An American Editor

December 7, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part III)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay was divided into halves. The first half was published previously as “Plot or Characterization? (Part II).” For the first part of this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Though Anne of Green Gables lacks a cohesive plot, it more than makes up for that defect through characterization. In addition, every flouting of modern rules of story structure follows from there and finds its justification. It’s also a book written in anger, often a good spur to the imagination.

Lucy Maud Montgomery doubtless knew about the dire fate of orphans. Prince Edward Island didn’t have an orphanage until 1907, so Anne comes from Nova Scotia in a book set in the late 1800s. Some institutions there were worse than others, and Anne probably came from a more respectable place, one that fitted girls for domestic work. In the Halifax Poor House, orphaned children were housed with adults who had mental disorders until after 1900, and the doors had no locks or even doorknobs. If the children weren’t sexually abused before they left, they’d likely experience that fate once people who wanted cheap labor adopted them. Anne names everything around her but animals — animals were considered of more use than lower-class children, so it’s probably a veiled expression of outrage. Still, it was the Nova Scotia Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stepped in to help abused and neglected children after 1880. Before the 19th century, orphan asylums didn’t exist at all, and the efforts of women’s groups and churches to help were only fitful after that. (The horrifying details are spelled out in an appendix to Oxford’s Annotated Anne of Green Gables.)

In Anne’s fairy tale, the general view of orphans at the time is only hinted at when in the first chapter busybody Rachel Lynde talks of the dangers of letting children from who knows where get too close. Anne doesn’t suffer the prejudice and contempt that was the lot of most orphans in real life. Who wants too much reality in a children’s book?

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grim childhood up until we first see her, Anne is vibrant, full of fantasies and imaginings. In Chapter 28, she tots up her disasters and gives a moral to each of them.

“Well,” explained Anne, “I’ve learned a new and valuable lesson today. Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming. The affair of the amethyst brooch cured me of meddling with things that didn’t belong to me. The Haunted Wood mistake cured me of letting my imagination run away with me. The liniment cake mistake cured me of carelessness in cooking. Dyeing my hair cured me of vanity. I never think about my hair and nose now — at least, very seldom. And today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic.

I have come to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be romantic in Avonlea. It was probably easy enough in towered Camelot hundreds of years ago, but romance is not appreciated now. I feel quite sure that you will soon see a great improvement in me in this respect, Marilla.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Marilla skeptically.

But Matthew, who had been sitting mutely in his corner, laid a hand on Anne’s shoulder when Marilla had gone out.

“Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” he whispered shyly, “a little of it is a good thing — not too much, of course — but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”

I don’t buy Montgomery’s excuses for her repetition of the scrape plots. But I never minded the repetition when I repeatedly reread the book when I was young. Anne is no doormat — in fact, she’s characterized by anger and feuds — but she’s the creature of a woman torn between feminism and womanly duty. Anne is unconsciously rebellious and unconventional, and she sheds her glory on almost everyone around her, rather as Pippa seems to do in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes, now known more for a verbal gaffe than for its literary merits. As Anne passes along, she opens minds and hearts. So she talks too much and with odd words? Don’t we all in the editing business? Actually, Maud didn’t yammer on — unlike Anne, she was too afraid. But Anne wasn’t afraid. We can put up with her monologues in part because they’re completely in character, and they’re charming and illuminating.

Despite the emotional depth of Anne’s story as she looks for love and a home, Montgomery isn’t sparing on the humor and satire that go along with life in a small town — like busybodies, bad teachers, and boring preachers.

