Anne of Green Gables | Study Guide

L. M. Montgomery

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Anne of Green Gables | Symbols



Brooks wind their way through the whole of this book and represent Anne's fluidity and transformation. Chapter 1's paragraph-long first sentence twice mentions the brook that passes Mrs. Rachel's house. It's "intricate" and "headlong" at its source in the woods, with "dark secrets of pool and cascade." But by the time the brook reaches the Lyndes' property, it flows tamely and has become "a quiet, well-conducted little stream." This is appropriate for a waterway overseen by Mrs. Rachel, who keeps an eye on everyone and everything. And the gradual taming of the brook in this first sentence foreshadows the way tempestuous little Anne Shirley will become calmer and steadier in the next five years.

Anne loves and attaches herself to brooks from the beginning. One of her earliest griefs is leaving behind some spindly, brook-deprived trees at the orphanage. She says, "With a brook not far away ... you could grow, couldn't you? But you can't where you are." Unconsciously she is referring to herself; like the trees she was parched for love and care and couldn't grow the way she should. She's therefore delighted to learn a brook runs below Green Gables.

On Anne's first morning at Green Gables, Marilla finds her staring out of the window, and says, "I can hear the brook laughing all the way up here. Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are?" She continues, "I'm so glad there's a brook near Green Gables. If there wasn't a brook I'd be HAUNTED by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be one." Again Anne is identifying with the brook. She needs the brook's liquid nourishment as much as the trees did back at the orphanage.

Another body of water—the pond at the Barrys' house, which somehow, conveniently, has a current—functions as a brook on the fateful afternoon when Anne and her friends decide to enact Tennyson's poem "Lancelot and Elaine." When Anne's boat begins to sink, chance brings Gilbert Blythe to rescue her. It's been hinted Anne and Gilbert will get together at some point, and this adventure moves them toward their inevitable union, even though, at the time, Anne still refuses to speak to Gilbert.

When Anne and Diana are 14, their teacher brings all the teenage girls in the school down to the brook, where they have what appears to be a discussion about the facts of life. Anne reports to Marilla that Miss Stacy "said we couldn't be too careful what habits we formed and what ideals we acquired in our teens." Presumably sex education isn't discussed overtly, but the message is clear: the brook is where the girls begin to think about growing up.

As if to underscore this point, Montgomery titles Chapter 31 "Where the Brook and River Meet." The title is a line from a 19th-century poem "Maidenhood" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is the relevant stanza: "Standing, with reluctant feet, Where the brook and river meet, / Womanhood and childhood fleet!" Anne is meant to be the reluctant-footed maiden passing from childhood to womanhood. The brook is merging with the river.

Romantic Language

Even at 11 Anne loves lush, romantic language. When she first meets Matthew, she cheerfully tells him if he hadn't turned up, she would have been fine spending the night in a cherry tree. "I wouldn't be a bit afraid," she says, "and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don't you think? You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls, couldn't you?" It's a rare 11-year-old who talks in this elevated way (and an even rarer one who's familiar with the 1843 song "I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls"). Anne has, in fact, been worried no one would meet her at the train station and has concocted this fantasy to boost her courage. For Anne elevated language is protective: it helps her escape from situations in which she feels deprived and lonely.

The romantic language and fantasies culminate with the boat episode and Anne's rescue by Gilbert. Ruefully she tells Marilla, "Today's mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic ... Romance is not appreciated now." She means she no longer appreciates it herself. Anne's reliance on fantasy has embarrassed her in the real world. Her very unromantic practicality is what has kept her from drowning, and being saved by real-life Gilbert feels far more awkward than being saved by a storybook hero. For Anne romance is not as useful as it once was.

A few years later Anne tells Marilla she no longer feels the need to use "big words." She and her friends have disbanded the story club where they once used overblown rhetoric to tell ridiculously romantic tales. "It was silly to be writing about love and murder and elopements and mysteries," she says. For Anne, however, writing these stories wasn't silly; it was a useful escape. But she no longer needs fantasy to enrich a bleak life. She has a family and friends who love her. She has become self-confident and secure enough to be satisfied with reality.

Puffed Sleeves

Anne loves pretty clothes and longs to be fashionable, something that was impossible before she came to Avonlea. She confides to Matthew, "I've never had a pretty dress in my life that I can remember ... This morning when I left the asylum I felt so ashamed because I had to wear this horrid old wincey dress." The new clothes Marilla makes for her are a severe disappointment. Marilla can afford to make dresses with puffed sleeves, but she chooses not to because she doesn't want to encourage Anne's vanity. Puffed sleeves, she says, are a ridiculous waste of fabric; she wants Anne to look plain and sensible. Anne protests, "I'd rather look ridiculous when everybody else does than plain and sensible all by myself." But Marilla refuses to acknowledge the feelings underlying Anne's wish. To Marilla the plain dresses are a symbol of her own no-nonsense ways; to Anne, they mean once again she'll look like an outcast compared to other girls.

Matthew may be shy and inarticulate, but he notices and is troubled by Anne's drab appearance. "Surely it would do no harm to let the child have one pretty dress—something like Diana Barry always wore," he tells himself, vowing to give Anne a dress with puffed sleeves for Christmas. The gift has a double meaning for Anne. Now she'll be as well-turned-out as her friends; but even more important, now she realizes Matthew understands her enough to stand up to Marilla about clothes. Perhaps clothes don't matter to Marilla, but Matthew knows they matter to Anne, and his Christmas present validates her feelings as nothing else could. Now she won't look like an outcast around the other girls. And most significant, Anne has been shown she's a cherished member of the family. After this even Marilla comes to understand dresses with puffed sleeves are important.

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