“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern asked her mother over breakfast, craning her neck out the window, watching the receding figure of her father vanish into the barn.
“Out to the hog house. Some pigs were born last night,” Mrs. Arable said.
“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” Fern said.
“Well, 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? You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
“Don’t yell, Fern! Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”
“Please don’t kill it! It’s unfair,” Fern said.
Mrs. Arable calmly buttered a corner of her slice of bread before replying. “Fern, you have to learn to control yourself.I know a lot more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now, run along.”
“Control myself? But it’s unfair. The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?”
“It depends on how small you’re talking about. Thumb-sized, almost certainly. It would have been a kindness. The world has very little need for thumb-sized children. But this is different. A little girl is one thing. A little runty pig is another.”
“It’s terribly unfair,” Fern said bitterly. “When the cost of feeding a pig on a farm our size is so relatively cheap, and considering how little we stand to lose if it dies regardless, that you wouldn’t even consider giving it to me to raise up and fatten, so that I could eventually sell it and start earning money for myself, rather than just doing chores around the farm and helping the family as a collective. Why, other girls at school have been raising their own livestock for years. I could practically have enough to purchase a small rail-road, if you’d let me have a few runts last season.”
“Well…” Mrs. Arable began.
“Remember, mother,” her daughter said, “the smallest minority on earth is the individual. How am I supposed to learn about the value of private property if you deny me the right to have any?”
“All right,” her mother allowed. “You can have him. And I hope,” she shouted at Fern’s back as the girl darted out the kitchen door, “you learn something about the free market!”
“Serves her right,” Mrs. Arable said to herself, turning her attention to the remaining unbuttered corner of toast, “if the pig sells for less than he’s worth. Let the market teach children a lesson, that’s what I always say.”
“But we have received a sign, Edith – a mysterious sign. A miracle has happened on this farm…in the middle of the web there were the words ‘Some Pig’…we have no ordinary pig.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Zuckerman, “it seems to me you’re a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider.”
“Ah, there you have it,” said her husband. “The extraordinary spider is acting not out of altruism but out of a recognition of value. Any rational being with a healthy sense of self-interest cannot help but love what it values, and cannot love something that is not valuable. Don’t you see? To love is to value. An extraordinary spider, who cannot help but see her own value, has recognized the value in the pig. What is,” he quizzed his wife, “the first, and therefore most important part, of ‘I love you’?”
“Why, I, of course,” Mrs. Zuckerman said. “I think I see it now! There is no love without the love of self!”
“And that,” her husband said, smiling fondly at her, “is why I love you.”
“You love me because of your own rational self-interest!” she cried. “And so it is with the pig!”
“Whose value,” her husband said, “will only increase with continued attention. Is it not an act of self-interest to postpone his slaughter to draw bigger crowds to our farm, and command higher prices for the meat our farm produces, as a result of the pig’s fame?”
“Of course,” she said. “We sacrifice very little, and stand to gain much, in the mercy we grant this individual pig.”
“Continuing,” he said, “to slaughter all of the other animals; making a single exception for Wilbur to increase the value of our products, rather than reordering the values we currently hold ourselves.”
While they were talking, the spider had rearranged her web to read ᴜʟᴛɪᴍᴀᴛᴇ ᴠᴀʟᴜᴇ ɪs ᴅᴇᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴇᴅ ʙʏ sᴇʟғ-ɪɴᴛᴇʀᴇsᴛᴇᴅ ᴀᴄᴛɪᴏɴ. It glistened as pure and as clear as unregulated capitalism in the morning sunlight.
“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”
Charlotte sighed. “All of life’s action can be viewed in reference to the various goals, aims, principles, or value systems of each individual. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I particularly wished to, not out of a sense of obligation. I postponed your death because it pleased me to share your pen, not because of some altruistic sense of duty to the preservation of your life. My appreciation of your continued existence is a fundamentally selfish, rather than selfless, act. 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, with all this trapping and eating flies. Helping you amused me. I acted in a way that seemed to me likeliest to preserve my own happiness, while hurting no one. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that. Whether or not you had somehow ‘deserved’ to live a little longer than your broodmates is immaterial.”
In the corner, Templeton cheered. “At last, you understand.”
“This is my egg sac, my magnum opus, my great work, the finest thing I have ever made. Inside are my eggs, five hundred and fourteen of them. I counted them. I got started counting, so I kept on, just to keep my mind occupied. I guarantee it is strong. It’s made out of the toughest material I have. It is also waterproof. The eggs are inside and will be warm and dry. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t strength enough to climb into the crate. I doubt if there is enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground.”
A tiny spider crawled from the sac. It looked just like Charlotte. The little spider waved at him. Wilbur moved closer. Then more baby spiders crawled from the sac and waved.
“My children,” Charlotte whispered, almost too faint to hear. “Whether or not you deserve the name of Charlotte’s children is up to you, to earn or to lose. You must expect no special treatment simply because I gave birth to you.”
“ᴡᴇ ᴜɴᴅᴇʀsᴛᴀɴᴅ, ᴍᴏᴛʜᴇʀ,” the spiderlets chittered back.
“Before I go,” she said, “I will give you the only lesson there is to learn, and it is this: What is freedom? To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
With that, she died. Her children seized at once upon her body and began to consume it, wasting none of her valuable nutrients. “ᴛʜᴀɴᴋ ʏᴏᴜ, ᴍᴏᴛʜᴇʀ, ғᴏʀ ᴛʜᴇ ɢɪғᴛ ᴏғ ғʀᴇᴇᴅᴏᴍ ᴀɴᴅ ᴛʜᴇ ɢɪғᴛ ᴏғ ғᴏᴏᴅ,” they chorused.
“At last,” cried Fern, waving happily at Wilbur as he disappeared onto the back of a truck after five long and happy years on the farm, “I’ve got enough money for that freight-car. Think of how many pigs I can fit on that!”
Everyone had learned a wonderful lesson about capitalism.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.