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.