Anne of Green Gables — Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy?

Anne Shirley is no ordinary girl. We know that early on — she is an orphan, has bright red hair and freckles, and an imagination twenty times her size. Indeed, anyone who meets her in the book seems to be taken aback from the very moment they set their eyes on her. Once Anne starts talking, the situation usually only worsens, to our amusement.

Anne of Green Gables is usually advertised and seen as a children’s book — it is, after all, about an orphan girl who finds a family to take care of her and most of the book recounts her childhood adventures on Prince Edward Island, in Avonlea, where she lives with her adoptive family, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. But Anne of Green Gables is much more than a children’s book and no one would be wasting their time if they read it later in their lives, because Anne Shirley’s infectious joy of life, passionate feelings and wild imagination are not only a recipe for a wonderful and profound novel, but also a recipe for a good life.

Anne’s early life was fraught with misfortune and disappointment — both her parents died when she was too young to remember them and, having no other family to take care of her, she was sent from foster home to foster home only to end up at an orphanage. There’s no point in delving too much into the details of her pre-Avonlea life — it is clear that it wasn’t a caring and loving environment fit for a healthy and happy childhood. Faced with all these difficulties early on in life and armed with a sharp mind, Anne develops a wild imagination that builds upon the sordid realities of her life in order to create better version of reality — one in which she is actually a lady named Cordelia, one in which she is not plighted with bright red hair, or one in which her dress has puffed sleeves. There is not bitter tone in Anne of Green Gables. What might be a good starting point for a sad, heart-wrenching novel turns out to be a start for a different sort of a story — the story of an unwanted little girl who manages to win the hearts of all those around her through her bubbling personality and abundant imagination.

At times, however, there is a certain sadness that pervades the book, one that lies underneath the funny dialogue and Anne’s flamboyant choice of words in describing her misfortunes. Take for instance the moment when Anne sees the dress that Marilla has made for her to wear:

‘They’re — they’re not — pretty’, said Anne, reluctantly.
‘Pretty!’ Marilla sniffed. ‘I don’t trouble my head about getting pretty dresses for you. I don’t believe in pampering vanity, Anne, I’ll tell you that right off. Those dresses are good, sensible, serviceable dresses, without any frills or furbelows about them, (…). I should think you’d be grateful to get most anything after those skimpy wincey things you’ve been wearing.’
‘Oh, I am grateful,’ protested Anne. ‘But I’d be ever so much gratefuller if — if you’d made just one of them with puffed sleeves. Puffed sleeves are so fashionable now. It would give me such a thrill, Marilla, just to wear a dress with puffed sleeves.’
‘Well, you’ll have to do without your thrill. I hadn’t any material to waste on puffed sleeves. I think they are ridiculous-looking things anyhow. I prefer the plain, sensible ones.’
‘But I’d rather look ridiculous when everybody else does than plain and sensible all by myself,’ persisted Anne mournfully.

We certainly understand how wrong Anne is when she says she’d rather be ridiculous with everybody else than be sensible on her own, but we cannot help but sympathize with that desire to fit in and be accepted by our peers, as children, and by society at large, as adults. Of course Anne is somewhat vain and Marilla may be right, but would it kill anyone if we’d indulge a child once when it comes to puffed sleeves? I should say not. We might laugh at her silliness, feel a bit of sadness when she is refused her sleeves, but I dare anyone not to have their hearts a bit broken when Anne says:

‘I did hope there would be a white one with puffed sleeves’, she whispered disconsolately. ‘I prayed for one, but I didn’t much expect it on that account. I didn’t suppose God would have time to bother about a little orphan girl’s dreams.’

And that is because we do feel that God should listen to the prayers of a little girl that only asks for puffed sleeves.

But Anne won’t let anything as small as puffed sleeves deter her from enjoying life. So she makes the best of what she has by decorating her plain hat with flowers picked from the side of her road to Sunday school, much to the amazement of everyone there. And it is this infectious joy for life that makes us love Anne for her wonderful way of dealing with all life’s shortcomings.

