In “Death of a Pig,” written in 1947, Elwyn Brooks White chooses to illustrate real life, a far cry from the imaginary world he weaves in his novels for children. As he explains in a letter he wrote to kids, “Real life is only one kind of life. -- there is also the life of the imagination. And although my stories are imaginary, I like to think that there is some truth in them, too -- truth about the way people and animals feel and think and act. ”(Letter from E. B. White, n. d.)
But an exposition on real life still does not in any way mean the exclusion of a wondrous play of words that manages to capture the last remaining hours of a common barnyard animal and elicit from the readers a feeling of sympathy for a loss they can identify as their own. Such a loss was brought upon by the Second World War which had ended two years before. It wiped away the remaining vestiges of innocence and sobriety and brought forth untold suffering into the world of men. It can be said therefore that the essay reflects White’s true feelings for the war.
As he writes, “The pig’s imbalance becomes the man’s, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 231) He starts his chronicle of a death foretold with exactly that – a premonition that “the play would never regain its balance. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 228) In assuming his initial duty as an unseasoned physician, he had in mind more of a preservation of the future of processed meat to be enjoyed in the season of joyous celebration. But a stronger bond evolved as he obviously saw the pig’s struggle mirrored his own. He cites, “The loss we felt was not the loss of the ham but the loss of the pig.
He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 229) And yet again, “His suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 232) The reference to suffering is evidence that clearly White saw the malaise affecting the world and claimed the pain as his own. In the descriptive simple prose that he is famous for, White depicts humorously what would be an otherwise serious subject – the struggle of saving a life with death staring you at the face.
From the enema given to a large pig in an amateurish fashion to the makeshift emergency team assembled to continue the medication to the side-splitting interruptions by the telephone operator and hilarious posturings of his small alpha dog - all these make up for an amusement that betrays the somber mood and seriousness of the matter. In this way, White is somehow trying to reassure himself and the readers that everything will be alright. He in fact carries over the optimism he has displayed in his novels for children. Throughout the essay, one can observe in detail the fluctuation in White’s emotions.
First appeared the admission that there was indeed something amiss with his pig, a hard fact to accept for someone who thought that raising pigs would not have been at all difficult following convention. Denial came as he writes, “Unconsciously, I held off for an hour, the deed for which I would officially recognize the collapse of the performance of raising a pig; I wanted no interruption in the regularity of feeding, the steadiness of growth, the even succession of days. I wanted no interruption, wanted no oil, no deviation.
I just wanted to keep on raising a pig, full meal after full meal, spring into summer into fall. ” (E. B. White, 1947, pp. 229-230) Then surfaced times that he felt largely pessimistic as opposed to moments were he thought the pig might emerge from all these in the pink of health. He says, “At this point, although a depression settled over me, I didn’t suppose I was going to lose my pig. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 231) Towards the end, the realization that the grim reaper may win seeped in and all he wanted was to have a good fight with a comfortable end notwithstanding.
His describes his resignation to such a fate as “there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles. The pig’s lot and mine were inextricably bound now, as though the rubber tube were the silver cord. From then, until the time of his death, I held the pig steadily in the bowl of my mind; the task of trying to deliver him from his misery became a strong obsession. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 232) Indeed, how does one confront a drastic alteration of the normal course of events?
One first thinks, did one contribute in any way to the problem or might have been able to prevent it at all? And the consequent natural reaction would also be to fight to regain order. But what if the subsequent struggle becomes a futile one? As one grapples with the reality looming overhead and is faced with the inevitability that life would never be the same again, is it at all meaningless to hope? And how does one put an end to the misery and regain sanguinity in the midst of wallowing self-pity? These were the issues confronting White as he questioned the incoherence of war, of life itself.
And the poverty afflicting his spirit during the wartime led him to seek solace in the arms of a fellow sufferer, the pig living in idyllic glory in his farm. But in the end, White realizes that he was not at all alone in grieving over what happened to the world. Metaphorically, the earth itself and the community of men joined him in mourning over the loss of a swine so innocent of the world’s malevolence. He writes, “Everything about this last scene seemed overwritten – the dismal sky, the shabby woods, the imminence of rain, the worm (legendary bedfellow of the dead), the apple (conventional garnish of a pig). ” (E.B. White, 1947, p. 235)
He adds, “The news of the death of my pig traveled fast and far, and I received expressions of sympathy from friends and neighbors, for no one took the event lightly and the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar, a sorrow in which it feels fully involved. ” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 235) White sums all his pent-up emotional angst about the war in a single sentence: “The awakening had been violent and I minded it all the more because I knew that what could be true of my pig could be true also of the rest of my tidy world.” (E. B. White, 1947, p. 233)
The inconvenient truth to be understood was that conflict in some form or another could arise anytime and create chaos in this world much to the consternation of peace-loving citizens like White who are unable to control the circumstances that have fallen out of hand. But as free educated thinkers, people like White still had the capacity to change their plight. In the essay, he writes of the various attempts he undertook to alleviate the pig’s suffering.
In reality, he had written the exposition for it to serve as an outlet of his sentiments – his identification with the misery wrought upon by war, his willingness to fight in his own way, and his anticipation of a hopeful conclusion to the sordid mess. The unmarked grave in the woods would have been a constant reminder of this particular ordeal and the lesson that had been learned from the experience, that in moments of personal deterioration, one often looks for consolation in others to calm one’s fears, regain good sense and then look forward to a change in the tides.
This is not waxing quixotically for as White later realized, “As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left us in a bad time. ” (E. B. White, 1973) Truly, “Death of a Pig” serves as a moving testament to the resilience of man in the face of relentless conflict, of having enough courage to avoid being a victim, a casualty in spirit.