Exhausted from an afternoon soccer game, fifth-grade me slipped into my bed, trailing my fingers across the spine of the novel my mother had given me: Anne of Green Gables. She’d assured me that it was a classic — a read that was indispensable for a young woman. I remember raising my eyebrows, dubious that the “old-fashioned” language within would have an impact on me, as I’d somewhat close-mindedly considered the characters inside to seem antiquated. My perception of female life in the 19th century was limited at that point to my understanding of the circumscribed roles women were expected to play. In actuality, this story pleasantly surprised my young self.
Years later, I recall my first read with a particular sense of fondness at the sheer innocence of it. The plot of Anne of Green Gables is fairly straightforward, chronicling an orphan, Anne Shirley, who is adopted by two siblings to live in their home of Green Gables in the town of Avonlea. Fifth-grade me adored the main character, with her flourishing imagination and bountiful dreams. Anne distinguishes herself as a vibrantly intelligent redhead who talks incessantly, deriving a question and thought about every leaf and riverbank. To accentuate her independence, L.M. Montgomery’s characterization of Anne is in direct contrast to the more conservative views of the women in her town, such as the traditional Mrs. Rachel Lynde. In asking questions such as, “‘Why can’t women be ministers, Marilla? I asked Mrs. Lynde that and she was shocked and said it would be a scandalous thing… I don’t see why. I think women would make splendid ministers’” (Montgomery 243), Anne portrays a profound fearlessness in a time period when womanhood was largely confined to domesticity. She talks back, challenges her male classmates, and throws copious effort into her schoolwork – imperfect, yes, but charmingly daring and disruptive of gender norms. As a young girl with the world ahead of me as well, I was enraptured by her imagination, spirit, and fearlessness. I pledged myself to surprise those around me, working to achieve the full potential that I envisioned. If Anne could defy the expectations of her time, I could do anything. Right?
Eight years later, as an 18-year-old, I closed the pages of Anne of Green Gables with a pounding sense of disappointment and the recognition that it had not ended as I’d remembered. Chapter after chapter documenting Anne’s academic success and pursuits to attend Redmond College, which is just within reach, end in the last thirty pages with a series of challenges and an acknowledgment that she will forgo higher education. Anne’s decision to stay at home, as well as her implied romance with her former rival Gilbert Blythe, is representative of the overwhelming power of female expectations. Her victorious win of the Avery Scholarship had provided her with the opportunity to combat those norms and to prove those such as Mrs. Lynde wrong, but alas, she chooses not to. I am not one to lament true love, but it is still disappointing to see this trailblazer, this girl with a fierce imagination and propensity to rebel against the boundaries in her life, regressing into the traditional female archetype. Many of the residents in her town approve of Anne’s decision – Mrs. Lynde, for instance, insists, “‘I was real glad to hear it. You’ve got as much education now as a woman can be comfortable with’” (Montgomery 296). The realization sets in that Mrs. Lynde has won. The life she’d expected for Anne, the “comfortable” one, ultimately happens, and it is bitter to come to terms with. What happened to questioning why women couldn’t be ministers? How could those dreams have withered away so abruptly?
Perhaps my greatest qualm with the ending is that I see myself in Anne. For my entire childhood, high school had been the ending point I’d anticipated with vigor. In the summer after middle school, I planned out the clubs I’d join, the friends I’d make, and the experiences I’d have, penciling them into my planner with insistence. Yet, when I stepped onto campus, I was plagued with anxiety that was suffocating, rendering me nearly unable to function. It was a startling realization – that everything I’d worked towards could crumble at my fingertips due to my own self-doubt. The anxiety surrounding school ceased with time, but my fears have not. Reading my childhood diary in the same room I first read Anne of Green Gables, I question whether I will make that bright-eyed, ambitious child proud. I see myself in Anne, who represents every individual who has attempted to break a personal or societal standard. Could my own anxieties cause a similar regression? Could I fall into a “comfortable” life, or fail to test my limits? On the brink of a major life transition, could everything be curtailed due to an inability to complete my goals?
Now, I will not sit here as a young woman living in the twenty-first century and claim that Anne is a failure due to her inability to be the champion of feminism. I will also not suggest that choosing to marry and settle down is an unsuitable choice. I recognize that it was unbelievably difficult to be an educated woman in the 19th century. Still, I envision something in Anne that is ahead of her time, and she is getting there until she backtracks somewhat suddenly. Why, L.M. Montgomery? Why would you build up a story of defiance and fortitude and endearing potential just to end it like that? Why are there pages after pages documenting Anne’s goals and successes, just to sear us with disappointment? It mirrors my frustrations with myself. Why would I work so hard for something that could crumble? How can I protect myself from regression out of fear?
As disappointing as the ending of Anne of Green Gables is, it is both realistic and representative of the nature of life, in which challenges may never be completely surmounted and a story may not end as one expects. Anne’s story is not tied into the perfect bow that I desired for her — college and defiance of those like Mrs. Lynde. Rather, it takes the path of a romantic relationship, eventual motherhood, and acceptance of the life she once resented — perhaps safer, and less shiny, but still a lifestyle. My life is no perfect bow, and I face the fact that I also at times fall short of my own expectations for myself. I face moments of self-doubt that will likely always be there, especially as I face bends in the road. On the final page of her story, it is bittersweet to see Anne noting that her “horizons had closed in… but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it” (Montgomery 299). In acknowledging the “quiet flowers” on the “narrow[ed]” path before her, Anne’s fearlessness has simmered away, replaced with the acceptance that she will find a measure of joy in her new circumstance. It is heartbreaking to see her fine with “quiet flowers.” How could she give up on the boisterous daisies and roses that were once so close in reach? Walking with Gilbert down the path in Avonlea, the once star-studded depth of her dreams tightens considerably, emblematic of her future endeavors. It is a resignation that burns deeply but is true to the experience of life.
My second reading of Anne of Green Gables provided me with the startling realization that Anne’s story is not a modern fairytale. Ultimately, she allows herself to be defined by the values and archetype of female achievement of that time period. I used to want to be Anne; now, I can view her story as a lesson for my own.