Saturday, October 20, 2012

Anne of Green Gables

I have a riddle: who is a good-natured character with red hair and book sales of 300+ million worldwide? That's right, Ronald Weasley. As great as he is though, Ron is a Brit, and therefore unsuitable for this blog. This entry is about Anne of Green Gables – Canada’s favorite literary heroine. In beginning the Anne series of books in 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery put PEI on the map, and created a character that has won the hearts of readers across Canada and the world.

In my tour of Canadian literature, I knew that I had to read Anne’s story. But I felt sheepish at the same time (“This is a little girl’s story, right?”). In the opening chapters, my first impression of Anne confirmed my foreboding. When Matthew Cuthbert picks up Anne from the train station, she launches into her first of many, many monologues. In stream-of-consciousness fashion, she goes on about how glad she is and how beautiful the trees are and how everything is wonderful: “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive—it’s such an interesting world” (14). I groaned in my spirit. Here was a Canadian Pollyanna with red hair, inviting us all to play the glad game. “There are three hundred pages of this,” I thought to myself. “How am I going to finish?”

But finish I did, and in fact I’m glad to say that Anne grows on you after a while. She is an interesting character because, unlike her American counterpart Pollyanna, Anne has flaws. She has outbursts of temper and holds grudges. On her first day of school, Gilbert, one of the boys, calls her “carrots.” So naturally, she broke her slate over his head and vowed to hate him forever. After that, she didn’t speak to him for four years. Other incidents show her as impulsive and proud. These flaws add to her character and make her virtues palatable.

In my view, the heart of the book is not Anne herself, but the relationship between Anne and Marilla Cuthbert, her adoptive mother. At the novel’s beginning, Marilla is a woman of “narrow experience and rigid conscience,” both severe and moralizing. The narrator describes her as “always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible” (4). Enter Anne. The new arrival at Green Gables comes full of life and imagination, joy and love for nature. Anne’s presence brings out of Marilla a repressed sense of humour and enjoyment in life. By opening up her home to Anne, Marilla meets the little girl's deepest longings for a sense of home and family. And the novel brings their relationship full circle with Anne’s decision to forego her scholarship, allowing her to stay with Marilla so that she won’t have to sell Green Gables. From uncertain beginnings, the novel portrays their growth to sincere love and mutual dependence.

It didn’t take generations for Anne of Green Gables to become popular; PEI was inundated with tourists during Lucy Maud’s lifetime. Today, Anne's childhood haunts draw upward of 170,000 visitors each year. And I have to say that now, having read the book, I can see why they go.

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