The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

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.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

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?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

***

Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

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41 thoughts on “The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White”

  1. I bought Charlottes Web for my daughter years ago. She’s started it and put it down twice now. I had a go at her the other day about the importance of finishing books you start and referred to Charlottes Web. She told be she didn’t like it. End of. So I stopped pressing. This thread got me thinking- I might ask her tomorrow, why she didn’t like it..

  2. Thanks very much for this, not because of your immediate subject, but because it gives me a new appreciation for the integrity of Tolkien, who always observed profound respect for his readers.

    1. I agree that Tolkien put more thought and effort and care into his sub-creation (to use his word) than any fantasy author before or since, but there are sentient animals in his work – the eagles who are very prominent in The Hobbit and the fox that briefly observes Frodo near the start of The Fellowship of the Ring.

      1. The difference is if somebody had suggested roasting an eagle for dinner, the (good) characters in Tolkien would have been horrified, whereas in E.B. White they would have shrugged and said, “Well, that’s the way it works, I guess.”

  3. Goodness, Simcha. What do you think of Beatrix Potter? Some animals are anthropomorphized and some are not in the same story..it’s fiction, for heavens sake. My kids, ages 10-3, love The Trumpet of the Swan and the oral reading of Charlotte’s Web -not so much the movie, because it’s so painfully melodramatic.

    It is somewhat strange and yet humorous to depict anthropomorphized animals alongside non-anthropormorphized ones, or at least to include them in the same “world” in a book. I think it keeps us from taking animals too seriously in real life, as well as pointing out the absurdity of anthropomorphizing an animal in a book as well ascribing human dignity to an animal in real life. I think of things like the annual cygnet donation to the zoo as little reminders that the world White is describing is not real, it makes no sense, it couldn’t be, and isn’t it funny to imagine a swan who gets swindled and orders 11 watercress sandwiches in a fancy hotel?

    I don’t find White’s works disturbing at all. Animals can be fluffy, cute, sweet, wonderful, companionable and downright delicious in the same lifetime and within the same relationship with a human.

    1. Just because you are not disturbed does not mean someone else might not be, as we can see from these comments. And I know at least one child who wept for hours after someone read Jemima Puddle-Duck to her, because the dogs at the end, who seemed like rescuers come to save the day, EAT HER BABIES and nobody cares. It’s not unwise to consider carefully how children may react to anthropomorphized animal characters.

      1. Does that sound snippy? I didn’t mean for it to! Just trying to share thoughts. I think I need to eat some lunch.

      2. Yes! I very much dislike the Jemima Puddle-Duck story, too. And Stuart Little. Anthropomorphism is tricky, always. Just like time-travel.

        1. I reread (or read for the first time? – not completely sure) Jemima Puddleduck in a doctor’s office several years ago, and it really did make me wonder about Edwardian attitudes toward abortion. Here is a tremendously popular book written by an apparently decent person at a time when it was taken for granted that abortion should be illegal, yet the consumption of the eggs is not portrayed as a murder equivalent at all.

          1. Hadn’t read it before so I looked it up. Of course the egg-eating isn’t portrayed as murder because 1. it isn’t, they’re birds and 2. they either aren’t fertilized or can’t develop due to Jemima not tending them, so there’s nothing to kill. At any rate, I could see a kid feeling sad for Jemima, but it seems to me that people more a product of those times, i.e. with close proximity to their food sources, would find the descriptions of a stupid-but-determined-to-nest duck and naughty egg-eating puppies more funny than anything. Most of Beatrix Potter’s stories are similar: partly anthropomorphic, partly just animals being animals. I don’t think abortion commentary was on Potter’s mind at all.

            1. Oh, I never meant to claim it was consciously on anyone’s mind. But I think the eggs are supposed to be fertilized. If Jemima had been eaten by the fox, that would be treated as a murder-equivalent by the story, but the destruction of fertilized eggs is not. That is all. It makes me uncomfortable now but probably would not if I were a child.

  4. Somebody above mentioned the death (murder) of the talking stag in The Silver Chair as an example of a more thoughtful attitude towards talking animals. Yes and no. I accepted the talking animals in the Narnia stories for what they were but even as a child I wondered if it would be acceptable to watch others eat one’s relatives – even if they were not family in the literal sense – simply because they could not talk. Would we allow people to cannibalize other humans who lacked the capacity for speech? We do tolerate some rather dreadful things but not that.

    1. Talking Stags are not the same species as dumb stags. When Aslan elevates them to rationality (makes them hnau, in the language of Out of the Silent Planet), he alters their essential nature. They have immortal souls: the other beasts don’t. It’s not just a matter of being able to talk or not.

      There is even a morphological change: The small animals, like mice, grow much larger, while the very large ones, like elephants, grow smaller — converging on the human mean, perhaps.

      The fact is that we do eat our relatives. All life on earth is related. It’s just a question of how closely. Humans eat fellow primates: monkeys and even apes. I wouldn’t want to eat ape meat myself, but I don’t think it’s flat-out sinful. And if we shared this planet with rational non-primate predators — say, talking jaguars — I certainly wouldn’t object to them eating apes.

