Today we made our second attempt at literary analysis. You can read about the first one, on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, here. The whole enterprise on based upon the book Deconstructing Penguins which I really loved and reviewed here. Last link! — You can also read some thoughts I had on how we’re tweaking Deconstructing here.
So to get down to the nitty-gritty. I read my kids Charlotte’s Web over the course of a few weeks. Ideally, each child would read the book himself but I find it’s a lot more likely to get done when I read aloud to them all at once.
I had a list of questions, based on the account given in Deconstructing Penguins (see below). But my oldest had mentioned the previous day that he had some ideas about the book so we started there. His big observation was that when he knows Charlotte is dying, Wilbur begins to use longer words. So we started there and I asked why they thought this was so. It was observed that Wilbur changes and with a little pressing my daughter provided a key word: “maturing.” Wilbur matures in the book. I will say I hadn’t noticed the word thing. The fact that Fern changes is pretty obvious in the book and my kids all noticed it as well. But, though I hadn’t really thought of it, I do think Wilbur changes as well.
We moved on from there to talk about protagonists and antagonists, a concept which Deconstructing introduces in this chapter. I read them the book’s definition (protagonist moves action forward; antagonist tried to keep it from moving) and we discussed which characters they thought played each of these roles. Our suggestions were: for protagonist, Wilbur, Charlotte and Fern (and later in the discussion Old Sheep was also put forward) and for antagonist Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman and “his crew” (i.e. Lurvy, Mrs. Zuckerman, etc.).
We then listed characteristics for each of these characters. It became obvious pretty quickly that Wilbur was probably not our protagonist since the words we listed for him were along the lines of “follower”, “obedient” and “not an idea man.” But for Charlotte we had “leader,” “thinker”, and the like. With a little pressing we also added “brutal” and “bloodthirsty.” A key phrase one of the kids came up with boiled down to “she is very aware of the shortness of life and her own mortality” (not quite how they said it but they had the idea).
From there we listed qualities of Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman. Of the two, Templeton proved far more interesting. Our words for him included “self-interested”, “self-centered” and “hungry.” My younger son, who has a lot of issues with being in his older brother’s shadow, contributed that he thought Templeton was justified in his behavior and that the other animals never treated him nicely or spoke politely to him. We ended up adding that Templeton was the victim of prejudice (against rats, you know).
We then took a vote on how we thought the protagonist was and it was unanimous for Charlotte. So we began to discuss what action she was trying to move forward. Saving Wilbur of course is the obvious answer so we asked why she does this. I had them read a quote from the end of the book in which Charlotte explains her actions to Wilbur. Basically she says she was trying to lift her life up a little. My older daughter felt that Charlotte was trying to atone for her bloodthirstiness in eating bugs. She really latched onto that idea though I have to say I think the atonement bit is misplaced.
There was quite a bit more discussion involved but let me skip to our conclusions: We decided that Mr. Zuckerman rather than Templeton really opposes Charlotte’s action but that Templeton is a kind of foil (didn’t use that word) to her character in that he lives to eat and is completely focused on his own belly and needs whereas Charlotte eats to live and tries to help someone else. I asked them which character they though the author would side with, that is, which view he was espousing. I thought they’d go for the obvious — that Charlotte’s way is right– but they were not convinced (other than my youngest). That younger son who had stuck up for the rat insisted Templeton’s way was right. The other two thought that neither view was presented as the right one.
Finally, I had asked them which approach to life they thought was right and biblical. Here, with a little teasing out, we decided that while Templeton lives only for himself, so does Charlotte really. She makes it obvious in the end that she helped Wilbur to give her own life meaning so her ultimate end is still self-centered. They were pretty quick to see that though their actions were different that their goals were not really so different and my youngest was the one to state the obvious conclusion: that it would be better to help others unselfishly, without any self-focused motive.
And that was our discussion. I was pleased again with how willing the kids were to discuss the book. There were observations — like the first one on Wilbur’s maturity, especially backed up as it was by a literary device (longer words) — that impressed me. There was not necessarily a whole lot of agreement on some of the main questions. I’m a little worried about the son who keeps taking the rat’s side, frankly. But overall it went pretty well. Before I go, here are the questions I used to guide the discussion (though one must adapt as one goes, these are a place to start):
- What is this book about? (see p. 29 of Deconstructing Penguins for ideas from the book)
- What is a protagonist? Read p. 26 of Deconstructing Penguins for their definition of pro- and antagonist. Give an example from their lives (as in the book, we talked about bedtime and how some family members seek to get certain other ones to bed and how those other ones seek to delay)
- Who is the protagonist in this book? Make a list of candidates.
- Who is the antagonist? Again, list candidates.
- List character traits of the possible protagonists — focus especially on Charlotte.
- What is Charlotte’s view of the world?
- List traits for the possible natagonists.
- What is Charlotte’s goal; what action is she trying to move forward?
- Who is her antagonist?
- What does Charlotte say to Wilbur before she dies? Wat does she mean?
- Is Templeton happy in the end?
If you discuss Charlotte’s Web too, please comment and let me know what conclusions your family reaches.
Next time: Babe, the Gallant Pig.