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There is ample dispute over L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: whether it is a feminist novel, whether is it supposed to be a feminist novel and what it is actually suggesting about women. Montgomery disassociated herself from the feminist movement; nonetheless she believed that women ought to have the right to vote (Cecily, 27). We can see evidence of her views in the women of Avonlea. Anne of Green Gables was written primarily as a ‘girl’s novel,’ in which women are expected to behave a certain way and embody certain characteristics. In this novel, gender difference is affirmed, but inequality is not (Montgomery and Cecily, 26). The women in Avonlea are primarily traditional, remaining in the home and raising families, but they are strong and have quite a bit of power in their restricted domestic spheres, suggesting elements of the modern women as well. Anne is likewise a strong woman, able to take a life of disadvantage and turn it around. Anne’s life is largely influenced by women- it is Marilla who decides that she can stay and who takes responsibility for her upbringing, while Matthew watches silently from the sides, only stepping in when Marilla isn’t around. The knowledge, direction, advice and examples that Marilla and other women provide are the most prominent factors in Anne’s development into a socially accepted woman.
Anne’s wild imagination is something that makes her special and unique as a child, but there is no place for it in society, so Marilla feels that it is her duty to repress it. If Anne had the same personality and imagination as an adult, she would have been considered a frivolous scatterbrain (Weiss-Town, 15). As a child, though, Anne can get away with saying and doing things that she would not otherwise because she has “never been taught what was right (Montgomery, 66).” The adult women in Anne of Green Gables do not have any imagination; when Anne asks Miss Barrie to try to imagine, she says, “I’m afraid my imagination is a little rusty- it’s so long since I used it (Montgomery, 158).” In order for Anne to grow up and have her place in society, she too must put her imagination away. Thus Marilla and the rest of the community are trying to fit her into the mold of a young lady by repressing her imagination.
Anne’s imagination is a source of both good and evil in her life, but because of the negative elements, Anne learns that sometimes it is better not to imagine at all. As one chapter suggests, it is a “good imagination gone wrong” (Montgomery, 0). One night Marilla tells Anne to walk through the “Haunted Woods,” to get something from Mrs. Barrie. Anne is terrified on the walk, thinking of all of the ghosts that could be living there… Upon her return, she tells Marilla that she’ll be content with “common place names after this” (Berg, 126). “Bitterly did she repent the license she had given to her imagination (Montgomery, 165).” Anne has learned about the dangers of the imagination and the consequences it can have, frightening herself with her own made-up names and stories. Anne’s wish to have beautiful auburn hair is similarly squelched when she mistakenly dyes her hair green, teaching her a lesson about vanity. As her caregiver, Marilla makes sure to insert a moral or lesson anywhere she can, helping Anne to realize how she can learn from her mistakes. Anne does learn from her mistakes, and does not repeat them again. With time she makes fewer and fewer, until she has been completely socialized and conforms to society’s expectations without even having to think about behaving properly as she does as a child. This is when Anne is successfully integrated into the community.
Miss Stacy is another very influential model in Anne’s life. As her teacher, she helps Anne to develop academically, yet as a woman, she helps her to develop socially as well. Anne proves how much she has learned when Miss Stacy asks her to stop reading a certain novel, and she obeys. The book “was one Ruby Gillis had lent me,” she explains to Marilla. “It was so fascinating and creepy; it just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it” (Berg, 126). Anne does not question Miss Stacy’s judgment; she looks up to her, wanting to become like her someday. The Gothic novel was considered improper for girls to read, as it could seriously modify their comprehension of reality. It would be particularly hazardous for girls with brilliant imaginations, like Anne. It was chiefly girls who read Anne of Green Gables, so the novel functioned as a sort of instruction book for them, so they could learn from Anne’s slip-ups too (Carol, 10). Anne’s educational progress is quite astounding, going from an uneducated orphan girl to placing at the top of her class. As her teacher, Miss Stacy helps to prepare Anne for a career in teaching, providing a way for her to support herself and make her own way in the world if necessary. Miss Stacy, perhaps even more importantly, believes in Anne, accepting her and encouraging her to do her best, providing opportunities like the after school lessons to gain even more knowledge and increase her possibility of higher education (Montgomery 242). Women could either choose career or family, but not both; it was considered immoral for a family to have two incomes. When Anne is talking about her classmate’s ambitions, she says “Ruby says she will only teach two years after she gets though, and then she intends to be married. Jane says she will devote her whole life to teaching, and never, never marry because you are paid a salary for teaching; but a husband won’t pay you anything and growls if you ask for a share in the egg and butter money (Montgomery 244). Ruby, like Anne, is postponing marriage, but Jane is more the New Woman, opting not to marry at all and support herself. Although these girls are all aiming for careers, the teaching career was generally one that was acceptable for women at the time, so they are not making any progress in that sense; both Anne’s parents were teachers.
