Anne is quite an imaginative girl. The loves experiencing life and rejoices exuberantly in the trees and flowers and creeks and glens of the area. She imagines all sorts of romantic and fairy-tale situations, and if something is not going well for her (such as not having dresses with fashionable poofy sleeves), she imagines it away. She also wants to have a romantic sounding name, but Marilla will have none of that, so Anne she is, although Anne is very particular that it is Anne, with an ‘e'. Anne is always looking for kindred spirits, and finds one in Diana, who lives across the street. They become bosom friends and play for hours in outside in the beautiful places imaginatively christened by Anne.
Anne’s imagination tends to get her into all sorts of odd situations. Cooking is particularly problematic, since she wanders into a reverie and forgets something (flour in the cake, for instance). Of course, this somehow always seems to happen when company comes over... In addition to cooking, her imagination gets her into trouble when she and Diana imagine a piece of the woods to be haunted (“because it’s so romantic”). She imagines too well and is actually afraid; Marilla cures her by forcing her to walk through it at night.
A number of situations happen because of Anne’s propensity to speak what she thinks, particularly early on. When the town gossip, Mrs. Rachel Lynde, sees Anne for the first time, she comments to Marilla that Anne is not very pretty; too many freckles and hair red as carrots. Anne is already very self-conscious about her freckles and is convinced that her red hair means that she will never be beautiful, and she loses her temper. She storms up to Mrs. Lynde and retorts that she is a old, fat, insensitive woman (all rather true). Mrs. Lynde is, of course, insulted, and Marilla makes Anne stay in her room until she apologizes. This takes a day or so, because Anne cannot bring herself to apologize until she feels sorry, and she does not at all feel sorry. But eventually she realizes that she can give a romantic apology, and is so thoroughly contrite and humiliated that she enjoys it immensely (fortunately, Mrs. Lynde was somewhat less perceptive than Marilla).
A somewhat similar scene with Anne’s hair plays itself out that autumn when school starts. Gilbert Blythe shows his interest in the girls by teasing them, which generally works out. When he loudly whispers “carrots” in Anne’s direction, in reference to her hair, Anne takes her chalkboard, walks over to Gilbert, cracks it over his head, and refuses to talk to him or even acknowledge his existence. Gilbert tries for years to make it up, but Anne continues to ignore him. There does develop a fierce academic rivalry, the ferocity being mostly on Anne’s end since she refuses to be outdone by Gilbert.
Church is a bit difficult for Anne at first. Anne’s prayers tend to be thanking God for the trees and flowers, which horrifies Marilla, and she teaches Anne more standard prayers. The problem with the standard prayers is that they lack any specifics for Anne, a problem that she also encouters with the minister, who she says prays like he has to, not like he wants to. The minister retires a few years later, and Anne has a role model in the new minister’s wife, who is pretty, fashionable, and a kindred spirit. She treats Anne like a lady, and also lives out being a Christian like she wants to, and Anne is relieved that being a Christian is something one can do with all one’s heart.
The random trouble that Anne gets into is sort of typefied by the time that Marilla let her invite Diana for tea. Marilla had told Anne that she could serve the raspberry cordial, but had forgotten that she had swapped it for the much more potent currant wine. Diana ended up feeling rather dizzy and had to go home, whereupon her mother, Mrs. Barry, who was opposed to alcohol (and Marilla’s currant wine as an especial example) bans Diana from playing with Anne, unmoved by entreaties from both Marilla and a very tearful and contrite Anne. Some time later, however, all the adults are at a political event and Mrs. Barry’s infant daughter comes down with croupe, which apparently can be fatal. Fortunately, having had care for one of her previous guardian’s multiple twins, she was experienced with croupy babies and is able to cure Mrs. Barry’s daughter. Mrs. Barry is most grateful and Anne’s bosom friendship with Diana is restored.
