For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realizing that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardly on this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.
Coming-of-age novels changed drastically over the course of the 20th century. At the time of Anne of Green Gables and its contemporaries, coming-of-age was driven primarily by inward character. There was maturity to be gained, sacrifice to be made, courage and integrity to learn. Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls and the March sisters were all followed from their youth to adulthood (including marriage and children) and yet these novels were all meant for families to share and mothers could and still do read them to children of all ages, awaiting only the necessary degree of patience to become a bonding exercise for the whole family. Maturity in these stories did not come with “viewer discretion advised.”
As the 20th century arrived in full, children became an independent audience in the book market as youth culture grew and thrived. If they had questions they might not wish to ask their parents, they could look for answers in books and this, along with loosening restrictions on what could be said in print, ushered in the era of Judy Blume. Coming-of-age was now linked to puberty, sexuality and managing depression (or, as of the 2007 publication of Thirteen Reasons Why, succumbing to it). Transitioning to adulthood has become physical, chemical, literal. Margaret menstruates (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, 1970), Melinda gets raped (Speak, 1999), Lyra and Will play Adam and Eve (The Amber Spyglass, 2000). The quality of the books might stay the same but the stories are no longer meant to be shared outside of their target age group. Parents can discuss the issues raised with their 14-year-old but not with their 9-year-old because the books aren’t meant for them. “Family” books are for the very young and after that everything is compartmentalized by topic and age: middle grade, young adult, new adult. Where does Anne of Green Gables fit into this continuum? No one really knows because that continuum didn’t exist when L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) wrote it.
Anne of Green Gables (1908) begins as the kind of orphan story rather typical for the era: The Cuthberts of Green Gables, an unmarried brother and sister, send away for an orphan boy to help them on the farm and get sent an eleven-year-old girl by mistake. Unable to bring themselves to send her back to the orphanage they set themselves the task of bringing her up properly. In return the lovable orphan warms their hearts and charms the whole town. However, the plot soon ceases and is replaced by life in all its vagaries and the chapters follow the incidents of Anne’s youth: from being afraid of a haunted wood to getting her best friend drunk (quite by accident) to discovering a passion for schooling and finally to death and grieving. And Anne grows up.
I never read Anne of Green Gables when I was little (my orphan of choice was Sara Crewe) but reading it as an adult its appeal is obvious. Imaginative children would find it easy to identify with Anne, as she has enough flaws to balance out as a relatable character: a girl whose imagination preserves her soul in dreadful circumstances and also gets her into ridiculous scrapes; who only gets out of said scrapes by her good character (apologising when she’s wrong and standing up for herself when maligned). She’s charming, funny, hard-working, honest and clever – a role model, in other words, but never a goody-two-shoes. She nearly drowns reinacting the Lady of Shalott, she appalls surrounding adults with her temper and she has a disastrous tendency to drift off at critical household moments leaving ruined dinners in her wake. Marilla Cuthbert waits patiently for each new disaster to unfold and after a while can even sense when one’s getting overdue. Anne is not an easy child to raise and that keeps the novel grounded.
A strong secondary appeal is Montgomery’s romantic depiction of Avonlea, a rural paradise in a corner of Prince Edward Island where everyone knows everybody else, the four seasons march in beautiful parade and the hard shells of the stuffiest individuals can be melted away by an open-hearted little girl. The children of Avonlea welcome spring by gathering mayflowers and singing as they march down the country lanes.
Everyone is Christian (the arrival of a new minister is a great local event) and yet the children, especially Anne, have a touch of the pagan about their outdoor roving and wreathing:
All the boys and some of the girls went to Mr. Bell’s spruce grove as usual, fully intending to stay only long enough to “pick a chew.” But spruce groves are seductive and yellow nuts of gum beguiling; they picked and loitered and strayed; and as usual the first thing that recalled them to a sense of the flight of time was Jimmy Glover shouting from the top of a patriarchal old spruce, “Master’s coming.”
The girls, who were on the ground, started first and managed to reach the schoolhouse in time but without a second to spare. The boys, who had to wriggle hastily down from the trees, were later; and Anne, who had not been picking gum at all but was wandering happily in the far end of the grove, waist deep among the bracken, singing softly to herself, with a wreath of rice lilies on her hair as if she were some wild divinity of the shadowy places, was latest of all. Anne could run like a deer, however; run she did with the impish result that she overtook the boys at the door and was swept into the schoolhouse among them just as Mr. Phillips was in the act of hanging up his hat.
The pastoral joys of Avonlea are pure and unspoiled but Montgomery tempers the considerable sweetness with doses of narrative sarcasm, with the natural results of letting the children run wild (they play ‘dare’ so vociferously that someone finally lands on a broken ankle – no surprise who) and with the inevitability of death. But most other misfortunes are comical or else relegated to Anne’s mostly unspoken past. This is above all a cheerful book.