Mrs. Allen likewise affirms Anne, encouraging her “to do some good in the world (Montgomery, 211).” When Anne is ‘in the depths of despair,’ humiliated in her room after the liniment incident, it is Mrs. Allen who comes up to comfort her, telling her that it wasn’t her fault. “I’m trying to be as much like Mrs. Allen as I possibly can, for I think she’s perfect (Montgomery, 207)” Anne tells her friends. At the Ladies Aid society meeting, when Mrs. Lynde says something negative about Anne, Mrs. Allen is quick to defend her, saying she is the “brightest and sweetest child she ever met (Montgomery, 214.)” Mrs. Allen is much better at expressing her love than Marilla is; she serves as a mother-figure, fulfilling Anne’s emotional needs. Because of Mrs. Allen’s acceptance, Anne has more self-confidence, and wishes to be good, partly to please her. “I hope I shall be a little like Mrs. Allen when I grow up (Montgomery, 211)” Anne says to Marilla. Mrs. Allen, as the minister’s wife, would also be a good example to Anne in matters of religion. She has been an enormous influence on Anne, just by her kind acceptance of her. By this, Anne learns to accept others as well.
Rachel Lynde represents another powerful influence in Anne’s life. Because she prides herself so much on speaking her mind (Montgomery, 64), people are careful of what they say to her or around her. Through Mrs. Lynde, Anne learns the importance of “holding her tongue.” When Mrs. Lynde first meets Anne, she chides her about her looks and Anne flies at her in retaliation, criticizing her to her face. In order to regain acceptance from Marilla and the other women of the community, she must succumb to Marilla’s punishment and apologize to Rachel Lynde, humiliating and humbling herself (Montgomery 72-74). Once Anne gives in to the women of higher authority she begins to find her place in society. Before this incident with Rachel Lynde, Marilla tells Anne to hold her tongue and she goes right on talking (Montgomery, 57). In contrast, when Josie Pye later calls Anne a scarecrow, Anne does not react. Having a place in society means having rules and consequences for breaking them. After Anne has experienced the consequences of not holding her tongue, when Marilla tells her to do so on the way home from Rachel Lynde’s house, she complies (Montgomery, 76). This is a key point in Anne’s development. Rachel and Marilla are both very strong women- female heads of their homes. Rachel believes women should have the right to vote. A group of women all go out to meet the prime minister, and take Thomas along to take care of the horses. Although they do not have the opportunity to vote, they still care very much about politics and what is going on in Canada. In this sense, the women of Avonlea are very much models of the New Woman.
‘Brains over beauty’ is a running theme throughout Anne of Green Gables. Marilla describes Diana as “good and smart, which is better than being pretty (Montgomery, 58).” Anne is very preoccupied with beauty and looks. She loathes her red hair and freckles, lashing out at anyone who points them out (i.e. Gilbert and Rachel Lynde). Marilla had had a similar experience as a child, overhearing her aunts saying “what a pity she is such a dark, homely little thing (Montgomery 68.)” It has taken Marilla 50 years to get over this. She is imparting her wisdom to Anne, so that she will learn there are more important things in life than beauty, and not spend 50 years wishing she was beautiful. “I’d rather be pretty than clever” Anne admits to Diana (Montgomery, 152). After Anne receives a compliment on her nose and taking it to heart, she asks Marilla what her thoughts are. Marilla thinks she has a pretty nose, but she does not want Anne to be a vain girl, so she does not tell her so; she does not want Anne to be so preoccupied with beauty (Montgomery, 151). The fact that intelligence is privileged over beauty shows how the culture of the New Woman is intermingled with the traditional one in Avonlea. In the past, beauty was important because it guaranteed a husband to care for and support women; now that they could support themselves, the relative importance of beauty was changing.
