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Anne of Green Gables | Themes

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Looks Matter

Maybe Anne's red hair and freckles shouldn't matter, but they do—to her and other characters in this book. Maybe the plain, unfashionable dresses Marilla makes for Anne should be enough; after all they keep her warm and will last a long time. But even imaginative Anne can't fully convince herself they're pretty. And why should she? For both Anne and her creator beauty is important.

When Montgomery first describes Anne in Chapter 2, she starts with the negative. Anne is wearing a "very tight, very ugly dress"; she has very thick but "decidedly red" hair; her face is "small, white and thin, also much freckled." Montgomery concludes that these are the impressions an "ordinary observer" might glean. This suggests an extraordinary observer might look past these first impressions to see Anne's true beauty.

But no: the extraordinary observer will notice Anne's chin is "very pointed and pronounced"; her eyes are "full of spirit and vivacity"; and her mouth is "sweet-lipped and expressive." From this the discerning viewer will realize "no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child." True, a person's eyes might reveal a certain amount of character. But what do a pointed chin or sweet-lipped mouth reveal about her soul? A person may have a double chin or a thin, narrow mouth and still have a beautiful soul. What Montgomery means, despite her best intentions, is to look past the parts of Anne's appearance that don't matter—skimpy dress, red hair, freckles—to the parts that do matter: the better-looking ones.

Montgomery makes it clear Anne's hatred of her red hair and freckles is overwrought. But she also takes care to point out, after Anne's head has been shaved, her hair grows back darker. As for Anne's freckles, they start to disappear as she grows up.

Pretty clothes also matter in this book. Anne's overly plain first dresses make her self-conscious whenever she's around other little girls. A conventional author might have made Anne realize what's important is what's inside, not what we wear. But Montgomery realizes what we wear is also important. When Matthew compares Anne's dresses to those of her friends, he notices a difference "that should not exist." When Mrs. Lynde learns Matthew wants to give Anne a pretty dress for Christmas, she muses Marilla is probably trying to cultivate humility in Anne—"but it's more likely to cultivate envy and discontent. I'm sure the child must feel the difference between her clothes and the other girls'." Mrs. Lynde has raised 10 children, and she knows feeling ugly is not good for Anne. Anne herself is transported with joy when she sees the dress. It doesn't make her feel vain; it makes her want to be "a very good girl indeed."

After breakfast Anne gets a second Christmas present from Aunt Josephine—"the daintiest little kid slippers, with beaded toes and satin bows and glistening buckles." From that point on, Montgomery will provide luscious descriptions of many of Anne's clothes along with regular references to her starry eyes, lovely complexion, and other physical attributes. And why not? Montgomery loves description: of nature, of people, of clothes. She isn't saying appearances should matter. She's saying they do matter, which is the truth.

Honor the Authentic Self

When Anne arrives at the Bright River train station, she's a skinny 11-year-old in a skimpy, too-small orphanage dress. Her life has been a struggle since birth; she's had minimal education and training and even less love and support. Yet she stands to greet Matthew Cuthbert without a trace of shyness, holding out her hand to shake and speaking in a "peculiarly clear, sweet voice."

Anne tells Matthew she's been imagining all the things that might have happened to prevent his arriving—an understandable fear for a little girl in a strange place. But she adds if he hadn't come, she'd already decided what to do: she would climb the big cherry tree near the station and stay there all night. She asks, "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."

This would have been a confident choice for an 11-year-old who thought she'd been forgotten. And Anne tops off the fantasy with another fantasy: "You could imagine you were dwelling in marble halls." In other words, rather than casting yourself as a victim—which would have been completely understandable—you could pretend you were rich and powerful. Anne has no doubt Matthew would have arrived to get her in the morning—which is to say while she may have doubts, she's not giving in to them.

Anne doesn't know the Cuthberts want to adopt a boy. When Marilla tells her so, she bursts into tears. When Marilla lamely tells her there's no reason to cry, Anne makes no effort to control herself. Instead she pushes back, insisting on her right to her own emotions: "YOU would cry, too, if you were an orphan ... and found that they didn't want you because you weren't a boy." Next she insists on telling Marilla the correct spelling of her name. Even if she's going to be sent away, she wants to be seen, to know the essential aspects of her identity are acknowledged.

From time to time readers may question Anne's insistence on being her authentic self. She's an odd girl who speaks as if she learned English from romantic novels, has no self-consciousness, and shares everything she's thinking. She doesn't try to fit in with other children; she tries to stand out. Yet people take to her immediately—even children her age, who can be quite critical of differences. "I heard before that you were queer. But I believe I'm going to like you real well," Diana Barry says when the girls first meet.

If Anne is angry, she lets people know it. She angrily berates both Mrs. Lynde and Gilbert for commenting on the color of her hair. In Gilbert's case she stays angry for almost five years. About halfway through that period, however, Anne begins to realize she wishes the feud between her and Gilbert would end. Pride forces her to keep it going, but Anne feels increasingly sure she'd like Gilbert to be her friend. When she reaches out to Gilbert in the last chapter, it's because she knows she'd be false to herself if she were to let this chance of reconciliation pass her by.

Importance of Restraint

"You mean, hateful boy! How dare you!" Anne answers Gilbert Blythe's teasing, cracking her slate over his head. She's being true to herself. Nothing makes her angrier than having her red hair commented on. Still, hitting someone with a slate is an extreme reaction, one even an 11-year-old should avoid. The teacher's swift punishment humiliates Anne far more than Gilbert's taunting.

Although the reader is meant to enjoy Anne's overblown emotions and over-the-top actions, Montgomery inserts a moral whenever Anne goes too far. When Mrs. Lynde's remarks (again about Anne's hair) trigger an explosion of rage, Marilla sees to it Anne apologizes. When Anne decides she can't stand being a redhead any longer and dyes her hair, she realizes (accidentally) green hair is far worse than red.

When Anne is 15, Marilla comments she's quieter than she used to be. Anne answers, "It's nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one's heart, like treasures. I don't like to have them laughed at or wondered over." She adds her vocabulary has been trimmed by her teacher, Miss Stacy, who "makes us write all our essays as simply as possible." Miss Stacy's example has also made Anne close down the story club, whose members—under Anne's direction—reveled in writing melodramatic fiction. Anne remarks that Miss Stacy encourages her writing if she can only train herself to be "[her] "own severest critic."

Unfortunately for the reader Anne's decision takes much of the humor from the story. But it's clear Montgomery believes this is an age-appropriate change. From time to time adults in the book also learn to moderate their views or language. Mrs. Lynde apologizes for "twitt[ing]" Anne over her looks. Mrs. Barry realizes her harsh treatment of Anne is unfair. Even Marilla learns to think before reacting when Anne's behavior confounds her.

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