You can tell that the author has as much fun with Anne's antics as some of the characters do. Remember when Marilla figures out that Anne gave Diana wine instead of raspberry cordial? When she brings Anne the bottle, "Her face was twitching in spite of herself" (16.47).
Marilla has the urge to laugh…just like the author probably did when she was writing this scene.
But when it comes to Anne's feelings, the author gets it. She refuses to let Anne be a simple comic character, and often shows us that Anne's feeling are real. When Anne approaches Josephine Barry to apologize, she's described as "a white-faced girl whose great eyes were brimmed up with a mixture of desperate courage and shrinking terror" (19.78).
Anne really is afraid to apologize, and she's being brave. She's definitely more than just a silly child in this scene—and she's definitely more than just a stock orphan in this book. Which is probably why she crops up on a whole slew of Best Of lists (like The Atlantic's "The Greatest Girl Characters In Young Adult Literature" and why Mark Twain (yeah, that Mark Twain) called her "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice."
Which: dang. When Mark "I wrote Huck Finn " Twain is praising a child character…you best listen up.
Take one coming-of-age story, add a combo platter of romanticism and realism, plus a few teaspoons of additional comedy, and you've got Anne of Green Gables.
Anne's a romantic through and through—she loves reading the poetry of Romanticism by writers like Tennyson, and her relationship with nature is both spiritual and loving. But when set against the realism of day-to-day life and the no-nonsense mindset of all the other townsfolk of Avonlea… poof: you've got comedy. Marilla and Matthew (and most people in town) are the straight men to Anne's clown, and their dry responses to Anne's fanciful speeches provide the hilarity of this novel.
But of course, this story isn't just a comedy. It's mainly the story of how Anne grows up. Anne's tragic background is all too real to the time period—the fate of many orphan children in 19th Century Canada. And the tender moments in the novel change both Anne and the people who raise her.
By the end of the book, we see a very different Anne: an educated, accomplished adult who puts love first (remember, at the end she turns down a great job offer to stay with Marilla and save Green Gables). She's totally transformed by her earlier, growing-up episodes, which is what coming-of-age stories are all about.
So, Anne of Green Gables might seem like an obvious title, since the book is about Anne and how she grows up. But then, the title isn't Anne Shirley, so the "of Green Gables" part is key. The title is about belonging, something Anne craved so desperately before she arrived at Green Gables. On one of her first days in her new home, Anne says to her reflection in the mirror,
"But it's a million times nicer to be Anne of Green Gables than Anne of nowhere in particular, isn't it?" (8.57)
Good point, Anne. She's just leveled up in terms of her social class and resources. More importantly, though, belonging somewhere makes her feel better about herself.
Later in the story, when Josephine Barry demands to know who she is, Anne responds, "I'm Anne of Green Gables." (19.80) Anne's home and community have shaped her, so much that they have become part of her identity.
You might guess that a largely joyful story full of episodes that amuse, and that aren't life-and-death, would tie up neatly. Not so with Anne of Green Gables.
Matthew dies in the second-to-last chapter, and at the end, all the characters are still reeling from it. Their lives have changed, and Anne isn't off to college like she thought she'd be.
The book ends as it started, with quiet scenes: Anne makes up with Gilbert Blythe and then returns to the house. How fitting is it that the story ends with Anne looking out of her bedroom window? It matches the title, doesn't it? She's home, and whatever she goes through, she'll always have the experience of belonging somewhere, and having a family.
And, the narration reminds us, she has something else, something in her character that made her resilient, even before Green Gables: "nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams." (38.63)
Bottom line: Anne's going through some stuff, but she has a lot going for her. She's going to be a-okay.
Don't take it from us—just ask the title: the setting of Anne of Green Gables is crucial to this novel.
The country home and farm of Green Gables is set in the fictional village of Avonlea, which is said to be modeled after the rural community where the author was raised: Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Never heard of it? Don't feel too bad—the island's Canada's smallest province, north of Nova Scotia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Oh, and this is no modern country tale. Anne's story is set during the late 1800's. So the isolated P.E. Island was even more isolated.
