WP 14: Spell

The Spell of the Sentimental

Erica Fretwell

This essay is a monument to the baby whose becoming was cut short. It could not be, would not come.

The constant threat of violence, the unceasing tears of an innocent babe, a mother who uses her feminine wiles to influence the powerful on behalf of the vulnerable, a messianic figure whose “triumph” in death secures another’s life: this is a description not of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) but of a classic children’s book published a century later, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952).

Sentimental literature is a mighty arm of sentimentality, which is a discourse of feeling rooted in liberal fantasies of emotional recognition. Sentimentality has its critics. Most notable of these is Lauren Berlant, who describes sentimentality as a scene of relation, where intimacy among strangers takes hold in the understanding that emotion—suffering, sympathy, and so forth—can be a vehicle of social critique. But emotions are privatized solutions (e.g., “feeling right” for Stowe) insufficient to the task of dismantling structural problems (e.g., slavery). Sentimentality, then, is rife with false promises of social belonging and shared humanity. It is always an “unfinished business,” in Berlant’s estimation, because the sentimental contract holds that we trade our rights to systemic change for the emotional protections the state is supposed to grant in return. That is, we settle for a vague feeling of utopian potential rather than marshal the means to realize a better life in the here and now. Sentimentality is an affect world that knits people together while pulling the wool over their eyes.

Or, to invoke the filamental compositions that animate Charlotte’s Web: pulling at our heartstrings is how sentimentality hangs us out to dry. We are under its spell and s-p-e-l-l. For as dramatized in White’s story, sentimentality triangulates two OED-sanctioned definitions of spell: the first a noun, a vehicle of enchantment, a formula or verse supposed to possess occult or magical powers; the second a verb, a literacy practice, to enunciate or write letter by letter. Set on a small farm in New England, Charlotte’s Web turns on a simple plot: Charlotte is a spider that uses her web to writes messages that convince the Zuckermans not to kill and eat one of their farm animals, a young pig named Wilbur. Charlotte’s spelling ability drives the story. Invited into the wonder of woven words, the Zuckermans cannot but see Wilbur as she does—as special, as worthy of living.

That s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g casts something of a spell upon human beings seems rosy enough, but the story’s mother figures stage sentimentality’s constitutive violence. The first mother is Fern Arable, a girl equipped with a surname that denotes cultivation, care, and fertility. She feeds Wilbur with a bottle, pushes him in a stroller, and above all saves him from her father’s axe by crying about the injustice of killing a pig just because it’s a runt (of little use to the farmer; nonviable in a way). Once Fern sells Wilbur to her uncle Homer Zuckerman, Wilbur gets a new mother: Charlotte, who uses words instead of tears to save him from Zuckerman’s axe. White of skin, pure of spirit, and tender of soul, Wilbur is a textbook sentimental heroine, seeking in his animal family protection from the looming acts/axe of violence constantly threatened by his human “family”: Fern’s older brother Avery carries rifles, knives, and slingshots on his person, and the smell of bacon not infrequently wafts from the kitchen. Contra the men, the mothers here are figures of life.

Except when they are figures of death. Charlotte’s body is as life-giving as it is life-ending: the silk from her abdomen is both an umbilical cord for her porcine child and a strangling rope for her prey. The many bugs that Charlotte kills are not ancillary but integral to the success of her rescue project. Horrified as Wilbur initially is by Charlotte’s predatory nature, the story makes clear that her victims are valuable only when dead, as sustenance for Wilbur’s savior. A tale as old as time: identity is formed by constitutive exclusions. The inclusion of a pig and a spider into the disciplinary category of the human is predicated on the unanthropomorphizability of other living things.

The ties that bind.

