to those stories that made them speak to her in that way, it's not what I brought, and they didn't speak to me in the same way at all.

As you well know, every fiction writer is creating a world, and that world, even when it looks like our own familiar one and not a fantasy universe, has its rules. In E.B. White's various worlds, the rules involve various levels of sentience for animals -- and this opens up ways to explore things like empathy, as you say, in a way that speaks to at least some children. I thought your point about caring more about the cat than the neighbor was exactly right. And ultimately, I think that's one of those things that are just morally neutral . . . I don't think it's actually theologically problematic to create animal characters, who in our world wouldn't have souls, with properties that indicate the presence of a soul (sentience, reflection, a sense of right and wrong, etc). It's just part of an imaginative world, and a way to work something out imaginatively within the laws of that world.

So, I don't know. Obviously a book will not speak in the same way to everyone, but to find White's books creepy and nihilistic just seems . . . extreme? I also think, after many years of homeschooling: Well, great, here's one more set of books for homeschool mothers to worry about.

Timothy Graham said...

This is spot on, the dynamic of Charlotte's Web is the maturing of the child's imaginal life. A quibble about your analysis of C.S. Lewis's talking animals though - I don't think they are humans dressed up as animals, rather what Lewis was doing was asking - right, suppose animals as we know them had been ensouled like Adam at creation, what would they be like, how would rationality play out in creatures with that particular form and habit (badger, mouse or whatever)?

Agnes said...

I can't comment on E. B. White's stories as I haven't read them. However, on the subject of how children vs. mothers perceive stories, I had an interesting expreience I haven't quite come to terms with. Ther eis a traditional Hungarian folk tale (similar to some of the Grimm Bothers' tales, unabridged) in which the hero's quest is to liberate Lady beauty of the Reed (my rough translation) who was enclosed into a reed stem by magic. When he arrives to the place, he is advised to cut the 3 stems of reed he finds, as one conceals the Lady Beauty, the other two her two handmaidens. He must bring the stems back, and NOT cut them open until he arrives to a place with a well with water. In his impatience, two times he stops on the journey back and cuts open two of the stems, out of which come the two handmaidens crying out for water. As he has none to give them, they each die. Now he manages to be patient enough with the last stem of reed until he gets to a water source, and his Lady is thus saved. As a child, I remember perfectly never having any problem with the story, but as a mother reading to my children, I was horrified with the callous disregard for the lives of the two handmaidens, especially that the hero doesn't learn his lesson the first time.
I'm aware of many psychological aspects of fairy tales but I can't help wondering about the lessons in them, and about who shall the reader empathize with - which ties this memory to the question raised by you and Simcha.

Banshee said...

1) Wow, that Hungarian story reminds me a lot of the Japanese one about the kid in the bamboo stalk. Re: the handmaids, that sounds like a story hook that just isn't used in the version we have.

2) A lot of kids' stories take place in a dream universe or a world of animal totems. Treating that like a logical daylight world is just silly, but people have different amounts of adult (or child) tolerance for that sort of thing. See romance novels that make no logical sense.

Also see Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as home roleplaying games, where lots of people find one or the other creepy, some dislike both, and some like both.

Darwin said...

Timothy Graham,

That's a fair point. I'd been thinking of the Beavers in particular, who don't strike me as being particularly animal-like. Same with Reepicheep. On the other hand, the dogs and the bear in Last Battle are quite animal-ish.

Darwin said...


Yeah, fairy tales and other seriously old stories can range from disturbing-if-you-think-about-them to just plain absurdist.

On the merely absurdist side, I've always liked the Aesop's Fable where a satyr meets a man on a cold day and invites him in. The man is blowing on his hands, and the satyr asks why. "To warm them," the man says. The satyr then offers him some hot soup. The man blows on it too. "Why are you doing that?" the satyr asks. "To cool it," the man explain.

"Get out!" the satyr orders. I'll have nothing to do with someone who blows both hot and cold.

It seems like it ought to mean something, but it doesn't really.