Ep. 13 – Charlotte’s Web: What a Spider Can Teach Us About the Savior

Like Wilbur the pig, we were once destined for damnation. But someone came to our rescue, and because of His sacrifice, we can be saved.

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Outline

  • Charlotte’s Web is an award-winning children’s book written by E.B. White and published in 1952
  • The Power of Language: “Some Pig”
    • By writing positive things in her web, Charlotte helped Wilbur become those things: “some pig,” “terrific,” and “radiant”
    • Satan often attacks our identity and relationships through negative language
    • The Church teaches, “Speak kindly and positively about others. Choose not to insult others or put them down, even in joking. Avoid gossip of any kind, and avoid speaking in anger. When you are tempted to say harsh or hurtful things, leave them unsaid.”
  • Selflessness: “What’s in it for me?” vs. Expecting Nothing in Return
    • Charlotte is a great example of selflessness (expecting nothing in return), whereas Templeton the rat is a great example of selfishness (“What’s in it for me?”)
    • Strive to first notice your motivations and then to purify them to become more selflessness
  • Charlotte’s Sacrifice: “No one was with her when she died”
    • Charlotte’s lonely death is reminiscent of Christ’s death: “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me. … There was none to uphold [me].” (Isaiah 63:3)
    • “Just as Wilbur was destined to be slaughtered, we were destined to be damned based on our fallen nature. But someone came to the rescue—someone came and promised to save us. Not for glory or personal gain, like Templeton or Lucifer, but because of His selflessness and love for us.”
    • We should learn to focus more on Christ’s sacrifice—and the blessings that come from it—rather than our own trials and worries
    • We can’t pay back the Savior for what He did for us, but we can “pay it forward” by taking care of God’s children
  • Takeaways
    • 1. Choose a day to take special notice of your language. Then, at the end of the day, write down what you noticed and how you can improve your language.
    • 2. Consider some things that you’re involved in right now, and think about what motivates you to do them. If needed, strive to purify your motives to be more selfless.
    • 3. Ponder what the Atonement of Jesus Christ means to you personally, and share your thoughts with a loved one or on social media.

Transcript

People tend to learn best through stories, and one of the most beloved stories is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. The lessons it teaches about friendship and determination are timeless, but my favorite part is how it relates to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Keep listening to learn about the power of language and selflessness, and what a spider can teach us about the Savior.

I’m Liz Kazandzhy, and you’re listening to the cozy little podcast “Latter-day Saint Book Nook,” where we talk about books from a gospel perspective. Whether fiction or nonfiction, religious or not, great books are like wells of wisdom just waiting to be drawn from, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. So if you love books, and you love the gospel of Jesus Christ, you’re in the right place. Come and learn from the best books to help you live your best life!

Hey everyone! I am very excited for today’s episode about Charlotte’s Web because it’s such a beautiful little book that is packed with subtle gospel messages. And it’ll always hold a special place in my heart because it was the first chapter book I read to my kids, just a few months ago.

But before I go on, I have to mention that there will definitely be spoilers in this episode. So if you’ve never read Charlotte’s Web or watched the movie, and you want the plot to be a surprise, you should probably press pause right now and then come back after you read it. But since most people are familiar with the story, I figured it would be alright to discuss it.

Alright, so there are a few things in the book I want to point out and relate to the gospel. So let’s start with language.

[1:49]

The Power of Language: “Some Pig”

Obviously, language is a huge theme in the book because it’s ultimately what saves Wilbur. So just to refresh your memory, Wilbur is a piglet who is bound to be slaughtered when he grows up. But then on the farm, he befriends a spider, Charlotte, who promises him that she will save him. And when I first read that part, I thought, “How on earth is she going to save him? She’s just this little spider—it’s not like she can stage a jailbreak from the farm or something like that.” But she does it using language—by writing words in her web, which people begin to notice and be amazed at. The first thing she writes is “some pig,” followed by “terrific,” “radiant,” and finally “humble.”

And what I really love about this book is seeing Wilbur’s confidence grow. For example, when Charlotte tells him she’s going to write the word terrific in her web, he blushes and says, “But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.” But Charlotte sweetly replies, “You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational.” And with that kind of praise, how could you not feel terrific?