One animal’s Winnicottian holding space is another animal’s stranglehold. Miraculous words and mundane bugs inhabit the same gossamer home; death is a founding condition of motherhood. The act of spelling papers over violence by making it appear incidental. Which is to say: s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g is how the sentimental works its spell. Recycling words found from discarded print material, including an ad for toothpaste, Charlotte successfully sells the Zuckermans on the prospect of sparing Wilbur’s life. First, she spells out SOME PIG. The noun has a clear referent, but the descriptor leaves clarity wanting. After all, “some” could mean remarkable (What a pig!) or unremarkable (Meh, just some pig). But the humans receive Charlotte’s intended meaning of “some,” and they register that the implicit referent of “pig” is Wilbur. Mrs. Zuckerman and Dr. Dorian, however, are the only ones who suspect otherwise. “Some Pig,” they determine, really means “Some Spider.” The message describes Wilbur, but its medium registers Charlotte’s extraordinariness. All spiders can weave; few can write. While most of the human characters ascribe the “miracle of the web” to the domain of the providential, the woman and the doctor are the two Emersonians who recognize the divinity that inheres in nature itself.

But in a certain light the wonder is less that a spider can write than that language ever succeeds. However mundane s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g may seem, the sign is something of a miracle itself, its magical powers evidenced by the farmers and townspeople convinced that a pig is special because a spider’s web says so. This is the spell of which performatives are capable. Three years ahead of J.L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, Charlotte knows how to do things with words. She saves a life with them; she humanizes a nonhuman animal with them. But spells, like utterances, are unpredictable, and so perhaps to secure that “some” means “extraordinary,” Charlotte follows up SOME PIG by spelling out TERRIFIC, RADIANT, and finally HUMBLE. Then the opposite problem arises: who or what is terrific, radiant, and humble? Like any good magic act, certain felicity conditions must be in place for the performative to succeed. One condition is gullibility; human beings tend to believe anything they see (so says Charlotte). Another is Wilbur’s ability to manifest the internal qualities that the eight-legged scribe ascribes to him—like standing under the web to ensure that the sign (terrific) relates its meaning to the referent (him).

It me.

The iconic image of Wilbur standing underneath Charlotte’s thready TERRIFIC is endearing. The sweet pig, trying to project greatness, wants to make sure that human onlookers connect word to object. Wilbur’s insistent presence under the web belies the terror—a word that shares with terrific etymological roots in Latin for “fright” and “awe”—of semiotic instability. Given the sentimental convention that vulnerable subjects must prove their metaphysical worth to their oppressors, it follows that not only the speaker-spider but also the pig-referent must spell it out, as it were, for the human beings. His life depends on it.


I have spent some time thinking about the semiotic instability of another image with life-and-death stakes: the prenatal sonogram. Feminist scholars including Berlant, Rosalind Petchesky, and Carol Stabile have argued that the widespread use of ultrasound technology for obstetric purposes has transformed the fetus into an icon—and one frequently weaponized against pregnant people’s reproductive rights. Imaged by ultrasonic waves that present a ghostly body against a blank space (the uterus), the fetus seems to exist in an ahistorical vacuum, as if unmarked by the social, as if materializing the liberal pieties of agency and autonomy, of willing oneself into the future. The gap between the medical and the cultural purpose of prenatal sonograms is more of a chasm. Midwives and obstetricians use it to track growth, take anatomical measurements, and identify structural anomalies. But in the public sphere, its primary purpose is to turn the fetus into a baby girl, a baby boy, a child, a family member, a person. The many frames sold for sonogram printouts illustrate the transformative, indeed performative, power of the sonogram. They typically come with captions that tell us not only what to see but also how to respond to what we see. Whereas Wilbur himself plays the caption to the “image” that is the text TERRIFIC (we can’t know what terrific means without the animal underneath), today’s sonogram frames are captions awaiting the sign they already have decided how to read. So terrified are people, especially anti-abortion activists, that the prenatal image will appear precisely as it is – a grainy thing, with no obvious connection to “human” —that a “fetus industrial complex” (adjacent to the disastrous gender industrial complex) has arisen to semaphore Some Baby whenever we see a prenatal sonogram.

I was unmoved by the sentimental appeals of the prenatal sonogram during my first pregnancy; it was the sound of the heartbeat that put a lump in my throat. My second pregnancy is a different story. Age and chronic illness made me acutely aware of the fragility of gestational life. A six-week transvaginal ultrasound of the embryo offered reassurance. Looking at the printout on the ride home, I decided that the blob I beheld was, in fact, our little miracle.

