Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"The Very Busy Spider": An Entrepreneur in the Welfare State

Eric Carle, best known for his breakout entomological bildungsroman, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, seems to present a simple parable about the value of hard work in his 1984 picture book, The Very Busy Spider.  But in contrast to The Very Hungry Caterpillar's universal themes of youthful overindulgence and transcendent maturity, The Very Busy Spider, when examined in its sociopolitical context, captures the zeitgeist of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," reflecting both the optimism and ambivalence of the era.

The protagonist of the story, an industrious female spider who floats onto a farmyard on a breeze from parts unknown, sets out to spin the web that will be both her home and her means of securing sustenance.  The spinning process is threatened, however, by interruptions from a parade of gadabout farm animals who try to tempt her with offers to "go for a ride," "jump on the rocks," or "roll in the mud."  Our workaholic heroine studiously ignores these wastrels, refusing to even acknowledge them with a word of greeting. 

*Spoiler Alert* Finally, after the web is finished and the distractions have abated, she traps a fly, presumably devours it (although no illustrations support this assumption), and then goes to sleep.  Her final visitor, an owl, swoops down to admire her web, but she is too exhausted to bask in his praise.

As a comment on the American public's growing animosity toward the welfare state in the eighties, The Very Busy Spider could not be any more succinct.  In a series of eight one-sided conversations in which each animal entreats the spider to join it on some sort of pointless lark and the spider does not answer because she is "very busy spinning her web," Carle suggests that independent entrepreneurs, whose success depends on their willingness to make sacrifices and work past the point of physical fatigue to gain their economic foothold, feel they can brook no interference from those who while away their lives at the expense of the state.  The spider can ill afford to pass the time with these domesticated beasts lest she be brought down to their level: feeding at the trough of the farmer, wallowing in their own filth, shirking responsibility whenever possible, and ultimately being led to slaughter.

When the only other undomesticated animal in the story, the owl, admires the spider's craftsmanship and work ethic, the spider's unawareness of the compliment bespeaks a quiet dignity inherent in those who make their own way in the world.  They don't need to talk about their achievements because they are too busy building upon them.

But The Very Busy Spider is no unequivocal celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit.  The spider is, by her own choosing, an isolated figure in the barnyard community; and nowhere is this more apparent than in the last image in the book.  Her web, the product of her expertise and industry, is the farmyard equivalent of the glass and steel monuments to obsessive acquisition that glitter in the Manhattan skyline.  And yet the spider herself is barely visible, tucked away in a remote corner of her own creation, a solitary figure converting the victim of her latest exploit into the energy she will need to destroy more like him the next day.  It may be just a matter of hours until "Morning in America," but Carle leaves us wondering if the self-sufficient spider really has much more to look forward to than the barnyard drones she so disdains.   


Butterbean likes to read it in a chair

Cobra prefers to recline

It also makes a good surfboard

Don't forget to play the "I had a freaky experience with Sex Ed" game that's masquerading as a book giveaway.  There's still time to broadcast your humiliation.  And win a book if, you care about that kind of thing.


  1. I think we have every Carle book... btw have u hit on Goodnight Moon by Margaret Brown? that's another good author...she also wrote the Runaway bunny....I'll Love You Forever is another book ( author name?) you should have on hand.. A bit of a tearjerker but it speaks volumes...U will learn something as well.

  2. I'll never look at this book the same I'm enlightened. :)

  3. Interesting analysis. It's too bad that the book doesn't end with the owl eating the spider, thus she basically worked herself to death. One little roll in the mud wouldn't have killed her. ;)

  4. Embarrassing! Cobra and I are wearing the same pants. Again.

  5. This book seems quite reflective of the North American puritanical work ethic: live to work.

    Alas, there is more to life than the unmitigated acquisition of stuff, namely, the passing of life itself, which can be easily missed when all you do is work, to get money, to buy things...

