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In the short story "Expendable" by Philip K. Dick, the protagonist is a man who can communicate with spiders. At one point, after fighting off a home invasion by an army of ants, the protagonist is seated at his desk, armed and despairing, when a spider drops by to talk to him.

The spider slid down beside him onto the desk top. "Sorry. Hope you aren't frightened, as in the poem."

What does this line mean? Is there some famous poem about a man being frightened by a spider landing beside him, or by facing an invasion of ants? If so, is the spider actually supposed to be familiar with literature?

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    Yes, the HNQ from SFF SE motivated this question too. :) – user5387 Jul 9 at 12:33
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    Congratulations on your HNQ too :-) – Rand al'Thor Jul 9 at 20:43
8

It could be a reference to the classical nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

This was what immediately came to my mind on seeing "spider", "beside", and "frightened" in the same sentence. It's a fairly well-known children's poem, I think (at least in the UK - not sure about the US where Philip K. Dick grew up).

As for whether the spider's supposed to be familiar with literature ... I suspect we aren't supposed to overthink this one. It's a short story, and spiders are depicted as intelligent sentient beings, part of a great war between species. Making a spider character refer to literature helps to emphasise that effect, if you can suspend your disbelief enough not to wonder why spiders would (or could) read human poetry.

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    Yes, it's well-known in the US. At least among old fogies such as myself. I'd assume that the kids know it today, also. – NomadMaker Jul 9 at 22:00
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    Well-known among kids today in Canada too (well, the ones I know in Victoria and Vancouver, BC). – Torsten Schoeneberg Jul 10 at 16:59
14

Mother Goose, in fact.

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

It has the spider, the fright, and being Mother Goose, the pop-cultural awareness for the reader to recognize.

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