The novel is in certain respects a bildungsroman, a book about growth, which is by nature a stumbling process. Thus the Bildung takes a while, at least for Anne. It’s more obvious with Marilla, the spinster who adopted her, and who, incidentally, takes charge of the point of view more often than Anne does, according to Genevieve Wiggins (L.M. Montgomery [Twayne’s World Authors Series, 1992], 39). In fact, the top of the four major storylines that Waterston (Magic Island, 13–14) lists is the growing familial love felt by the repressed Marilla for Anne and by Anne for Marilla, who was an airbrushed and retouched version of Maud’s loveless grandmother. (See Gammel, Looking for Anne, 122 for the technique.) Margaret Atwood pegs Marilla as the real focus of the novel (“Reflection Piece — Revisiting Anne,” originally published in 1992, but easily found in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture [1999]). Here’s Atwood’s concluding paragraph (226):

It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children. But it is the struggles of Marilla that give it romance for adults. Anne may be the orphan in all of us, but then, so is Marilla. Anne is the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment version, what Montgomery longs for. Marilla is more likely what she feared she might become — joyless, bereft, trapped, hopeless, unloved. Each of them saves the other. It is the neatness of their psychological fit — as well as the invention, humour, and fidelity of the writing — that makes Anne such a satisfying and enduring fable.

Like Burnett, Montgomery was screwed over because she wasn’t a boy, but she also seemed to know that she’d be happier if she didn’t vent her depression and misery in too edgy a way, even after Victorian ideas about the importance of portraying “the beautiful child” had passed.

Everything around Anne plays into Maud’s fantasy of a happier life. Even the descriptive passages, though not what you’d expect in “literary” novels, point up the heroine’s character. As Epperly (30) says, “This rhapsody of light, colour, and sound is the poetic wish-fulfillment of the beauty-starved, love-starved orphan.” And when half the second chapter of Anne is taken up with description, as the old, shy bachelor drives Anne back from the railway station to certain doom, the beauty is fraught with ugly suspense. The reader knows that Anne’s dreams are about to be dashed. So every glorious tree and petal loom over us — darkness visible. Except that the light takes over.

Before Anne leaves Green Gables to get a teaching certificate, she has come to see that her fantasies about herself as a romantic heroine don’t come close to the joy she has right now (Chapter 33).

“Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads. I know Matthew gave me as much love with them as ever went with Madame the Pink Lady’s jewels.”

Even at the end of Anne of Green Gables, when darkness is all around, and when Anne gives up her ambitions and her fantasies — for a time, at least, out of duty and love — it’s all good. Life wasn’t so delightful when Maud had to give up everything to take care of her grandmother — and her grandfather had essentially cut her out of his will despite her years helping out the two of them. But she could dream.

The quiet and introspective Maud was enthralled with her open and talkative Anne (see Gammel 129), as are Anne fans all around the word. Yes, the book breaks rules aplenty. Aristotle, with his insistence of the primacy of plot, would have scoffed at the way Anne’s character drives the story. But the reader is drawn along by her compelling personality and the comic disasters it gets her into. Cohesive plot? Who cares when confronted with such a girl?

Anne is someone you’d like to have a drink with — I’m talking nonalcoholic raspberry cordial, not the homemade currant wine that got her banned from her bosom friend’s company for a time (Chapter 16). Anne is more interesting than Little Lord Fauntleroy, the young hero who made Frances Hodgson Burnett’s fortune and ruined the life of one of her sons. Young Fauntleroy is cute and flawless, and he immediately wins over the embittered and unhappy people in his sphere, whereas Anne, who is far more flawed, takes more time in transforming the people around her. And L.M. Montgomery revels in her character’s flaws. According to Wiggins (26), “In a society bound by convention, Anne is a disrupting influence. She is the rebel, the nonconformist, the independent spirit who appeals to the child reader who chafes at adult strictures or to the adult who sometimes feels restricted by society’s expectations.”

The novel, with its episodic nature, is often compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always been more a plot person than a character person, so Anne is only my third-favorite children’s book. Yet I consider Anne Shirley more of a close friend than I do the heroines of my top two, and whenever I’m forced to travel, all three of the plucky girls go along with me.

The book Anne of Green Gables is in effect a miniseries. The famous TV miniseries, which I’ve never seen, apparently has a cohesive plot. But the problem with that plot is that the focus seems to be on a happy romantic ending between Anne and her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe. Unfortunately, that’s not what the first book in the first trilogy is about.

In this first book about Anne, we watch the character as she careens and careers through life, trying, like Maud, to reconstruct a lost family. Maud couldn’t, but Anne did.

And there’s no place like home.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

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