So basically, even though Wilbur feels kind of uncomfortable being described with such glowing terms at first, the more this goes on, the more he starts to actually become those things. As the book says, “Ever since the spider had befriended him, [Wilbur] had done his best to live up to his reputation. When Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.” Also, as for the word humble, I think it describes his character really well—that even though he did grow in his confidence and received praise from hundreds of people, he was still able to maintain his humble demeanor.

So, I guess the lesson that I learned from this is how powerful language really is. We often become what we tell ourselves, for better or for worse. And in the way we talk to others, we help them become something, for better or for worse. Of course, people are resilient, and if someone treats you like scum, that doesn’t mean you can’t rise above it and develop a more noble identity, but it’s hard—because language is powerful.

It’s like that scene when Satan comes to Moses and says, “Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12) and Moses wisely responds, “I am a son of God.” Satan wanted Moses to doubt his identity, to see himself as a simple, base human being instead of an eternal, magnificent divine being. And also, when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he kept mocking Christ with the phrase, “If thou be the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3), which again is an attack on identity. So don’t be surprised if Satan tries that with you too. He’s got a web filled with the most horrible words (I mean, you can probably just fill in the blanks yourself), but God’s web is simple and beautiful with the words “child of God” written as clear as day.

So, be careful what you say to yourself—your self-talk, which mostly takes place in your own mind instead of verbally—and also be careful what you say to others, especially those in your own family. If it helps, try to imagine your own web with all the words you use to describe yourself. And imagine another web, for your spouse or child or whoever you want to think about, with all the words you use to describe them. That may give you an idea of how to make your own language more positive. Because, as the book says, “With the right words, you can change the world.”

And just to finish off this topic, I wanted to read the Church’s stance on language, from the Standards for Youth pamphlet, because I think this is a good refresher for all of us. So here it is:

How you communicate should reflect who you are as a son or daughter of God. Clean and intelligent language is evidence of a bright and wholesome mind. Good language that uplifts, encourages, and compliments others invites the Spirit to be with you. Our words, like our deeds, should be filled with faith, hope, and charity.

Choose friends who use good language. Help others improve their language by your example. Be willing to politely walk away or change the subject when those around you use inappropriate language.

Speak kindly and positively about others. Choose not to insult others or put them down, even in joking. Avoid gossip of any kind, and avoid speaking in anger. When you are tempted to say harsh or hurtful things, leave them unsaid.

Always use the names of God and Jesus Christ with reverence and respect. Misusing the names of Deity is a sin. When you pray, address your Father in Heaven in reverent and respectful language. The Savior used such respectful language in the Lord’s Prayer.

Do not use profane, vulgar, or crude language or gestures, and do not tell jokes or stories about immoral actions. These are offensive to God and to others.

Remember that these standards for your use of language apply to all forms of communication, including texting on a cell phone or communicating on the Internet.

If you have developed the habit of using language that is not in keeping with these standards—such as swearing, mocking, gossiping, or speaking in anger to others—you can change. Pray for help. Ask your family and friends to support you in your desire to use good language.

[7:29]

Selflessness: “What’s in it for me?” vs. Expecting Nothing in Return

Alright, so the second thing I want to talk about is selflessness, something that Charlotte exemplifies beautifully. And another character, Templeton the Rat, exemplifies the complete opposite of this.

Now, let me talk about Templeton for a minute. The author crafts this character in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to like him. I mean, just listen to this paragraph:

The rat had no morals, no conscience, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. He would kill a gosling if he could get away with it—the goose knew that. Everybody knew it.

So, as I was reading the book, I kept thinking, “What is the point of this rat? What’s the author trying to achieve by having this selfish, gluttonous, unlikeable character in his book?” And it was only recently that I realized that perhaps one reason is because of how well his character—specifically his selfishness—contrasts with Charlotte’s selflessness.

There are a few times in the story when Charlotte asks Templeton to help find words that she can write in her web. But each time, Templeton is not the least interested. For example, when the animals ask him to run to the dump and bring back a magazine clipping to help save Wilbur, he says, “Let him die. I should worry.” And when Charlotte asks him to help at the fair, he grumbles, “I’m staying right here. I haven’t the slightest interest in fairs.” In other words, when Templeton sees no benefit for himself, he just doesn’t care.

