Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive.
Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the town busybody, lives with her meek husband on the main road of Avonlea, a small rural town in Prince Edward Island in Canada. Mrs. Rachel, as she is known, sits on her porch one afternoon in early June. She sees her neighbor, Matthew Cuthbert, leaving his home. This activity is surprising, since the painfully shy Matthew is known as a bit of a recluse. Even more surprising is that fact that he is wearing his best suit and driving his buggy, evidence that an important errand calls him away. Mrs. Rachel, her mind abuzz with questions, goes to the Cuthbert house to seek an explanation.
Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert live tucked away on a farm called Green Gables. Marilla, though more talkative than Matthew, is severe and private. Her house and her appearance reflect this severity: the immaculate house seems too sterile for comfort, and Marilla has an angular face and tightly knotted hair. Despite her stiffness, however, something about her mouth suggests a natural, if undeveloped, sense of humor.
When Mrs. Rachel asks about Matthew’s errand, Marilla informs her that he is on his way to pick up the Cuthberts’ new orphan from the train station. With Matthew getting older—he is sixty—they realized they needed help around the farm and decided to adopt a boy from the orphanage. This news shocks Mrs. Rachel, who launches into a monologue about the horror stories she has heard about orphans—a boy who set fire to his new home, another who used to suck eggs, and a girl who put strychnine in the well. Marilla acknowledges her concerns about bringing a stranger into the house, but she comforts herself with the knowledge that the boy will at least be Canadian and thus not too different from themselves. Marilla wonders why anyone would adopt a girl, since girls cannot work on farms.
Matthew enjoys his quiet ride to the train station, except for the moments when he passes women and must nod at them. All women scare him, except for Marilla, who we learn is his sister, and Mrs. Rachel. He always feels like women are laughing at him. Arriving at the station, he sees no sign of the train and nobody on the platform except for a little girl and the stationmaster. Shyly avoiding the girl’s eyes, he asks the stationmaster whether Mrs. Spencer has arrived with his orphan, and the stationmaster says that she has and that the delivery is waiting at the end of the platform.
A girl of about eleven years is sitting on a pile of shingles. She carries only a faded carpetbag as luggage and wears an ill-fitting, ugly dress and a faded hat, out of which snake two thick braids of red hair. Her face suggests spirit and vivacity: her big eyes change from green to gray depending on the light, and her mouth is large and expressive. Afraid of the social ordeal ahead, Matthew approaches the girl, who spares him from having to introduce himself. She confidently holds out her hand to him and starts talking. Words spill out of her mouth at a pace that shocks the quiet Matthew. She explains that while she waited, she imagined an alternate plan for the evening in case Matthew did not come for her. She would have climbed a nearby wild cherry tree and slept among the blooms and moonshine, imagining she was sleeping in marble halls. Although Matthew is surprised that a girl, rather than the boy he expected, sits before him, he decides to take her to Green Gables for the night and let Marilla tell the girl they will not be able to keep her.
Anne rarely pauses from her chatter during the ride to Green Gables. Through her monologue, she reveals a vivid imagination and a thirst for beauty, along with a tendency to criticize herself, especially her red hair. She repeatedly remarks on the beauty of the landscape and exclaims that calling Avonlea her home is a dream come true. She compares the lush trees of Avonlea to the scrawny saplings at the orphanage, and although she loves the new landscape, she expresses sympathy for the undernourished orphanage trees, with which she feels a sense of camaraderie. Arriving at the Cuthbert place, Anne gushes that Green Gables feels like home, a home more beautiful and perfect than any she could have imagined.
Unlike Matthew, Marilla does not shrink from voicing her surprise upon seeing a girl orphan, instead of a boy, at her front door. As the Cuthberts talk about Mrs. Spencer’s mistake, Anne realizes she is not wanted. She dramatically bursts into tears, crying, “Nobody ever did want me. I might have known it was all too beautiful to last.” Marilla and Matthew worriedly look at each other over the weeping child.
Marilla interrupts the girl’s outpouring to ask her name. Anne replies that she would like to be called Cordelia because she thinks the name elegant. Pressed to reveal her real name, she admits that it is Anne. She considers her name plain and unromantic, but likes the fact that her name is spelled with an “e,” which she feels makes it far more distinguished than if it were “Ann.” Marilla dismisses Anne’s musings about the spelling of her name with a quick “fiddlesticks.” Anne, focused on her situation at the Cuthberts, cannot eat supper and mournfully explains that she is “in the depths of despair.” She appeals to Marilla, asking if Marilla has ever been in the depths of despair. Marilla answers that she has not and cannot imagine what such a thing might feel like. After supper, Anne dons her skimpy orphanage nightgown and cries herself to sleep in the desolate spare room.