Although Matthew and Marilla are so somber and were brought up in a strict, “joyless” home, they do not have a limited view of women and allow Anne more freedom to become the “New Woman.” Marilla places a high value on woman’s education; she felt it was important that “a girl be fitted to earn her own living whether she has to or not (Montgomery, 242).” It is her who first broaches the subject about being a teacher to Anne after Miss Stacy came to talk to her. She tells Anne that “we resolved to do the best we could for you and give you a good education (Montgomery, 242.)” This is a contrast to Diana’s mother, who believes that education is wasted on women. Mrs. Lynde likewise disapproves of education. The split amongst the community of women in terms of education shows the contrast between the old and new values- signifying this is a transitional stage. Because Marilla approves of her being educated, Anne happily goes along with it. She mentions dreaming about Queens for months, but does not mention anything about it until Marilla does.
As the novel goes on, Anne’s imagination becomes more and more suppressed in order for her to have a place in society and be accepted by the women of the community. This is something Anne has to earn; it is not given to her. At the hotel concert, Anne is applauded for subscribing to society and reciting someone else’s words, instead of her own. It has been Marilla’s task to modify Anne’s voice, and an extremely difficult task it is. Before Anne goes off to Queens College, Marilla gives her a dress, not one of the plain ones she usually makes, but a beautiful green one. “Anne put it on one evening for Matthew and Marilla’s benefit, and recited “The Maiden’s Vow” for them in the kitchen” (Montgomery, 304). Anne here is fashionable, reciting someone else’s words for the benefit of Matthew and Marilla, consideration for others, and is doing so in the kitchen- a very domestic place. She has basically become “the angel in the household.” Marilla remembers what Anne used to be like and it brings tears to her eyes (Montgomery, 304). Anne assures her “I’m not changed- not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out… (Montgomery 304).” The words “pruned and branched out” have a very artificial sound. It is as if Anne is repressing her real self, no longer letting herself go wild; but restraining herself. Perhaps Marilla realizes this and is a little bit saddened by it. She wishes for the old, younger Anne who had not yet subscribed to society, although it was Marilla, Rachel Lynde and the other women of the community who pressured Anne to conform to their own ideals and view of womanhood in a predominantly female community (Weiss-Town, 13). In Avonlea, women’s values were cherished more than men’s values, making them the larger influences on Anne’s development (Berg, 127).
Anne was been taught how to be a good wife and mother ever since she was little, working in homes, looking after children at the age of 11. This too influenced her development as a woman; Anne has no false fantasies about what raising a child would be like. She is able to save Minnie May’s life because of this knowledge from past experience. Anne does not make any ultimate choices about her life in this book, but in subsequent books Anne’s dreams eventually lead to marriage and motherhood, not literary fame. Anne postpones this “fate” for a while, experiencing what it is like to be a New Woman. Anne is a New Woman in many ways: getting a higher education, wearing divided skirts, biking around chaperoned, and so on, but she still retains the traditional values of family and home. She is not completely traditional, yet not quite a New Woman. Although Anne wins a prize, it is the English prize, a traditional feminine subject. Gilbert takes all the other prizes. The main influential women in Anne’s life have, with the exception of Miss Stacy and Marilla (although she still brings up Anne), are married and had children; Rachel Lynde, for example, “brought up ten children and buried two (Montgomery, 66).” It is no wonder that Anne follows suit. After Anne marries, her life is rather dull compared to the exciting surprises of her childhood.
One interesting view of Anne that lines up very much with the thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft is that because Anne becomes an ideal woman at the end of the book: she never stops being a child (Weiss-Town, 12). She is no longer encouraged to think for herself and be imaginative; but is encouraged to memorize and recite other people’s prayers and poetry. Marilla begins to enforce this right from the beginning, making Anne learn the Lord’s Prayer instead of inventing her own (Montgomery, 55). The one contestation with this idea is that Anne actually did obtain a decent education, especially for a girl, and she did have the opportunity to a higher education. The presence of this choice is what is truly important.