      1. Yes, I think C. S. Lewis managed the distinction between Talking Beasts and the ordinary dumb beasts very clearly. I still can’t quite picture a Narnian abattoir – ordinary beavers may be herbivores but the Talking Beavers ate ham sandwiches! – however, to me that says more about our Fall from Eden than about fictional anthropomorphism. Will we eat ham sandwiches in Heaven, do you think?

        1. The general consensus seems to be while we will have resurrected and glorified bodies in the new creation, biological functions like eating and sex will not exist.

          1. Why would eating not exist, if the resurrected Christ could eat? No doubt there is a theological answer or at least a discussion of the matter somewhere, but I don’t know what it is. I am grateful to all the people who responded to my comment here, though, especially SGD, for explicating a little and making the moral point clearer.

            1. The way I personally have understood this is that “you have to eat” and “you can’t just walk through walls, buddy” are laws that apply to the regular, non-glorified body. After his resurrection, Christ has diplomatic immunity — he *can* follow these laws if he wants, but he doesn’t have to.

  5. I get physically ill thinking of this author. I’m autistic, and when I was young I had frequent episodes of mutism. People thought a sweet, sensitive animal loving girl like me would appreciate E.B. White. No. There is cruelty upon cruelty in his books. To me, his works are just a study of how capricious and inconsistent humans can be. I’m grateful someone else sees the unfairness and problematic morals in these books!

  6. Thank you for articulating the wordless dis-ease I have had with this book since childhood! Well spoken. If you take it seriously, and follow out the rules of the world the author has set out, which the author invites us to, the implications are atrocious.

  7. The discussion so far has left out an essential element in the trade of future offspring for Serena’s freedom:

    “In every family of cygnets,” explains Sam in his proposal for Serena’s release, “there is always one that needs special care and protection. Bird lake would be a perfect place for this one little swan that needs extra security. This is a beautiful lake, Louis. This is a great zoo. If I can persuade the headman to let Serena remain free, would you be willing to donate one of your cigarettes, now and then, if the zoo needs another swan for the lake?”

    It’s still a weird story, but the arrangement is that when Louis and Serena have a special-needs cygnet, who would otherwise die in the wild, they have agreed in advance that it shall be given a safe home and the necessary care to preserve its life at the Philadelphia Zoo. I don’t like the term “donate” in this context, but how exactly is that scenario “child sacrifice”?

    1. Ha! Autocorrect gave us a good one there — of course Sam meant one of Louis’ cygnets, not his cigarettes. I should have proofread before posting.

    2. Huh. Is it possible that’s not in every edition? I read it just a short time ago and I don’t remember that at all!

      1. No, yeah, that’s totally in there. I haven’t read it in years, but I remember the wording exactly. Good point, Cordelia.

      2. It’s in mine, hence my lack of problem with the arrangement. But, given the current publishers’ mania for bowdlerizing every children’s book they get their hands on (Little Women, Little House, Melissa Wiley’s Little House prequels, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington, Pippi Longstocking, etc.), I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d taken bits out of this one too.

        1. No, but I believe it’s there and I just forgot it, which I’m a little embarrassed about. It makes some difference, but really only takes the edge off the problem of a humanlike entity “donating” his babies to someone who wants them; and the issues with the book aren’t all contained in the cygnet scene, anyway.

          1. The thing is, I think “humanlike” is key, because some of the story is e.g. the over-the-top feelings of Louis wanting to “atone” for stealing when no one expects him to because he’s a *swan* and not actually human, even if humanlike. I get the description of White’s writing as “crepuscular” – his stories are not black-and-white, one-to-one correlation types and, per comments here, there are a lot of ways to react to stories – but none of his writing gives me the impression he’s a nihilist and that seems an extreme and unfairly negative description of his stories.

            1. It has been a long time since I read these books, but based on the descriptions offered by Simcha herself and by others in the thread, there are other words that seem to fit more, such as fatalistic or Stoic – things that can lead to nihilism if taken too far but are not quite the same.

    3. This is still weird to me! Surely Louis is that cygnet from his clutch, right? Why does he get to be mainstreamed, as it were, with his dad moving heaven and earth to give him the accommodations he needs, but Louis’s special needs kids are institutionalized, presumably with clipped wings?

  8. Thank you for this. I don’t think this is a problem only for children’s stories. I feel a sort of false guilt at preferring ‘happy-ending’ novels. Naturally, the ‘lived happily ever after’ ending does not explicitly point towards Heaven – but that direction is implicit in them.

    jj

  9. I love The Trumpet of the Swan; I find it by far the best of White’s children’s books, better than Charlotte’s Web and far better than (ugh) Stuart Little.

    That said, you are of course correct about the problem at the end. Here’s how I look at it:

    This is a world with rational animals, but it’s also a world with zoos and farms. If the animals in this world are fully morally equal to persons, zoos and farms are the equivalent of slavery and Soylent Green, a la eating the Talking Stag in The Silver Chair.

    That interpretation is rigorous and logical, but does too much damage to the story. In other words, the story’s ambiguities begin long before Louis makes that deal.