Downstairs, Marilla broaches the subject of how they will get rid of the unwanted girl. To her amazement, the usually passive Matthew voices an opinion, suggesting they might keep the child, who is so excited to stay at Green Gables and so sweet. When Marilla asks what good a girl would do on a farm, Matthew says, “We might be some good to her.”
Anne wakes up momentarily confused by her surroundings. Her confusion turns to delight and then to disappointment as she remembers that although she is at her new home, Matthew and Marilla do not want her. Her spirits improve at the sight of the morning sunshine and a beautiful cherry tree in full bloom outside her window. Marilla yanks her out of her daydream by ordering her to get dressed. The sharpness of Marilla’s tone, we are told, belies a more gentle underlying nature, one that Anne seems to perceive and appreciate. Accustomed to an authoritarian upbringing, Anne is not cowed by Marilla’s harshness or her admonishment that Anne talks too much.
At breakfast, Anne announces that she has regained her appetite and is happy because it is morning, and mornings provide “so much scope for imagination.” Marilla hushes her, and Anne obediently quits her chattering. Throughout the silent meal Marilla feels increasingly uncomfortable, as though there is something unnatural in Anne’s silence. After breakfast, Anne declares that she will not play outside, despite the beauty of the day, because it would make her love Green Gables too much, which would cause her even more pain upon leaving. Instead, she contents herself by communing with the houseplants, one of which she names Bonny.
Throughout the morning, Marilla vents inwardly; she can tell from Matthew’s countenance that he still wants to keep Anne. She is frustrated by Matthew’s silence, and wishes he would voice his opinion so that she could defeat him with a well-reasoned argument. In the afternoon, Marilla takes Anne in the buggy to visit Mrs. Spencer and sort out the mistake. As they are departing, Matthew says that he has just hired a boy to help on the farm, an arrangement that would allow them to keep Anne. Angry, Marilla does not reply.
Setting plays an important role in Anne of Green Gables. These chapters, in introducing the characters and their homes, suggest that houses reflect the personalities of their inhabitants. The Lyndes live on the main street, an appropriate place for them since Mrs. Rachel, the town snoop and gossip, likes to keep constant vigil over the activities of Avonlea. The Cuthberts live secluded on their farm, which reflects their reclusive natures. Marilla’s meticulously clean kitchen and garden reflect her own severity. Montgomery suggests we should understand the characters that people this novel by examining their homes and surroundings.
Landscape not only establishes characters’ identities; it also guides their interactions. Because Mrs. Rachel and Marilla live close to one another, they have become friends. They are not particularly compatible, but a comfortable coexistence has evolved between the two women. Mrs. Rachel’s unannounced visit to Marilla seems to be one of her regular intrusions on Green Gables. The brook that runs from Green Gables to the Lynde place is a metaphor for the relationship between the two women. Its source at the Cuthbert place is silent, formed from a network of invisible trickles of water. By the time it reaches the Lynde plot, it has become a stream, a distinct and boisterous collection of all the quiet trickles of water from Green Gables. The stream also represents the way Mrs. Rachel collects bits and pieces of news and turns them into a steady flow of gossip.
Marilla seems to consider an orphan a pair of hands rather than a child with a personality and needs. She objects to Anne because she knows Anne could not work on the farm, not because she worries that she and Matthew are inexperienced with children. The difference between Anne’s warmth and optimism and Marilla’s sternness begins a dynamic that foreshadows how much Anne causes the Cuthberts to change their routine.
Matthew and Marilla live together much like a married couple. Montgomery portrays both sister and brother as nearly sexless beings; Matthew cannot even look women in the eye, and Marilla is straitlaced and stern. However, some view their cohabitation as slightly strange. Mrs. Rachel seems scandalized at the prospect of Matthew and Marilla raising a child, perhaps in part because raising a child together suggests a married relationship. In a biographical article about her career, Montgomery wrote that incest was common in the town where she grew up; however, she makes no implication that incest exists in Matthew and Marilla’s relationship, suggesting instead that a brother and sister can live together and even, despite Mrs. Rachel’s protestations, raise a child together in a natural way. She emphasizes this point by having Anne call her new guardians “Matthew” and “Marilla” rather than “Mother” and “Father,” or even “Aunt” and “Uncle.”