  6. @ Sassy - Agreed on the obsession with work, I was just talking about that the other day, when meeting people after asking their names, it is always what do you do...which is fine, but it makes everyone define themselves solely by a profession etc etc

  7. Pardon me, sir. Would you have any idea where I could find a link that might lead me to some Free Fun?

  8. @Steamy--
    Funny you should ask. I don't know if you've noticed in the "recent comments" area of the sidebar, but Beta Dad has a new sponsor: "Free Fun Tours of North Korea"! We now offer tours of Pyonyang as well as the N. Korean countryside. You will start your adventure with a daring crossing over the Chinese border whereupon you will scavenge for "free" morsels of food until you make your way to the Forbidden City. From there, real N. Korean soldiers will escort you to a "free fun" camp, where you will spend the rest of your life! (In case you didn't find the link, I sent your email and url directly to the Free Fun sales rep. You're welcome!)

    I don't even know where to start with _Goodnight Moon_. It's just so weird. My kids aren't really into it right now, but I understand it has a crazy hypnotic effect on a lot of young'uns. I've heard that _I'll Love You Forever_ is equal parts sweet and creepy. I'll have to check it out.

    These are the kinds of discussion you should be having with your kids about what they read. That way, you will ruin books for them and spare them the social stigma of being a nerd.

    I know. The owl should totally have eaten the spider. E.Carle is a German immigrant to the U.S. Had he stayed in his native Stuttgart, I'm sure the story would have ended like that.

    @Elly Lou--
    Well this is going to be even more embarrassing: I'm also wearing those pants. They're really tight on me, but they look awesome.

    So I take it you're more on board with the "bear necessities" philosophy?

    @Skeptical Czarina--
    That's why, when I meet people for the first time, I never ask "what do you do?" Instead, after doing the yoga prayer hand gesture, I say "what do you LOVE to do?"

  9. Do that creepy "I Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch. Please? You are taking requests?

    Love this, keep it coming.

  10. I'd love to read what you have to say about "The Puppy Who Lost Its Way."

    (And if you don't get that reference, I'm not sure we can be blog friends.)

  11. I am taking requests! (It may be a while before I get to them though.)

  12. I loved Eric Carle's books when I was little but my daughter's daddy has banned them from our house :(. Now we read Mr. Brown can Moo and Moo Baa La La La about 20 times a day...

  13. Once again, you've left me in awe. All this time, I was thinking "What a pretty web" and occasionally "Yuck, a spider"

    I, however, must admit that the aquisition of of material goods sounds pretty appealing to me right now, with my reduced work week resulting in severe restrictions on my pursuit to build upon my current aquisitions (i.e. no shopping! :{

  14. Flash forward to 2010 and I believe the spider could now be viewed as China, slowly and steadily drawing us into their ever expanding web while we wallow in the mud with pig.

    Fantastic review. We currently have the Very Hungry Caterpillar in circulation. Again.

  15. I'm interested in your interpretation of the inevitable wind-and-leaf combo that will come along and obliterate all Spider's hard work.

  16. Loved your interpretation of the story. I've read that one many times to my 16 month old nephew. : )

  17. @X295--
    I find Carle's books to be much less annoying than Boynton's. They're nice and mellow, and you don't have to sing or talk about belly buttons too much.

    You know what's a good thing to do when your work hours are reduced? Sitting around thinking about what children's books are really trying to tell us, that's what.

    Yeah! And the spider would be as big as the barn and as powerful as a herd of cattle! So, is it like re-reading a novel that you first read in college? Are you picking up all kinds of new stuff from "Caterpillar" that you never thought of before?

    The wind-and-leaf buzzkill is clearly the Great Recession.

    16 months must be the perfect age for that book. That's how old my girls are and they can't get enough of it!

  18. After an exhausting day teaching Grade 4 while 7 months pregnant THIS might have been the best thing I have read all year! Wow, thanks.

  19. Please do your next literary analysis on Goodnight Moon. That one might become interesting after you deal with it.

    (I teach high school English, and you get an A+!)

  20. Indeed, the protagonist in Carle's work (and in fact in many of his narratives, you'll find) appears to be a classic anti-hero in her separatism, representing the author's disdain for the upper class.

    Well analyzed, sir.