But thankfully there’s this one wise sheep who knows how to “appeal to his baser instincts.” And the sheep convinces Templeton to do these things by answering his unspoken question, “What’s in it for me?” For example, she explains how if Wilbur dies, Templeton won’t be able to eat extra food from his trough. And she convinces him to go to the fair by saying, “A fair is a rat’s paradise. Everybody spills food at a fair.” After hearing that, Templeton hardly lets the sheep finish before saying, “That’s enough! Don’t tell me any more. I’m going!”

So, you get the idea, right?

Well, now contrast that with Charlotte, who the author describes in this sentence: “No one had ever had such a friend—so affectionate, so loyal, and so skillful.” And here is one of the most famous quotes from the book, where Wilbur is expressing his gratitude to Charlotte for saving his life.

“Why did you do all this for me? ” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess… By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

Charlotte helped Wilbur while expecting absolutely nothing in return. She did it because she loved him, plain and simple. And that’s the attitude we should strive to develop in our own service as well.

Now, literature often gives us extremes—the goodness of Charlotte versus the baseness of Templeton—but in each of us, there’s a battle between these things, between selfishness and selflessness. And whenever we do anything, there’s always a question of why that we answer either consciously or subconsciously.

For example, am I going to perform this musical number because I want to invite the Spirit into the meeting, or because I want people to think I’m really talented? Am I working overtime to better support my family, or because I want to buy a fancier car than my neighbor? Or here’s another one—am I not helping that family in the ward move because I’m legitimately too busy, or because there’s nothing in it for me?

Well, I think you get the point, and I hope that you’ll try to be more conscious of your motivations from now on. Because the first step is noticing the reasons you do things, and the next step is then to purify those reasons—to gradually move more toward expecting nothing in return, and further away from the worldly question, “What’s in it for me?” As Elder Faust put it, “One of life’s paradoxes is that a person who approaches everything with a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude may acquire money, property, and land, but in the end will lose the fulfillment and the happiness that a person enjoys who shares his talents and gifts generously with others. … The Savior reminds us, ‘He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.'”

So with that, we’re going to go ahead and take a quick break here. But stay tuned because the best is yet to come!

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Alright, so I saved my favorite theme of Charlotte’s Web for this second half of the episode. And it’s all about what we can learn about Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for us.

[13:40]

Charlotte’s Sacrifice: “No one was with her when she died”

So first, let me tell you kind of a funny story. I have a horrible memory, which can be pretty annoying at times, but it really comes in handy when I read books and watch movies and TV shows. And that’s because I can enjoy things over and over again since, after a while, I completely forget what happened. And that was the case for this book as well. I’m positive that I read Charlotte’s Web as a kid, and I’m sure I’ve seen the movie as well, but I forgot everything about the book except that it involved a pig and a spider. Then later, I mentioned something about the book on my Facebook group Latter-day Readers, and some people commented about it being sad and crying at the end. So now I knew three things—there’s a pig, there’s a spider, and it’s sad—and that’s literally all I knew as I started reading.

Well, like I mentioned, I read this with my kids, and we read a chapter or two each day before bedtime. And when it became clear that the farmer was planning on slaughtering Wilbur, I thought, “Oh no. We’re going to fall in love with this sweet little pig, only to have him be killed at the end. That’s why the book is sad.” And that’s honestly what I thought pretty much until the very end—even though there was Charlotte, promising to save him, and even though people began to appreciate Wilbur as some terrific pig rather than just potential bacon. I was ready to bawl my eyes out when all the plans failed and Wilbur ended up dying anyway.

Well, imagine my surprise when something else happened instead. The beloved Wilbur won a wonderful prize at the County Fair, after which Charlotte tells him the following:

“I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days.”

Isn’t that wonderful? Well, I thought so. But it immediately left me wondering, “Hold on a sec. If Wilbur is saved, then what’s so sad about the book? Why did people cry at the end of it?” And that’s when I realized what was happening—that the tragic death in the story wasn’t Wilbur’s but Charlotte’s.

As they’re getting ready to go back to the farm, Charlotte tells Wilbur that she won’t be going back. She says, “I’m done for. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t even strength enough to climb down into the crate.” And after Wilbur weeps and does what he can to at least save Charlotte’s egg sac, the author gives us this touching scene as Wilbur is being driven back to the farm:

“Good-bye!” [Charlotte] whispered. Then she summoned all her strength and waved one of her front legs at him.