As Anne grows older, her love of the dramatic makes her a very effective recitalist, and she is well-received at the socials. Likewise, she is an excellent student, and the teacher of their school gives her, a few of the other girls (and Gilbert) additional lessons so that they can pass the entrance exams to Queens. Graduating from Queens would permit Anne to teach. In addition, Anne is regularly invited to go to concerts and fairs with the Barrys. In fact, the Barry’s elderly aunt takes a liking to Anne. They first met, as it were, when Diana had a sleepover with Anne. They were to sleep in the spare bedroom, and Anne suggests that they race to the room and jump in the bed. Unbeknownst to them, the elderly aunt had arrived that afternoon and pre-empted them in the spare bedroom, so that they land on the unsuspecting, slumbering aunt, who is, of course, incensed. After one of Anne’s contrite, with a flair of the dramatic, apologies, the aunt decides she really likes Anne, and Anne visits her from time to time.
In the course of time, Anne, Gilbert, and the other pupils pass the entrance to Queens, and eventually graduate: Gilbert as the top student, but Anne with the scholarship to the provincial school. As Anne is contemplating whether she can leave Matthew and Marilla, who are rather older now, Matthew dies of a heart attack after receiving a letter that the bank where he put all of his and Marilla’s money failed. Anne gives up her scholarship so that she can help provide for Marilla. Gilbert, who had received the teaching position at the local Avonlea school, resigns and requests the board to hire Anne, and takes a position at a nearby school instead. Anne happens across Gilbert, thanks him, and confesses that she had actually forgiven him, but did not realize it until after it had happened, but was to proud to admit it. The book ends with a promising friendship and likely romance developing between the two.
The book at first appears to be humorous, but unrelated, stories about Anne, but it does progress in a definite direction. Most noticeably, Anne matures as a person, from a happy-go-lucky, outspoken, absent-minded girl to a smart, pretty, well-liked, and elegant young woman. Marilla’s transition is a little harder to see, but she becomes a much warmer woman, less rigid, and more able to admit and deal with people’s flaws. She even comes to realize that she loves Anne, and that it is ok to express it. This learning process leads to a lot of hilarity in the book, where Anne will express an opinion that on the surface is “wrong” (“Mrs. Lynde, you are a fat, ungracious woman”, or “the preacher didn’t seem to want to pray”) but which expresses a truth that Marilla had realized but not let herself think, usually leading to, as Montgomery puts it, “a most reprehensible desire to laugh.” Finally, Matthew, too, changes, although somewhat less. Early on he knows he enjoys Anne, and but he grows in his ability to see who she is. At one point, it dawns on him that Anne is not dressed like the other girls, for Marilla makes functional, not pretty dresses for Anne, and he insists that she have a fashionable dress.
Anne of Green Gables is at first glance simply a fun tale about a precocious girl growing up in the countryside. However, it appears to have deeper themes of maturity. We see Anne learn that that maturity requires control over the gift of one’s imagination, and we see Anne learn to use her love of life to benefit others. We also see Marilla begin to see that rigid adherence to the rules is not necessarily sufficient, and we see her learn to love Anne, initially out of a choice of the will, and finally realizing that she loves her from the heart. There is also a subtle theme of how we relate to God and how He relates to us. Montgomery consistently paints God as being pleased with Anne’s unconventional prayers of thankfulness from her heart, over prayers prayed because one should pray them. She paints the Christian life as not just doing, but also enjoying what God has made (and presumably enjoys). And arguably, the plot of the book mirrors how God has related to us: the unloved orphan Anne is adopted out of no merit of her own (she wasn’t the boy they wanted), but is shown unconditional love and flourishes under it. Likewise, though we have ignored God, He nonetheless died for us, adopting us and showing us love under which we may flourish if we accept His payment for our sins.
Anne’s raw insights into the truth of who people are, Marilla’s uncertainty at how to face these socially incorrect (but accurate) views, and the situations that Anne gets into make this book a little difficult to read due to the lengthy interruptions of laughter. This is most excellent situational comedy. But, as Anne exposes other people, Montgomery exposes the fears and joys of a young girl, so that the laughter is interspersed with tears for the pain that Anne endures. I suppose I shall have a corner cut off my Man-card for saying this, but I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
Copyrighted 101 years ago, this is definitely a hundred-year book, as its popularity is still going strong. It is well written, with subtlely presented humor, a fun yet intellectually rigorous style, and a good amount of sadness and heartache. The only drawback is that about 2/3 of the way through, the plot appears to lose its direction. The direction is, in fact, there, but this does not become apparent until the end.