In the eleventh week, a blood test warned that the living thing we had made would not make it. A follow-up ultrasound disclosed an arm that didn’t move, and then a chorionic villus sampling gave definitive diagnosis: Trisomy 18. A “glitch” in fertilization yielded an extra copy of a chromosome. So many are the structural and functional problems caused by genetic excess that a developing fetus has a 90% chance of dying in utero (a stillborn), and in the 10% chance of live birth of dying within a year, though likelier within months. The doctor conveyed that the fetus was “incompatible with life” – unequipped for biological survival. The only way to keep the baby out of harm’s way, to prevent further pain and trauma for both it and me, was to end its life. Abortion was the only option; it would act as euthanasia. “You’re being good parents,” she comforted us.

“Will it be medical waste?” I asked the doctor, knowing the answer. “Yes. But if you have a funeral home in mind, we could it send it there, and they would give you the ashes,” she responded, then added, “But frankly, you have the sonograms. They might be a nicer way to remember it. Because” —she paused again—“there won’t be much. It’s small right now. There’s not a lot to see.”

True enough. At twelve weeks, a two-and-a-half-inch fetus is large enough to see but not “much” to see. But this empirical reality did not chime with my emotional reality. Why must we see “our little miracle” to believe in the preciousness of its life? Why must the Zuckermans witness a miracle to believe that a pig’s life is valuable? And where does that leave nonviable life—life that is but cannot will be? The abortion was scheduled ten days after the diagnosis. That is a long time to carry an ever-growing life with a death sentence. Worst of all, two significant celebrations occurred in the intervening days: my child’s sixth birthday and Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year, when God determines whose names to write in the Book of Life, inaugurates the “Days of Awe,” a ten-day period of repentance and new beginnings that concludes on Yom Kippur, when God writes those names in the Book of Life. My child’s birthday occurred midway through the diagnosis and the abortion; the abortion occurred midway through the Days of Awe. I mourned who would not make it into that book. Yet could I even do that? If having a name is a precondition for entry into the Book of Life, it’s also a precondition for being excluded from the Book of Life. The fetus could not be marked for death not because it was not alive but because it did not have the capacity for living.

Parenthood is what you make of it.
Courtesy of the Author.

We opted to use sonograms, rather than remains, to memorialize it. But there is no frame strong enough to read that sign in the absence of futurity, no language to net that living thing, to weave it in any meaningful way into the world of the born. This diagnosis was a crisis of life, in other words, that manifested partly as a crisis of language.

At the pre-op appointment, the obstetrician explained, “We will remove the—” she paused, “pregnancy by a suction Dilation and Curettage.” Pregnancies can end but cannot be removed. The least we could do, I thought, was give this life the dignity of naming what we were doing to it. But mainly “remove the pregnancy” was a lexical symptom of our deficient because dualistic conception of life and death. Oocyte, blastocyst, zygote, embryo, fetus, infant: biological science has taxonomized these forms and phases of life, yet they are all insufficient to the emotional reality of pregnancy and parenthood. Fearing a miscarriage, I had spent the first and only trimester keeping excitement at arm’s length. Freud will tell you that my efforts at detachment only proved my ardent attachment. Once I accepted the inevitability of its death, only then did I let myself call it what it always had been to me: baby. Baby is not medical terminology; it is an imaginary designation, inhabiting the domain of fantasy and feeling. It names a particularly protective kind of affection and desire. My baby. My precious baby. What was there to lose in calling it what it had been all along? It was already set to be lost. As we left, I did what I usually do to cope with unfathomable loss: I made a very, very dark joke. “Baby’s first abortion!” I quipped. “Baby” meant the baby; “Baby” meant me.