And then there are the morals. This is where I’m going to part way with many readers who, if GoodReads and internet retrospectives are anything to go by, are exasperated by Anne’s decisions in life, especially in the later books when she becomes a “dull matron.” Indeed, most of Anne’s choices and Marilla’s teachings are at odds with the advice given to modern Western girls. Case in point: Anne’s own identity. Anne, like many girls her age, is terribly self-conscious. She hates her red hair and wishes she had raven tresses and a dramatic, elegant name like Cordelia to go along with them. Where a modern free spirit would simply insist she’d been given the wrong name, Anne learns to love being Anne of Green Gables and leaves Cordelia to the realm of make-believe. However, she does purchase hair dye from a passing peddler – hoping for black hair it instead turns a hideous bronzy green that won’t wash out. Marilla has to hack it all off while chiding Anne over her vanity and the lesson is learned: “I never thought I was vain about my hair, of all things, but now I know I was, in spite of its being red, because it was so long and thick and curly.” Anne then learns to appreciate her features – it’s a genuinely good example of much-heralded “body positivity” in a culture that can now peddle its green hair dye openly.
Consider also the layers of meaning to Marilla and Matthew deciding to keep Anne. Anne does not ever attempt to be the farm boy they sent for and Marilla doesn’t require any help around the house so Anne is given no outlet to “earn” her keep. On the other hand, the Cuthberts never officially adopt Anne – though they grow to love her, neither of them wants to become a parent at the outset. Marilla expects a certain standard of behaviour from Anne but that’s as far as her wants go. Anne is therefore established as superfluous to their well-ordered needs and yet they might be good for her and so she stays. They sacrifice for her sake.
And then comes the end of the novel.
Anne has won a coveted scholarship and is going away to college, living the dream, when Matthew tragically passes away. Marilla, whose eyesight is failing, cannot afford to maintain Green Gables and so Anne resolves to postpone higher education and become a local schoolteacher instead. “I’m just as ambitious as ever. Only, I’ve changed the object of my ambitions.” She chooses home and family over career, directly foreshadowing her future (depicted in the seven sequels) as a married mother of six and dismaying many modern readers in the process. “Anne should never have grown up to become a conformist” says Jack Zipes in his introduction to the Modern Library edition, strongly implying she shouldn’t have grown up at all. What was she expected to do in this situation? Peck Marilla on the cheek as she dropped her off at a nursing home? “Bye, you’ll literally never see me again!” Would that have made her a greater heroine?
Zipes also quotes another children’s scholar, Perry Nodelman, who says that in the wholesome orphan stories of yore “childhood never really ends, the most childlike children never really grow up, and even terminally mature people can become childlike again. It is the secret desire of grownups to be children again that makes these novels so appealing to grown-ups, and it may be the secret desire of children to never grow up that makes these novels appealing to them.” That’s a lot of secret desires right there (are you sure you’re not projecting, Perry?). If children don’t want to grow up why do they consistently prefer their heroes to be older than themselves? You would think that there would be far more stories like Peter Pan if Nodelman’s theory was correct but in fact immortal children are vastly outnumbered by the other kind. And doesn’t becoming an orphan in fact destroy childhood, a la Sara Crewe in the attic or Harry Potter under the stairs? Why do the Pevensies get shut out of Narnia? Why does Travis shoot Old Yeller? For the same reason that Anne gives up her hard-won scholarship. Good children’s literature is about growing up, about surviving, because childhood is supposed to end. It has to. Anne of Green Gables is a particularly affectionate roadmap to that process, in all its sweetness and melancholy.
And so the Parental Guide.
Anne of Green Gables is a Christian novel. Anne arrives at Green Gables and is first of all taught to pray and attend Sunday school. Although Anne has had no education in these matters she admires God’s word (as much for its poetry as anything else) and she covets a friendship with the minister’s wife. Although she is irreverent at times her questioning never leads her anywhere near atheism.
This is a story of the woman’s sphere of life and so Montgomery gives Anne a number of good role models as she matures: Marilla, with her sense of justice and well-bestowed sarcasm; the schoolteacher Miss Stacy, who holds nature studies and inspires her students; Mrs. Allen the minister’s wife who shows Anne that religion can be a “cheerful thing” and even Mrs. Lynde, the town gossip, has plentiful good advice and a kindly, if somewhat officious heart. The men are somewhat more flawed, making them feel more well-rounded than all save Anne and Marilla. Matthew shuns difficult decision-making and has no financial acumen but he has a good heart and won’t back down from his principles. Gilbert Blythe starts out as an obnoxious classmate but grows up to be quite the gentleman and scholar, and is the soul of chivalry when Anne needs it most.
Matthew dies of a heart attack at the close of the novel, and although it is lightly foreshadowed it may come as a bit of a shock considering how rosy the rest of the book is. Anne’s dismal past is handled very circumspectly and the dare game culminating in a broken ankle is as “violent” as the story gets.
Naturally there is no diversity to be seen. Prince Edward Island is so thoroughly sequestered from the world that Marilla shudders at the thought of acquiring a British orphan: “Give me a native born at least. There’ll be a risk, no matter who we get. But I’ll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born Canadian.” There’s a strong sense throughout the book of Canadian identity and local pride in Avonlea.
Reading level would probably be called advanced and would certainly require and teach patience to a listener used to the pacing of modern books. Long considered an excellent read-aloud, it would be perfect for traditionalist parents to share with their daughter.