Avonlea is all up in this story, so intertwined with every action and speech that without this community, there wouldn't be story left. For Anne, connecting with her new home means connecting with nature, and Prince Edward Island has a ton of nature to commune with, with hills, woods, cliffs, and the water that's always in the distance. Each page contains jealous-making descriptions of nature in every season, plus Anne's thoughts on every bit of environment she sees.
Avonlea is also tiny, with a one-room schoolhouse for all the children in town, and a hall and church, but no store. Everyone knows everyone's business, so if Anne does something as small as wear a flower crown to church, not only the do all the kids but also the adults know and have an opinion about it by the end of the day.
Also, because it's so small there aren't many different types of people…which makes Anne really stand out. There seem to be two social classes: "respectable" families like Marilla's and a serving class of French children who watch Avonlea children or act as cheap farm labor. Though not French, Anne would have been in that serving class, watching other women's children, if Matthew and Marilla hadn't decided to keep her.
Later in the book, the author zooms out and takes Anne to other towns, White Sands and the island's capital city of Charlottetown. It's only when she does this and readers are introduced to more types of people (wealthy townspeople and Americans who vacation on the island) we learn that to the rest of the world, Anne's just a poor farm girl. Anne feels so grateful and lucky up until that point that we think of her as a queen.
Hey, she's queen of the imagination, at least. Bow down, world.
Anne of Green Gables was written as story for all ages, and was only classified as children's literature later on. (Hmm. Wonder if that has something to do with the fact that kids from age eight to eighty love this book? Probably.)
Because of this, AOGG doesn't assume its readers need simple language. Montgomery's descriptions are detailed, and there are a lot of striking SAT words peppered in. And because the book was published in 1908, there are a few old-fashioned references and terms it might take a quick sec to understand. (Pro-tip: In this book, "dinner" means lunch.)
That said, Montgomery's writing's straightforward, so you don't have to do a lot of reading between the lines to figure out the nature of each character, or how they feel. So sure, it would help to know the name of every type of tree and flower on beautiful Prince Edward Island…but if you don't, it doesn't matter a whole lot.
After all, what matters most in the world of Ann(e) Shirley is being a bosom friend and a kindred spirit.
L.M. Montgomery ain't Hemingway. No; we don't mean that she's not a man. No; we don't mean that she's not rocking a luscious beard. We mean that where Papa's sentences are usually comprised of as few syllables as possible, L.M.'s are lush, long, and lingering.
Especially when it comes to her lengthy descriptions of the natural world of Prince Edward Island. She'll show you how exactly the sun looked through the trees or reflected in the stream. This level of precision is applied to people and social interactions as well. But when people are described, there's an added bonus of judgment. Take, for example, the description of a completely minor character named Billy Andrews:
"He was a big, fat, stolid youth of twenty, with a round, expressionless face, and a painful lack of conversational gifts." (33.29)
Ouch. As this character had no relevance to the plot at all, a different author might have written, simply, "Anne sat in the front of the carriage with her friend's brother" and left it at that. So why does L.M. Montgomery feel the need to judge poor Billy?
Avonlea's a place where not many big changes happen, so this book paints full scenes of ordinary life. Especially the details of human interaction, like what it's like to sit in the front seat with someone boring while all your friends are in the back.
The incisive description of each character pulls readers into the world, because it's so fully painted.
Juliet might be of the opinion that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Anne is exactly the kind of girl who would refuse to call a rose anything but a "petaled orb of gracious gorgeousness."
In short: Anne wants to re-name everything. Well, almost everything. She thinks the name of her new home, Green Gables, in Avonlea, is good to go. But she wants to rename everything else, from her own name to the names of beautiful places in town. Her obsession with language comes from reading a lot of books, and it's about wanting the names of places to reflect how beautiful they look.
We have to hand it to her; her place names are more evocative than the originals. Some highlights:
Anne doesn't stop at places. As for her own name, she'd like a re-do, please: "Cordelia" would make her feel more beautiful. If others (*cough Marilla cough*) refuse to humor her and call her by a different name, the "e" at the end of her own name becomes very important to her:
"It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can't you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished." (3.24)
When Anne hears a word, she sees the printed word in her mind, as if she's reading her whole life. No wonder words are so important to her.
