Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back To Green Gables


These days I don't reread; there are too many books and not enough time. When I was a child, though, it seemed to be the other way around, and my favorite books got revisited as often as my favorite albums and my favorite movies. Books that are in tatters on my shelf are engraved in my memory, as deeply and comprehensively as the events of my own life: His Dark Materials and the first three Harry Potters and The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler and Anastasia Krupnik and Matilda and The Phantom Tollbooth...

What makes rereading interesting is that you change. The words on the page might stay the same, but each rereading is a different textual encounter – you've changed, and so the text you read has changed too. This was abundantly clear to me in my devoted twice-yearly rereading of His Dark Materials throughout my teens (oh, what did you expect, “geek” is right there in the blog name), when each read-through was granted new depth by something that had happened to me in the preceding six months: some allusion brought to my awareness by my other reading, or some emotional resonance heightened by a personal experience. Every single rereading gave me a better understanding of both the book and myself, and I marveled at the apparent infinitude of meaning I could mine from the text.

In the same way, I marvel at the freshness of my most recent encounter with a beloved childhood book. I just finished rereading Anne of Green Gables, on a whim, for approximately the eight billionth time, and it was a remarkably new experience. I read this book literally dozens of times as a child, but I have never read it like this before.

The first thing I noticed is how completely female-dominated the story is. From the opening paragraph, focalized through the formidable Rachel Lynde, to the whole farcical setup of cohabiting siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert accidentally adopting Anne instead of the boy they wanted, it's made quite clear that this a story of women.

There are maybe three male characters of any significance in the entire book, and they're all striking for what they are not. There's the schoolmaster, whom Anne hates and whose role is completely overshadowed by his replacement, Anne's passionately beloved teacher Miss Stacy. There's Matthew, whose quietness and passivity contrast strikingly with the active and opinionated women around him – Rachel Lynde, Marilla, Anne, Josephine Barry... Actually, it's possible to read Matthew as an explicit example of queer masculinity. Check out his response to Anne's asking him whether he ever went “courting”:

Well now, no, I dunno’s I ever did,’ said Matthew, who had certainly never thought of such a thing in his whole existence.

Queer as a fish. Welcome to the club, Matthew.

And then there is Gilbert Blythe. Ah, Gilbert Blythe. Can I just state for the record how hard I ship this particular OTP? I love that Gilbert doesn't get easily forgiven for being an asshole just by apologizing, but has to be ignored by Anne for a long time: he's the one at fault, so the reconciliation isn't on his terms. I love that Anne doesn't become friends with him after he saves her from the river, but (her own love of sappy romance stories notwithstanding) defies the “damsel in distress falls into her rescuer's arms” narrative. I love that she is at least his intellectual equal, if not his superior, and the first five years of their acquaintance are characterized by fierce academic competition.

What I'd forgotten, though, is the fact that the reconciliation takes place on the third-to-last page of book. The charming courtship and marriage I remember so fondly occurs entirely in later books. Throughout this book, Gilbert's presence is an absence. Anne refuses even to let his name pass her lips. She is far more concerned with her female friends, the “kindred spirits” – a phrase I'm still prone to using, much to the bafflement of people who never read this book growing up.

As a child, I naturally identified strongly with Anne. Although I certainly had none of her charm or popularity, I saw aspects of myself reflected in her prodigious imagination, her desire to be good but inability to control her temper or impulses, her constant getting into scrapes. Plus, you were supposed to identify with her. She was the protagonist, wasn't she? Her name was right there in the title.

Now, however, I'm struck by how much I relate to Marilla, the older single woman who takes it on herself to raise Anne right. (Matthew is told not to interfere, on the ridiculous premise that “Perhaps an old maid doesn’t know much about bringing up a child, but I guess she knows more than an old bachelor.”) Marilla is opinionated and judgmental; she doesn't know what to do with her emotions, and expresses affection by being kind of an asshole. All of this I can personally identify with, but I don't think it's just me. I think this is intended to be Marilla's story just as much as Anne's: the story of the transformation of her life brought about by Anne's presence in it.

After all, many of the mistakes Anne makes can ultimately be traced back to Marilla's own errors (the liniment cake, getting Diana drunk, the incident of the amethyst brooch), and by the book's end Marilla has grown and changed at least as much as Anne has. She has learned how to be – not a parent, that is made very clear, but – a person guiding and taking responsibility for another person, and growing in self-knowledge as she does so. Toward the beginning of the book, Marilla scolds Anne for her unconventional prayers and her deeply personal (“positively irreverent”) exegesis of a picture of 'Christ Blessing Little Children'. Toward the end, on Anne's departure for further education, she “wept for her girl in a passion of sobs that appalled her when she grew calm enough to reflect how very wicked it must be to take on so about a sinful fellow creature.” Her professed theology hasn't changed, but her lived theology – how she relates to other people – couldn't be more different. She is the same person, and yet she is changed beyond recognition: much like the adult reader returning to a beloved childhood book.

5 comments:

  1. We just had a really wonderful chat about revisiting our YA favorites from youth, and AOGG came up a lot. I adored the first three books in the series, and remember vividly when Gilbert had a sensual vision of Anne's dress slipping off her shoulders in Anne of Avonlea, I think. I was reading it under the desk in my 5th grade classroom and blushed bright red.

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  2. I totally LARPed as Anne before I ever knew what that was. I loved that series a girl! Thanks for reminding me of her. She was a great example of the Victorian Geek Girl.

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  3. Oh, I loved these books! I brought Anne of Green Gables to school with me every day in 4th grade - I vividly remember tucking her under my desk when class started.

    Thanks for this feminist reading of them: I'd never noticed how woman-centric the stories were, either - that's a great observation.

    What I did notice though was how nested and complex they are -- and how different that is from kids' books these days! You know, Anne telling a story about how so-and-so told a story about something that happened to her when she was a girl - very rich!

    Have you read L. M. Montgomery's *other* books? I discovered them about, oh dear, it must be 15 or 20 years ago now. I think "Blue Castle" is my favorite, but the "Emily of New Moon" trilogy is a close second.

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  4. I'm thrilled to have stumbled upon this. Thanks for the delightful few minutes.

    Perhaps my favorite passage in the whole book - and therefore in all of literature - is:

    "At that moment Marilla had a revelation. In the sudden stab of fear that pierced her very heart she realized what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne--nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything else on earth."

    Even as I copy/paste it, I can't read it without the tears welling up.

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