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Anne of Green Gables | Chapter 1 : Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Surprised | Summary

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Summary

In a small Canadian town, Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island, Mrs. Rachel Lynde is sitting at her window keeping an eye on everyone who walks by. Mrs. Lynde, a well-known town leader, is also a well-known, though kindly, busybody. One June morning she's startled to see Matthew Cuthbert, in his best clothes, driving his horse and buggy out of town.

Matthew is a shy, retiring man, and Mrs. Lynde can't figure out where he's going. He never visits people, he wouldn't be traveling to town this time of year, and he's not driving fast enough to be on his way to the doctor. Matthew and his sister, Marilla, live in a nearby house, Green Gables; Mrs. Lynde decides to pay Marilla a call after tea and find out what's going on.

Marilla Cuthbert, Matthew's younger sister, is prim, severe, and withholding—"a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves." Without preamble she tells Mrs. Lynde she and Matthew have decided to adopt a boy from the orphanage in Nova Scotia; Matthew is on his way to meet the child at the train station.

Mrs. Lynde is stunned. Marilla and Matthew are the least likely people she can imagine taking in a child. Marilla explains the pair hope to find a boy who can be "trained up proper." They'll give him a home and a good education; in return, he can help around the farm. Marilla adds she's been doubtful about this venture, but Matthew is "terrible set on it."

Mrs. Lynde issues dire warnings. Why, she's heard of an orphan girl who poisoned her entire adoptive family! Marilla replies, "I'd never dream of taking a girl to bring up." Mrs. Lynde reflects gloomily as she pities any orphan who comes Green Gables. It's no place for children.

If Mrs. Lynde had any idea who was actually waiting for Matthew, "her pity would have been still deeper."

Analysis

This is an unusual opening chapter for a children's book. The reader begins the story knowing Anne is the protagonist of the story; What's this busybody doing here instead? Why is Mrs. Lynde paying so much attention to an anonymous and uninteresting-sounding man who drives past her window and isn't seen for the rest of the chapter? Matthew Cuthbert doesn't seem very appealing! And hard-nosed, unaffectionate Marilla Cuthbert is frankly unappealing.

One reason Montgomery sets up the story in this way is to make it clear what an unwelcoming environment awaits Anne. Not only is Green Gables an uncomfortable place for a child, but the child the Cuthberts are expecting is not the child they are getting. Knowing these facts heightens suspense and creates sympathy for Anne from the beginning.

Because Marilla, Matthew, and to a degree Mrs. Lynde will be responsible for Anne's upbringing, Montgomery uses Chapter 1 to establish their characters before Anne arrives on the scene. Although the three have their own quirks, they are all tolerant and kindly underneath rougher exteriors. Matthew may be pathologically shy, but he's "terrible set" on adopting a child. Marilla's grimness is softened by a "saving something about her mouth," hinting at a sense of humor. And Mrs. Lynde, for all her bossiness, is sincerely worried about the plight of any child who comes to live at Green Gables.

Finally, readers will see the town of Avonlea is treated almost like another character. Keeping characters to a minimum here allows Montgomery to focus on details about the town.

  • It's a bustling town whose activities are likely to involve more women than men (the Sewing Circle, Sunday school, Church Aid Society, and Foreign Missions Auxiliary). Three out of four of Mrs. Lynde's pursuits are religious, suggesting Avonlea's social life revolves around church—typical for a small North American town at the turn of the 20th century.
  • There's not much privacy in Avonlea. Mrs. Lynde knows Matthew is supposed to be sowing turnip seed; Marilla Cuthbert knows Mrs. Lynde has dropped in to find out where Matthew is going, though Mrs. Lynde feigns concern about Marilla's health; Mrs. Lynde knows the Cuthberts well enough to fear it's a bad idea for them to adopt an orphan.
  • Avonlea's natural setting is beautiful but remote: a peninsula on an island, and the main road passes Mrs. Lynde's house. The town is so rural even people from the neighboring province, Nova Scotia, are considered foreigners.

Finally the reference to Marilla's "bad headache" foreshadows plot developments toward the end of the novel.

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