Anne of Green Gables at 100.

Examining culture and the arts.
July 8 2008 3:27 PM

100 Candles

Anne of Green Gables grows old and gets her due.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

One hundred years ago, L.M. Montgomery did for women's imaginative lives what Susan B. Anthony did for women's political lives by publishing Anne of Green Gables, the story of an outspoken red-haired orphan growing up on Canada's Prince Edward Island. The book immediately broke through commercially and artistically, selling some 19,000 copies in five months, leading even the cranky dean of American letters, Mark Twain, to pronounce Anne "the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice." Today, Anne of Green Gables and its seven sequels are the basis for a small industry. More than 50 million editions of the first volume are in print around the world. The books have spun off movies, musicals, miniseries, and an assortment of bric-a-brac, from tea sets to light switches. But perhaps the greatest tribute to Anne's enduring vitality is the decision by the solemn eminences who edit the Modern Library to issue and heavily promote a centennial edition of the first volume in the series. Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, meet L.M. Montgomery and Anne Shirley.

To some, this canonical promotion of a writer who would probably now be classified as a Y.A. (young adult) author might seem preposterous. To certain left-leaning cultural theorists who won't embrace a heroine with a less-than-revolutionary CV—Anne, once the Island's best young scholar, chooses to become a devoted wife and mother of six—the Modern Library's decision may appear to be a reactionary cave-in to nostalgic sentimentality. All very plausible arguments. But none of them is capable of accounting for Anne's still-flourishing appeal and the series' intellectual hold on the women who read it as young girls. Revisit Anne of GreenGables with an open mind, no matter what your age, and there's an excellent chance you'll feel that Anne deserves, however belatedly, to dwell in the company of Huck and Tom.


Anne Shirley is not a stereotypical girl heroine of her period. At the age of 11, she's adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a pragmatic bachelor and spinster who have sent for a boy to help them out with their farm. Because of a miscommunication, the Cuthberts instead get Anne, a lonely, talkative girl who sees the world through starry eyes despite the hardships she's experienced as a foster child. But Anne is hardly a perfect child. Impetuous, proud, and perpetually distracted by her daydreams, she's always "getting into scrapes." ("It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it, isn't it?" she asks Matthew on their first meeting.) She forgets to hang up her clothes; she fails to make tea when Marilla asks her; she calls Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the town gossip, "a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman" who hasn't "a spark of imagination"; and she accidentally intoxicates her best friend with currant wine. At school, she breaks a slate over the head of Gilbert Blythe, a rival student who teasingly calls her "carrots." Her temper and her gaffes provide fodder for those village members who dislike having a child of "uncertain parentage" around. Yet with time, Anne wins nearly everyone over, as her grace, curiosity, and haplessness catalyze the bloodless community. She enables adults to reconnect with the childish soul within.

None of these charming qualities would seem to qualify Anne for hero status among contemporary women. What does is her habit of radical alertness. Nearly always, imagination comes first for Anne: before social expectations, before conventional romantic customs, and even before her gender's storied instinct to please and reassure. Because she is starved for human love, her primary attachment is to the natural world. As she approaches Green Gables for the first time with Matthew, she excitedly renames the landscape around her, dubbing a neighbor's pond "The Lake of Shining Waters" and transforming a prosaic "avenue" into "The White Way of Delight." In doing so, she reclaims the great, definitive Adamic prerogative: to name the world.

Some scholars have argued that Anneof Green Gables is an inherently—and chiefly—sentimental novel. Certainly, an orphan girl who wins over a provincial town with her magical imagination is hardly innovative material. But between the melodramatic passages, whose flourishes suit Anne's fanciful intensity, Montgomery shows a naturalistic prose style not unworthy, at its best, of a Sarah Orne Jewett. And her rigorous resistance to didactic "messages" departs from—and even consciously rebukes—the moralistic children's literature of her peers and predecessors. The dammed-up undercurrents of village life aren't coyly obscured but candidly witnessed. Montgomery's complex, ironic characterizations don't sweetly reassure; they provoke and stimulate. Marilla, for example. She's "a tall, thin woman, with angles and without curves," who, but for a hint of humor around her mouth, would appear to be a person "of narrow experience and rigid conscience."


The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data


The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 3:23 PM This Is What Bette Midler Covering TLC’s “Waterfalls” Sounds Like
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.