Anne of Green Gables: radical love activist

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m currently re-reading the Anne of Green Gables series, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (on my last trip home to Sydney, I read the entire Twilight series, so this is a vast improvement). I’m about half-way through Anne of the Island, the third book. Anne is eighteen and has spent the last two years teaching at the little Avonlea schoolhouse. Now, she’s leaving Avonlea to go to college, the first Avonlea girl to do so. Her best friend Diana, who is staying in Avonlea, is engaged, and Anne is going off to college with two young Avonlea men, both of whom are vying for her affections.

The more I read of Anne, the more grateful I am that I was exposed to her as a child. I was a weird, precocious little kid with an overactive imagination and an absurd taste for the romantic. Anne, who is even more precocious and as has an even more active imagination, made me feel normal – maybe even a little boring by comparison.

I’m also grateful because Anne is a headstrong, intelligent, hardworking, fiercely loyal, good-hearted girl. By the end of the series, she’s about as educated as a young Canadian woman could be at the turn of the century, and she’s passionate about learning and about teaching. What a gift, then, to have been exposed to her as a young girl. Anne is smart and unafraid of showing it. She’s bold. She loves deeply. She values herself, and others, for who they are rather than what they look like or how much money they have. As far as fictional heroines go, I couldn’t have asked for better as a young girl.

But what strikes me most when I read Anne now – what I somehow failed to notice when I read her all those years ago – is how incredibly lonely she is. She’s described, in the first book, as “love-starved,” and there really isn’t a better word in the world to describe her when we first meet her. When I was a child, my imaginings were for entertainment. Anne’s imaginings – her make believe friends, and the way she immerses herself in poetry and novels – are a survival mechanism.

When we meet her, at age eleven, she has led a difficult life. Orphaned as a newborn, she was sent to live with a series of families who viewed her as a burden or as hired help. By age eleven, she has helped to raise three sets of twins. She has survived this terribly lonely existence by making up imaginary friends and by scrounging up beauty from everyday things that other people barely notice – trees, words, anything from which a drop of pleasure can be squeezed. She is deeply, desperately lonely. She has no memory of ever being loved, by anyone.

And yet, she knows, instinctively, how to love and be loved. She knows what a better, warmer, kinder world looks like, even though she has never experienced it. She can imagine having a best friend, or a mysterious and handsome beau, or a mother figure who can love her unconditionally, even though the world has never given her reason to hope for any of these things. She has never known love, and yet, she grows into a woman who can give and receive it in every possible form.

It is this trait that makes Anne so very remarkable, and, in my view, a model for those of us who work for social justice. Anne is capable of turning pain into beauty, and injustice into love. She is able to imagine a better world. More than that, she views it as her duty and her delight to create that better world, through teaching and learning or even, simple though it might sound, through treating people with kindness and empathy and love. The question of whether Anne is a feminist remains for another post – and oh yes, I’ll get to it soon – but there can be no doubt that she is, in her own quiet way, an activist. She believes in the possibility of a better world and is determined to do her part to create it. Like I said, as far as fictional heroines go, I really could not have asked for better.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted April 1, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Beautiful post, it makes me want to re-read Anne of Green Gables. Can’t wait for your post on whether or not you consider her a feminist.

  2. Posted April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Great post! I loved reading all the Anne books growing up. I’m so glad to hear they hold up for a more mature reader. Maybe I can share them with my own kids some day.

  3. Posted April 1, 2011 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Very interesting (and seemingly obvious – how did I not notice it before?!) observation about Anne being lonely. I feel somewhat like Anne these days, and must remember to take a page from her own notebook – to turn ” pain into beauty, and injustice into love.” After all… can this not be considered the mission of Feminism?

  4. Posted April 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    That was one of my most FAVE EVER books growing up! Sadly, the author, L.M Montgomery killed herself. She suffered from depression, but no one talked about it.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/story/2008/09/22/pe-montgomery-suicide.html

    • Posted April 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Oh my God! I know like Anne, she was love-starved only that instead of a benevolent Matthew and Marilla, she lived with two stern grandparents that hardly shown any affection and she had a distant father whom she’d hardly seen. She was also in a marriage without passion, I think the theme of lovestarving made it into her works. Only that there are happy endings for her characters. I think it spoke about her wishes for her life. She wrote a novel called “The Blue Castle” about a young, sad, single woman named Valancy that lives with a family that doesn’t appreciate her much and taught her to be passive and subserivent to others, also they chose how she should dress. Then one day she recieves a letter telling her she has a heart condition and won’t live for another year. That’s when she decides to take charge of her life and to do things her way. Moving out to help an unwed mother and her elderly and misunderstood father, restyling her hair to the chagrin of her relatives, wearing an awesome light green dress with a red corset on top, sassing back to pompous relatives that always kept her under their thumb, marrying a man that they don’t approve of, talking back to her community’s ideas of elitism and sexism, then finally gets the news that her condition was a mix-up. In other words, it’s just what she needed. Let’s not forget that Anne helped others with love issues and with finding their own voices. In the second book, she teaches a Davy Keith how to treat others and how to respect other peoples’ feelings, third book she turns down a bethrothal of a boy that as Frankie Valli sang “you only love me out of pity,” fourth book is where she teaches a forlorn woman how to love and to shown her love and she shows love to a lonely little girl living with stern women that never shown her affection. These are many examples of how important loving and being loved is in the novels. I can picture Anne Shirley volunteering at some homeless, battered womens shelters and helping abused and neglected children right now.

  5. Posted April 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see the Anne-love is still flowing. Looking forward to further articles! And you’ve made me wonder how the books would read to me now, as opposed to how they read when I was young. I think I’ll have to go see what the used bookshop has in stock for the Anne books.

  6. Posted April 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I LOVED these books when I was growing up and now I know why. I had a very similar upbringing to Anne (except I never found the stable family) and I had a very similar disposition and imagination. However, I never actually thought about why I was so drawn to her. Thank you for this post.

  7. Posted April 1, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I, too, devoured the Anne of Green Gables books as a child. Here was a girl with her own insecurities (that hair! those freckles!) but her own *everything else* too–her own dreams, her own mind, her own passions, her own way of speaking truth to power. She was a glorious heroine to me as a girl. I anxiously await your feminist reading of Anne Shirley.

  8. Posted April 1, 2011 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    AHHHHHHH! The Anne Shirley (and Emily Starr and Valancy Crawford and and and) love knows no bounds in my memory and imagination. Those books were just what I needed to get through childhood. I still re-read them every year and get this, my 10-year-old son enjoys them too. It was so important to me that Anne and especially Emily were writers. In fact I wrote my senior honours thesis at Queen’s University (not quite the same one Anne attended) on Emily of New Moon! Thank you so much for this post.
    Lisa
    http://sisterarts.typepad.com/sister-arts-gardens-po/

    • Posted April 3, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      I also attended Queen’s (but for my undergrad) and am looking at a Master’s (hopefully focusing on LMM)! I love this post but I just wanted to say that I love that your comment mentions Valancy Stirling as she is often forgotten in the LMM love. :)

  9. Posted April 3, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    I am LOVING this series! :)

    I continually hear people referring to the Anne books as a happy children’s series full of fanciful imaginations — and nothing more. This has always struck me as ridiculous and confusing, and I guess it’s because I’ve always found the books to be… depressing, I suppose, as beautiful and wonderful as they are. Even as a child (and maybe this is because I was always a very emotional person, even when I was young), I never thought that Anne was happy or even simple to understand — she had a difficult and, yes, depressing life.

    All that being said, this piece was a welcome addition to the opinions on Anne. Thank you for it.

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