Hours after the D&C, I faced the semiotic weight of baby by experiencing its bodily weightlessness. Prior to the procedure, I had removed all clothing and put on a hospital gown. Except I hadn’t. Because when I awakened from the anesthesia, my spouse held up a bag labeled “BIOHAZARD” containing my underwear. I had forgotten to remove the one item of clothing necessary to perform the procedure, so the doctor had had to remove it herself. Abraham was all too ready to kill Isaac, but I had to be dragged up the mountain. “Please don’t do this,” my panties begged on the operating table. And so, when that night I went to change the pad (I would bleed for two weeks) I was startled to find there something congealed but not a clot. Dark red and hard, probably placenta. Attached fast to it, material just smaller than a dime, flesh-colored but translucent with delicate blue veins and red arteries running through. The hesitant press of a finger: solid and slightly squishy. What do you do with a “surviving” baby part? In a fit of nihilism—The rest has been disposed of anyway, I thought to myself—I flushed it down the toilet. But that short time had been a gift, my husband assured: a macabre if meaningful way to hold what we had made in hand. In a follow-up visit, the doctor apologized for the “retained products of conception.” I refused that euphemism with the only tool I had at my disposal: sentimentality. “Baby,” I whispered.


Like most children’s stories, Charlotte’s Web has a happy ending—at least nominally so. Charlotte’s words have convinced the Zuckermans to spare their “child.” Wilbur survives, and although Charlotte dies, she is survived by many children. This is a “best case” scenario that leaves Wilbur bereft. Every spring brings new spiders, new friends, for Wilbur. But each generation is that much further removed from the foremother he sorely misses. The sparing of Wilbur’s life comes at the cost of outliving the one he loves most. This is living, but is it the good life?

For a while I regularly awoke at 3 a.m. softly crying out, “I want my baby back.” One of those nights I dreamed I was wandering Chicago in winter—it was the MLA convention, a scene of professional trauma—and stumbled upon my 6-year-old child naked on the street. I frantically picked him up, cradled him, wrapping my body around his, desperately trying to warm him and cover him from other people’s eyes. I hurtled toward our hotel, then awoke. A mother carrying her baby, naked as upon the day of birth, sheltering it from a hostile world, a world in which he could not survive: my heartbreak inhabited a layer of unconsciousness so shallow as to be functionally conscious.

Vibrant but Nonviable
Courtesy of the Author.

Shortly thereafter the final report arrived, the baby’s chromosomes numbered and neatly lined up. The data was both insufficient and too much. The gender reveal we had never wanted doubled as a coroner’s report we had never planned for. A digital arrow indexed the extra chromosome and pierced me to the heart. Projecting into a future to look back on a past that wasn’t, it points to a life that now exists only in the past conditional: would have been. Compared to the digital arrow, the light and blurry, somewhat “analog” rendering from the microscope made the chromosomes appear ontologically provisional. It seemed simple enough to erase the extra chromosome, lightly brushing the eraser dust off the paper. Just a mistake! There, I’ve corrected itnow you’re viable! A disentangled web, these strands of genetic material describe a baby that was always more fantasy than physiology.

It’s no surprise that sentimentality performs some of its most powerful feats in the figure of the child. About halfway through Charlotte’s Web, Fern and Avery swing on a rope in the Zuckerman barn. Mrs. Arable, we learn, is always concerned that they will not hold on tightly enough to it and fall and hurt themselves; the narrator patronizingly remarks that mothers always underestimate how tightly their children hold onto things. In some ways, we are the Arable children, holding on tight to the world of things. In other ways, sentimentality is the Arable children, always holding on tight to us, even when we think we have loosed ourselves from its grip. This essay, after all, arrived equipped with a critique of sentimentality but ended up inscribed by its conventions. I had anticipated such an outcome. Sentimentality is the swinging rope; we might be in limbo but at least we’re aloft. That fiber, that thread, creates a holding space where we, good enough mothers all, get to commingle with our children: with the fantasies we’ve spun, with the s-p-e-l-l-s that we hope will save us.

Erica Fretwell is associate professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. She is the author of Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke UP, 2020). Her essays have appeared in PMLA, American Literary History, and J19, and recently she has co-edited (with Hsuan L. Hsu) a special issue of American Literature entitled “Senses with/out Subjects” (Fall 2023). Her current research projects are on aesthetics of unconscious experience and on the media history of haptic literacy.