  21. Interesting take. I think your argument would would be furthered immeasurably if you attended to the important strands of intertextuality at play here, with the Very Busy Spider (VBS) not only standing up and against the shirker domestic animals, but also clearly inverting the communitarian and Christological farmyard/spider relationship established in Charlotte's Web, where Charlotte becomes Wilbur's spokesman and savior, and which itself ought perhaps be read as a Late Capitalist revision of Animal Farm.

    Moreover, apart from noting the book's utility in fantasy aquatic athletic activity, you uncharacteristically neglect its qualities as an artifact, thus missing the overdetermined imposition of meaning through the physical act of interacting with the book. Especially important is the three-dimensional (bas relief) character of the web itself (at least in the edition I have at hand), whose tactile qualities function to anchor the reader in her -- for surely we must attend to the book's gendered assertion of readership, given the female protagonist so unusual in board literature? -- interpretation of the VBS as a projection of the self, thus implicating the reader/toucher in the very process of inscription of the particular moral code you have identified at the core of the book.

  22. how did you get so many followers.

  23. @Beth--
    Best thing you've read all year? What a nice compliment! (But seriously, you should try to read fewer 4th grade essays.)

    I will tackle _Goodnight Moon_ one of these days. I've gotten a lot of requests for that one. By the way, yours is the first A+ I've ever gotten from a high school teacher!

    I guess I need to read more Carle, because I haven't seen much class struggle in his other stuff. I'm sure I'll have ample opportunity.

    Your points are very well-taken. However, your critique of my analysis is misplaced, as I have not "neglected" these aspects of the richly layered text. They are simply beyond the scope of my examination.

    Your argument about the interaction between text and reader/toucher is particularly intriguing, but I have not personally witnessed it as the subjects of my study tend to race through the pages as quickly as possible so as to get to the image of the dog and yip at it.

  24. When you think about it some kids books today have some worrying messages embedded in them.
    Two that spring to mind that we read to ours are Gruffalo, which basically says lying will get you what you want (fitting for British politics of the time!), and The Smartest Giant in Town with its anti-materialistic tree hugging undertones!

  25. I think you should start a section devoted to giving helpless tips and advice not otherwised covered in mainstream parenting literature on fatherhood. You know, for people staring down the barrel of a babygun.

  26. The spiders name was Dominique Francon and before completing her web and marrying the spider Howard Roark, lived a life of misery and self abasement in reproach of the degenerate and valueless farm animals. Though, this spider seems to lack the absurd good looks of an Ayn Rand character.

  27. Thanks for the advice. In my spare time, of which I have plenty, I will get to my local public library (no shopping, remember?) with my dusty library card (which by the way, has a picture of a bookworm on it and says "My First Library Card") and get to work deciphering the intent of all of those ingenious and sneaky Writers of Children's Books"

  28. Let me know when you are going to lead that tour to North Korea- I am dying to meet Dear Leader.

  29. So I'm guessing the spider is representative of the entrepreneurial, self-made, self-financed "start-up" company. I was just thinking, as a stand-in for the corporate drone, I wonder if the spider would've had anything to do with the recent financial crisis.

    "Step into my office," said the lender to the homeowner...

  30. I just discovered your "Wheels on the Bus" and "Very Busy Spider" rhetorical analyses! (Because when I've read all your latest, I search for something I missed in the past.. Go ahead, feel good about yourself.) I like this game you've invented; maybe I'll try my own children's book analysis sometime. You had this one million-line long sentence that I would love to give to my students as an example of how many prepositional phrases you can string together (infinite ones!). Also, I must say that I'm stricken by the emerging pattern you've illuminated in portrayals of the spider as an incessantly working, Sisyphean loner - one may recall Itsy Bitsy Spider as another example - and by the eeriness of this construct both in its readiness to frame success in terms of a demanding self-sufficiency that calls for the sacrifice of all leisure and social connection, and in its perverted inclination to idealistically champion a figure who in reality is constantly killed or dispossessed of its home due to our desire to master our living spaces and eliminate all possible threats. In short, the spider receives the same treatment as have Native Americans, immigrants, and the environment, revealing the madness of a collective psyche that extols the virtues of the very things it ignores, banishes, and destroys. You know?


Don't hold back.


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