Anne keeps her place-names throughout the story, and the narrator adapts them too. And why not? The names remind readers of Anne's big imagination, inject an extra dose of magic and wonder into the story, and point out what is important to our young leading lady.
Puffed sleeves, omg.
It's all Anne can think about when she imagines herself as different from the orphan she is in the beginning, wearing a too-tight wincey dress. If you're wondering what wincey looks like, here's a hint: you can't have wincey without the word "wince." It's a coarse, scratchy fabric, and if that isn't bad enough, we're told that Anne's dress is a cheap wincey, with a yellowish-gray color. So Anne starts out the book wearing the most awkward dress imaginable.
In Anne's imagination, puffed sleeves represent the opposite of what she's used to: a world of luxury. The sleeves are extra material, "big as balloons," (25.32) Marilla says. They're more than needed when, with her tight dress, Anne is used to less.
Too bad for Anne. Between her orphan dress and puffed sleeves comes a middle phase: the three dresses Marilla makes for her after the Cuthberts decide to keep Anne. They're a step in the right direction; they fit her. But Anne's not going to be in a fashion show anytime soon.
To Marilla, fashionable clothes represent sinfulness and vanity. To Anne, and to Matthew once he finally notices, they represent fitting in. Anne doesn't look like the other Avonlea girls until Matthew has a dress made for her with puffed sleeves. Marilla then relaxes her rules, making Anne fashionable dresses to avoid Matthew going behind her back to get them.
She seems to realize fashion isn't so morally damaging, either. When Anne thanks Marilla for putting a flounce on her dress, saying,
"I know I'll be able to study better because of mine. I shall have such a comfortable feeling deep down in my mind about that flounce." (31.9)
"It's worth something to have that." (31.10)
We see your point, Anne. Vain or not, it feels good to look good. And the time Anne spent getting all jelly of the other girls is now freed up for more important things.
And let's not forget that Anne dressing like the other Avonlea teens is another way she now fits in. More and more, she's becoming an accepted member of the community.
When Anne's hair is compared to anything, it's to carrots. Not to a raven, nor a chestnut or even a tree trunk, but a common farm vegetable that grows in the dirt. No wonder she gets so mad. (For more on why Anne gets ticked off, check out the "Appearances" theme.)
Anne's hair's a very loud, very colorful marker of her difference from everyone else in Avonlea. We don't meet a second redhead anywhere in the story—Anne's the only one. Anne thinks her hair makes her ugly, but she forgets that because of its difference, it makes her striking. She's someone you can't ignore; she's someone you don't forget.
When she recites at the White Sands concert, her friends hear an artist say,
"Who is that girl on the platform with the splendid Titian hair? She has a face I should like to paint." (33.44)
"Titian" means "red" or "auburn" (after that painter Titian, who loved him some redheads). So though her hair has turned to a prettier auburn now that she's older, it's retains some of its redness. Older Anne still stands out in a crowd.
If Anne grew up in the '60s, she'd be a total hippie. She's a flower child for sure, putting flowers in her hair and decorating her bedroom with them despite Marilla's disapproval.
And it probably comes as no surprise that chatterbox Anne talks about flowers a lot too—she likes to personify them, deciding that amethysts are "the souls of good violets" (13.23) and mayflowers are "the souls of the flowers that died last summer and this is their heaven" (20.2). The flower imagery continues as Anne grows up, and her friends place an iris in her hands when she pretends to be Elaine.
Because of the personality that Anne imagines into flowers, they often point readers to Anne's big imagination and her love of nature and beauty. Then there's their lifespan. Flowers bloom for a very short time—Anne often thinks about where their "souls" go after they wilt—so they can also be a reminder of something else that is short-lived: Anne's childhood.
When Anne is in the woods, that usually means it's buddy time. And it specifically means it's time for some Grade A Diane-bonding.
Between the woods that stand between their houses and the Birch Path they take to walk to school, the woods are Anne and Diana's extended lair.
It's where they have the freedom to talk about anything they want: gossip like "Ruby Gillis thinks of nothing but beaus" (26.7) and important things to children of their time, like "In four more years we'll be able to put our hair up." (26.7) There are no adults to tell them what to think or how to speak about their schoolyard topics.