    And it’s not just Charlotte’s Web. It’s a lot of stories with semi-anthropomorphic animals in human-centric worlds, from Beatrix Potter (is Farmer MacGregor a monster?) to Babe.

    Ferdinand the duck in Babe considers eating animals barbaric, but is the viewer meant to agree? I don’t believe so.

    Even when Babe learns that his whole family has probably already been butchered, he responds not with moral outrage but bleak acceptance (bleak in part because he has been led to doubt his special relationship with Hoggett).

    This, of course, is the reading of a non-vegan. Vegans may of course dissent, and read these tales to their own children with all the gruesome implications of the rigorous interpretation above (the problem for them being, of course, that animals in our world aren’t rational).

    For us non-vegans, it seems to me, in order to read any of these stories on their own terms, we have to posit some kind of intermediate status for these animals, between humans and irrational beasts.

    When reading The Trumpet of the Swan to my kids, therefore, I take a quasi-naturalistic approach, minimizing the anthropomorphism in this regard: I explain that Louis and Serena are wild swans and so they naturally want to remain free, but Louis’s future cygnets born at the zoo would be just like any other zoo animals born into captivity.

    Admittedly, this is a problematic approach, one that allegorically rhymes with 19th-century scientific racism and the rationalization for slavery.

    My only defense is that some such reading is necessary to salvage a great deal of delightful children’s literature, and I think we can undertake to instill in our children a healthy hatred of racism in all forms without either sacrificing the likes of Peter Rabbit and Babe or going full vegan / Soylent Green.

    1. I tend to agree with you (though the filming, and the main actor’s own views, make me think “Babe” is supposed to be a Go Vegan! parable).

      I always liked Trumpet of the Swan too, though I haven’t yet read it with any of my kids. As I recall, it wasn’t a random cygnet they leave with the zoo: it’s ones that are weaker and wouldn’t survive in the wild, so the zoo is a refuge for them where Louis and Serena can still visit.

      I love E.B. White’s essays, though (going solely from those and not from any biographical research on my part) he seems to be aiming to be like Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Wonderful Life” – taking “not a praying man” as a sort of badge of honor and self-reliance, but still agreeing with a generic sense of decency connected with a vague belief in God. So, yeah, not a solid philosophical foundation.

      1. It is true that Cromwell was motivated to go full vegan as a result of making Babe. That said, the views of actors have zero bearing on anything except their own performances. Take it from me. 🙂

        I would wager, based on the evidence, that Babe novelist Dick King-Smith was not a vegan. Producer and co-writer George Miller is vegetarian — but he states that the movie is an anti-prejudice metaphor, not an anti-carnivore propaganda piece. I don’t know anything about co-writer / director Noonan’s views. In any case, the film is the film and it says what it says.

        Incidentally, while I am not a vegetarian, I do think contemporary industrial farming is ethically terrible, and I highly respect people who choose to go vegetarian to avoid being implicated in cruelty to animals.

        1. No, I agree with your comment about actors, but sometimes they choose roles based on their views. At any rate, I was thinking mainly of the camera angles on Mrs. Hoggett while she’s carving Christmas dinner when guessing “Babe” was supposed to be anti-meat.

        2. King-Smith’s farm animals tend, above all, to be realists. Caveat: it’s been a few years since I read any King-Smith to my kids, but I remember one in particular, about a piglet with club-feet who saves his uncaring brothers and sisters from a flood because, left to themselves with no other food source, pigs will turn cannibal. (That was a fun passage to read my kids!) The animals are realists, but not necessarily ethicists. They are doing the best they can where they are, without pondering larger questions. I think the same happens in White. Charlotte is a predator, first and foremost. (“I love blood.”) She saves Wilbur not because she intends to stop eating other possibly-sentient potential characters, but because he is there and she loves him. I think this is a far cry from nihilism (to get to Simcha’s essay). Farms exist, winter comes, geese fly away. “Crepuscular” is right: everything is fading. But the stories ask readers to consider what we’re going to do with our limits and our hard choices, and suggest the answer: “the best we can.” How is that not a lesson for children?

    1. I can’t even deal with Stuart Little. I only read it a few times and was so creeped out, I don’t remember it well.

      1. The idea of a human giving birth to a mouse (which is pretty well spelled out in the book) squicked me out as a kid. I was really glad that when they made the movie, Stuart is adopted because I was not looking forward to explaining that one to the kids. One of my kids (a bird lover) read Trumpet of the Swan, and was just meh about it. We tried reading Charlotte’s Web, but nobody liked it, but they couldn’t put their finger on why. (They thought Templeton was hilarious, though.) I think E.B. White’s children’s books are really what adults think children’s books should be. Literary, well-written, and let’s-not-look-t0o-deeply-behind-the-curtain.

      2. It ends on a note of almost total ambiguity. Stuart goes off to look for Margot the bird, meets a tiny woman his own size, broke off a relationship with her, then drives off still looking for Margot…and the book ends there.

        Kind of like the author decided he didn’t even know what he was doing anymore. But that ambiguity makes a -little- more sense if this guy was all about ambiguity to begin with.

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