Anne teaches us that language is a powerful thing. She always uses strong words to describe her feelings, even though people laugh at her choice of expressing herself: But if you have big ideas you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you? Who can argue with that? In fact, we might feel a bit ashamed of laughing at her before. Anne also expresses her feelings about the world around her by renaming places, objects, and even people — like herself. She feels that people should name things according to the deeper effect they have on their feelings and not just give them a bland, descriptive name.

‘ But they shouldn’t call that lovely place the Avenue. There is no meaning in a name like that. They should call it — let me see — The White Way of Delight. Isn’t that a nice imaginative name?’

But Anne is not silenced by other people. One of her defining traits is her talkativeness — she recounts ever little thing that crosses her mind or that she feels, much to the despair of Marilla who has to listen to her ramblings. But her candour, joy, and good heart only make Marilla (and us) love her more. Perhaps not all her thoughts are worth conveying to others, but how should a child learn about the world if not by communicating her thoughts and impressions to those that know better at least in theory? This, of course, comes as a shock to the simple folks of Avonlea who are not used to a child speaking her mind so openly. Indeed, Mrs. Rachel Lynde is astounded when she realizes that children have feelings that can be hurt and that they do talk back.

‘She’s terribly skinny and homely, Marilla. Come here, child, and let me have a look at you! Lawful heart, did anyone ever see such freckles? And hair as red as carrots! Come here, child, I say!’ (…)
‘I hate you’, she cried in a chocked voice, stamping her foot on the floor. (…) ‘How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I’m freckled and red-headed ? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!’ (…) ‘How dare you say such things about me?’ she repeated vehemently . ‘How would you like to be told that you are fat and clumsy and probably hadn’t a spark of imagination in you?’

Anne Shirley is certainly not perfect. Her judgment is flawed, her imagination stretches too far for her own good (when she imagines the wood is haunted only to be later afraid to pass through it), and her responses are sometimes too rash. But let us not forget she is a child, one that still has much to learn, and just because she is not yet a perfect example of adulthood, does not mean that her thoughts and feelings should be thwarted to accommodate a more ‘normal’ personality or behavior. Not everybody is like Anne. Indeed, they could not be, because she is a very special little girl. But there is at least a bit of Anne in all of us — both as children and as grown-ups. And if there isn’t, then Anne should serve as a reminder of all those things that make life worthwhile — of passion once had but lost, or of passion never had but possible to gain; of the joy of life, of effervescence, and, lastly, of justice, for many injustices are committed against Anne, some righted, others not so much (how can you right the loss of both parents at an early age?). There isn’t a more worthwhile-to-mention truism at this moment than ‘Life is unfair’ and there are things in life beyond our control. But there are also those that we can right — not punishing a child too hard for acting rashly when their feelings are hurt by an insensible lady, or for mistaking the currant wine for raspberry cordial, or not singling her out even though she was equally late to class as everybody else. Anne of Green Gables is about the foolishness of childhood as much as it is about the foolishness of adulthood — with its lack of sympathy for puffed sleeves, concerts, or exhibitions, and for the feelings of an orphan girl who has only her imagination to get her through her early sordid life and to help her cope with life’s injustice.

We can all learn a bit about how to live our live from Anne Shirley, either by using her qualities as an example or by making sure we don’t commit her mistakes or those of the unfeeling adults in the book, who cannot see more than meets the eye and are bound to live a dusty, dull, and shallow life.

Anne is not a normal girl and the way she lives her life might not be considered as normal, but with all the well-deserved merits of normality, there does not seem to be anything wrong in that because her life is so much more than it might have been if she were just another average-looking and average-minded girl. It is the life of someone who knew her mind, spoke her mind, and learned all that she could as a consequence of that, while being happy. And we should all strive to have a bit of Anne in us for that moment when we might meet a bend in our road.

(…) but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it. The joys of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams. And there was always the bend in the road!