The lives of women in Anne of Green Gables revolve around the home and domestic ambitions. The chapter titles themselves illustrate the prominence of stereotypical female domestication and religion (Carol, 11). “Anne says her prayers”, “Anne’s bringing-up is begun”, “Anne’s impressions of Sunday school”, ”A Tempest in the school teapot”, “Diana is invited to tea with tragic results”, “Anne is invited out to tea”, etc. (Cecily, 15). Just by considering the chapter titles, we can see that tea parties and concerts seem to be an important part of Anne’s life. Tea parties and concerts are generally considered to be feminine, and the abundance of them in the novel outlines the importance of femininity. Marilla tells Anne she can have Diana over for tea while she is at the Aid society meeting, Anne is overjoyed. She exclaims; “It will seem so nice and grown-uppish” (Montgomery, 163). “Oh, Marilla, it’s a wonderful sensation just to think of it!” (Montgomery, 164). Anne’s enthusiasm over a tea party and being “grown-uppish” indicate she is gradually conforming to society’s standards; whether she inherently likes tea parties or likes them because that is what all the girls at her age like does not matter. Anne is encouraged to engage in activities that are feminine. When she goes to Rachel Lynde’s house to make her apology, Rachel tells her “you can pick a bouquet of them white June lilies over in the corner if you like (Montgomery, 74).” Rachel automatically assumes that Anne, as a girl, would wish to engage in ‘feminine’ activities. While Marilla is gone Anne’s main responsibility is to get supper for Matthew and Jerry, the role traditionally performed by a woman (Montgomery, 163). Anne is a woman-in-training, eager and proud to take on the responsibilities of the older women- people she respects. Anne, as a woman is very feminine, always up on the latest fashion and styles
Overall, although Anne does not make any ultimate decisions about her life in this novel, it still portrays the stereotypical feminine lifestyle that girls in the late 19th, early 20th century were expected to have. Anne starts out as a little, “ugly”, misbehaved, imaginative orphan girl; but is transformed by Marilla and the community of women in Avonlea into a model woman. Her imagination is restrained, she is “pruned and branched out,” and she is able to save Marilla from having to sell Green Gables, her childhood home. Anne of Green Gables is setting up separate worlds for men and women, portraying the woman’s world as much more interesting (Berg, 127). The world of women is not presented as completely confined as it had been in the past- women had more options by Anne’s time. The 1896 Halifax Herald said “only remarkable and highly motivated women such as [Montgomery] had any business venturing beyond motherhood” (Cecily, 32). This shows the dominant view of the time. Montgomery agreed, saying women should not have any career other than wife and mother, unless they could accomplish their work without interrupting these responsibilities (Cecily, 26). Although Anne avoided making any definite decisions by the end of this novel, her decisions eventually led to motherhood and the domestic life. The maternal women in Anne of Green Gables aided Anne in her development by being examples, correcting her and guiding her in the right direction. It could be argued though, that this ‘growth’ is actually decay in the sense that Anne lost her individuality by conforming to the standards set by society. Thus the conclusion we can draw is one of ambiguity: Anne was not a traditional woman, nor fully a “New Woman;” she is an ambiguous character whose transformation over the course of the novel parallels the gradual societal change in women’s expected role in society.
Berg, Temma F. “Anne of Green Gables: A Girl’s Reading.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13.3 (1988): 124-128. Project MUSE. 17 Aug. 2010 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Carol, Gay. “”Kindred Spirits” All: Green Gables Revisited.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.1 (1986): 9-12. Project MUSE. 17 Aug. 2010 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Cecily, Margaret. “Gender and the “Feminism” of Anne.” Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2004. Print.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. London: Seal Books, 1983. Print
Weiss-Town, Janet. “Sexism Down on the Farm? Anne of Green Gables.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.1 (1986): 12-15. Project MUSE. 17 Aug. 2010 <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
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