Title: Anne of Green Gables
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Genre: Adventure, Read-Aloud, Chapter Book
Age Group: 10 and up, to be re-read at regular intervals!
One of my favorite things to do when I’m not feeling well or when it’s blizzarding out (or both) is to re-read childhood favorites. But they have to be stellar. Very few books meet my criteria. The ones that do are the ones I write about here, and Anne of Green Gables is definitely on the list.
As I was re-reading this treasure of a book, many thoughts were going through my mind. I’ll try to hit on a few of them — forgive me if they seem not to make up one coherent post!
Anne is an orphan girl who is delivered to Green Gables by mistake. Her adventures with sweet Matthew, dour Marilla, and all the characters she encounters in her new home keep the reader laughing, crying, and enjoying. Anne is a character all her own. She never stops talking!
Why is this book great, standing the test of time and beloved by adults and children alike?
First, a book about an orphan will always be pleasing to a child. With our adult way of looking at things, we get confused about archetypal meanings for children. Bruno Bettelheim* explains why the really satisfying children’s story must be about an orphan (even if it’s the case of one missing parent, not two — did you know that the word “orphan” encompasses this state as well?). You see, a child is hard-wired to love his parents, regardless of their frustrating behavior (the implications of this fact should give you hope, especially when you find his behavior frustrating). So in order to help him come to terms with whatever injustices or shortcomings he finds in those who ought to love him, the good story offers the spinster lady who has the child thrust upon her (and who can blame her for objecting?) or the stepmother who is downright cruel (and thus not an emotional threat if the child finds her unbearable). These categories have no relation to those in the real world. They simply represent the parent in a mode that can be dealt with, without jeopardizing the child’s hold on what he must cling to, his real father and mother.
Second, although its writing teeters along the high cliffs of insanity at times, its whimsicality rescues it from the trap of moralizing — yet moral it is. L. M. Montgomery has a unique mode of expression that enables her to take the reader right through real “tests of character” of her character. Sometimes Anne does right; sometimes she does wrong. Whatever the situation, Montgomery is careful to parse all the objective principles and extenuating circumstances: there’s a balance here that is refreshing. When I admonish you to be “warm and strict” with your children, it’s the world of Anne of Green Gables that inspires me.
Third, this book answers most definitively the completely unfounded accusation from feminists that before their revolution, girls had no role models, but suffered from a surfeit of wimpy, fainting, compliant female leads. If you don’t think that Anne, with her spunk, huge vocabulary, ambition, studiousness, large soul, and desire for excellence is a good role model, then you are deluding yourself. There are many such girls in the pantheon of children’s literature, but Anne is the archetype. If anything, one is hard put to find as many good role models for boys!
Fourth, when you read it you acquire that “secret language” that connects you with other lovers of Anne. “The red-headed snippet,” “kindred spirit,” “bosom friend,” and all the Anne-isms that show that you too are of “the race that knows Joseph.”
But there is more to this book in the context of our time. In the past, people in general understood how to raise children. Oh, they didn’t talk much about it, and of course many made even fatal, unforgivable mistakes, because that’s human nature; but for the most part, people understood that children develop along certain lines that oughtn’t to be opposed. Whatever shortcomings individuals had, the educational systems at large corrected by means of a body of literature and a standard of conduct for themselves. The collective memory, with all its lapses, was intact, and precisely served the raising of children to be healthy — psychologically healthy according to their sexual development in particular.
In today’s world, we consciously detach ourselves from the wisdom of the past. We’ve remade education. We have discarded indirect modes of education, preferring to stuff our little geese by force. A girl can’t be left to be a girl; a boy will be medicated right out of being a boy.
This came to mind as I was reading a rather sad post by a woman who seems confused about whether, in the end, there are really two sexes, meant for each other. As she struggled to express the ambiguity she sees in human nature, she revealed much about her childhood that indicates that perhaps she simply had the wrong kind of education.
By education here I don’t mean just what happens in school. No, I mean by education the whole project of bringing up the child. There are so many ways to fail: the task is dangerous — but known. Or used to be. The good sort of education in the broader sense takes great care to form the imagination, to fit it for the purpose it will serve: the ability of the person to see the unseen; ultimately to have faith and be able to follow a fulfilling vocation.
That so many young adults today have such a tenuous hold on their identity suggests to me that this experiment — the removal of the maps to navigate these waters of growing up — has failed.
It’s not that new things are being discovered about what it means to be a person, as so many would have us believe. Is that even possible?
It’s that old things were systematically purged and this is the result. (I wrote a bit about this in a post inspired by a quote from C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”)
Specifically, L. M. Montgomery carefully, with great delicacy and delight, navigates Anne through a friendship so intense (yet nearly universal among girls) that it could easily lead to disaster. As it is, it comes across as lighthearted and perfectly normal — so much so that you almost miss her cleverness. When Anne tells Marilla, “Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it? Diana and I are thinking seriously of promising each other that we will never marry but be nice old maids and live together forever,” we know that very soon both girls will move on to healthy and fulfilling unions with young men. We know because there is nothing to cast doubt on their innocence or the appropriateness of the friendship at their age — although I can easily imagine a 7th-grade class snickering their way through the dialogue today.
Is that loss of innocence progress, I ask you?
As I read the young lady’s post about sexual identity, I couldn’t help but wonder, as Edmund says about Eustace Scrubb, whether she has read the wrong sorts of books (if she reads at all). If, as is likely, her childhood was spent on the dreariness that passes for children’s literature, giving way to YA fiction that wallows in moral swamps, is it so unreasonable that she is unable to imagine a purpose for her body? And without imagination, how will she heal, short of a miracle? Ought we to indulge her confusion? Or rather determine to recover what is lost, so as to prevent a new generation from going the same way?
It’s Tolkien who tells us that fairy stories (of which adventures like the Anne books are a subset, somewhat earthbound, to be sure) offer us a great gift (one that points to the greatest gift of all): The joy of a happy ending.
I fear that children today are being robbed of that joy!
*I know that Bettelheim is a controversial figure these days. Nevertheless, his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales represents an important contribution to the study of children’s literature, offering psychological and developmental insight that represents a worthy compliment to Tolkien’s spiritual one (which can be read here) and Chesterton’s moral one (the chapter called “The Ethics of Elfland” in his great work, Orthodoxy.) I recommend Bettelheim’s book for any parent who wants to understand a child’s inner life, speaking in human terms, with C. S. Lewis’ caveat that of course, these things must never be explained to the child!