The woods is also where they can imagine whatever they want—even if they decide to imagine the creepiest possible creatures, and turn their lair into a Haunted Wood. Hey—in the time before Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, that's what kids were forced to do when they wanted to terrify themselves.
There's only one road in Avonlea, so if any character's climbing into a horse and buggy, they're either travelling far enough either to visit the world beyond Avonlea or to return home—both exciting drives full of beautiful Prince Edward Island scenery.
The most epic of which is, of course, Anne's first journey home from the train station with Matthew. That's when we first meet Anne and the world she's about to enter, viewing the scenery through Anne's first-time eyes.
She calls a road Matthew has travelled many times,
"[…] the first thing I ever saw that couldn't be improved on my the imagination." (2.53)
It gives us a sense of the intense beauty and of Anne's excitement for what's coming.
Both the anticipation of adventure and the comfort of the landscape are emotions that go along with the road.
When Anne goes to sleep, the nature outside her window's almost always mentioned. Anne can see plenty of farm through her window, so even when she's inside, she always has a sense of the vast natural world that surrounds her home.
Know what else Anne can see through her window? Diana's bedroom window. (Yes: this is one of the reason that femslash writers love the Diana/Anne friendship.) The windows are their connections to each other when they aren't together. They even have a signal system where they pass cardboard over their candles to send each other messages—sort of like Morse code.
The final image in the book is also of what Anne sees in her window:
The wind purred softly in the cherry boughs, and the mint breaths came up to her. The stars twinkled over the pointed firs in the hollow and Diana's light gleamed through the old gap. (38.62)
Everything Anne sees is familiar, even friendly. Wind "purrs" like a cat, and the mint breaths travel to her. Lucky Anne—she gets to commune with nature from the warmth of her room.
We know that when it comes to the village of Avonlea, the Anne of Green Gables narrator is all-seeing because the story doesn't start with Anne…or even with the people who will become her family.
It starts with Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the town gossip, and a side character without a plotline of her own. The narration doesn't describe her objectively, either. It pokes fun at her, describing her all-seeing eye.
A bit like Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the narrator is an Avonlea insider, who knows every character in town. Proper names are dropped constantly, as if readers are supposed to know who they are (even if they haven't been mentioned before). This narrator plays favorites, too, usually describing Anne, Marilla, and Matthew with sympathy, but painting starker pictures of people like Ruby Gillis and Mr. Phillips.
A quiet, homey scene in a quiet town—a dude riding away mid-day; a woman visiting the man's sister to find out where the guy went. Mrs. Lynde's surprised when Marilla tells her they're planning to adopt an orphan boy, but Marilla's pretty chill about her plan. No problem...so far.
The fateful mix-up: Matthew and Marilla get a girl, which, in the late 19th Century, means they can't expect her to help with farm labor. They know they should send her away, but she seems so excited to have a home.
That's the initial conflict, but there are a lot of conflicts afterward. See, instead of a traditional plot structure, this book is episodic, and each episode Anne goes through—the standoff with Gilbert, the trouble with Diana's mother—have their own complications, mini-climaxes, and resolutions. There is one overarching climax, though, which is...
Everything was perfect, which was how we knew something bad was about to happen.
All the players in Anne's life were at her Queen's commencement, cheering her on and proud of her. And when they got back to Green Gables, Anne wished she were a boy so she could help Matthew more with his physical labor, and Matthew told her to remember that he'd rather have her than a dozen boys. Tissue, please.
Matthew dies of a heart attack the next day. More tissues, please?
Anne and Marilla don't even get a chance to grieve. They have to focus on how they're going to keep running the farm.
Anne solves that, and the question of how they'll survive the loss of Matthew, by refusing her scholarship, getting a renter for the farm, bringing in a teaching salary, and living with Marilla. Girl's getting things done.
Anne can definitely hold a grudge. She finally accepts Gilbert's apology for calling her "carrots" several years prior after he gives up his teaching position so she can have it. (What a guy.)
And they stand by Green Gables, talking for a half hour—the promise of a romance to come? The book ends with Anne looking out the window in her room.