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

I will admit that I cried when I read that paragraph with my kids. And I couldn’t help but think about the Savior, who also gave His life to save us, who was alone in the Garden of Gethsemane while He atoned for our sins. As Isaiah wrote about the Savior, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me. … I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold [me].” (Isaiah 63:3) Jesus Christ has truly played the most important part of all, even though there are so many who don’t even know it, and even fewer who truly appreciate it.

Just as Wilbur was destined to be slaughtered, we were destined to be damned based on our fallen nature. But someone came to the rescue—someone came and promised to save us. Not for glory or personal gain, like Templeton or Lucifer, but because of His selflessness and love for us.

And is it not a coincidence that Charlotte is a spider, who probably knows a thing or two about being “despised and rejected of men” (Isaiah 53:3)? And is it not a coincidence that Wilbur is a pig, one of the lowliest of creatures, and that he cannot save himself? I don’t know if the author intended to make these connections or not, but it definitely provides some beautiful Christian symbolism.

Like I mentioned, I was fully expecting Wilbur to die and was shocked when Charlotte died instead. But I’m grateful that my expectations were like that because it deepened my gratitude for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I was so focused on Wilbur’s demise that I hardly even noticed Charlotte’s sacrifices. And it’s the same way with us—sometimes we spend so much time wondering and worrying about how our story is going to end that we forget about Christ’s sacrifice. We forget that all the help we could ever want is within our spiritual reach because of what the Savior did for us. Listen to these beautiful words by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

Brothers and sisters, one of the great consolations of this Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of His gospel. Trumpeted from the summit of Calvary is the truth that we will never be left alone nor unaided, even if sometimes we may feel that we are. Truly the Redeemer of us all said: “I will not leave you comfortless: [My Father and] I will come to you [and abide with you].”

That is just so powerful to me.

Now, there’s one other moment in the book that I want to mention, and it’s Charlotte’s egg sac, which contained 514 little spiders that would hatch in the spring. Now, once you get past being completely freaked out at that, you can find yet another bit of symbolism in it. Wilbur couldn’t pay Charlotte back for what she did for him, but he could pay it forward by taking care of her children. And so, with Wilbur’s help, and even the help of Templeton, Charlotte’s egg sac makes it back to the farm, and this is what it says next:

All winter Wilbur watched over Charlotte’s egg sac as though he were guarding his own children. He had scooped out a special place for the sac, next to the board fence. On very cold nights he lay so that his breath would warm it. For Wilbur, nothing in life was so important as this small round object—nothing else mattered. Patiently he awaited the end of winter and the coming of the little spiders.

We can never pay the Savior back for what He did for us, but we can pay it forward by taking care of others—by watching over God’s children—and especially by sharing the good news of the gospel with them. We can “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5), knowing that “when [we] are in the service of [our] fellow beings [we] are only in the service of [our] God” (Mosiah 2:17).

Well, I thank Heavenly Father for inspiring Elwyn Brooks White to write such a touching, powerful book. And I especially thank Heavenly Father for the gift of His Son Jesus Christ—so that instead of crying tears of sorrow about some tragic ending of our story, we can cry tears of gratitude that we escaped such a tragic ending—because the Savior kept His promise to save us. And all we need to do is accept His sacrifice and strive to live His gospel.

[22:59]

Takeaways

Now, before I forget, I wanted to leave you with a few takeaways from this episode. There were three main topics, so here are my three invitations for you to choose from.

1. Choose a day to take special notice of your language. (If it helps, do something out of the ordinary to remind you about this goal, like wear something around your wrist or switch your watch to your other hand.) Then, at the end of the day, write down what you noticed and how you can improve your language.

2. Consider some things that you’re involved in right now, and think about what motivates you to do them. If needed, strive to purify your motives to be more selfless.

3. Ponder what the Atonement of Jesus Christ means to you personally, and share your thoughts with a loved one or on social media.

Well, as always, thanks for listening to this podcast. I guess this is kind of my way of paying it forward and sharing the good news of the gospel, so if you have the chance, please pass this on to others as well. Have a wonderful week, and I’ll talk to you next time!

Thanks for listening to Latter-day Saint Book Nook, hosted by Liz Kazandzhy! If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. You can also visit ldsbooknook.com to stay up to date with me and the podcast. Thanks again, and I’ll talk to you next time!


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