I love the opening passage from E. B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web — a great masterpiece of children’s literature. These pages are a great reminder that an ordinary day can remind us of the most transcendent values. Side note: not only is Charlotte’s Web a towering masterpiece of children’s literature, it also has a very famous opening sentence in all literature — “Where’s Papa going with the ax?” is right up there with “Call me Ishmael,” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (These are the first lines that struck me as most famous; if you’d like to read a great list of famous first lines in literature, look here.) The opening scene from Charlotte’s Web:
“Where’s Papa going with the ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. “Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.” “I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.” “Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?” Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.” Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern’s sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father. “Please don’t kill it!” she sobbed. “It’s unfair.” Mr. Arable stopped walking. “Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn to control yourself.” “Control myself?” yelled Fern. “This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself.” Tears ran down her cheeks and she took hold of the ax and tried to pull it out of her father’s hand. “Fern,” said Mr. Arable, “I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!” “But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?” Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another.” “I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.” A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself. “All right,” he said. “You go back to the house and I will bring the runt when I come in. I’ll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you’ll see what trouble a pig can be.” When Mr. Arable returned to the house half an hour later, he carried a carton under his arm.For me, the key part of the passage is: “A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.” What was John Arable thinking? I love this passage because it’s a reminder that for all of us, sometimes in the midst of a very ordinary day, we’re reminded of our most transcendent values, and we’re given the opportunity to live up to those values, if we choose. If you’d like to read my list of 81 favorites works of children’s and young-adult literature, it’s here.