Anne of Green Gables
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Conflict Between Imagination and Social Expectations
Anne is guided by her imagination and romanticism, which often lead her astray. Daydreams constantly interrupt her chores and conversations, pulling her away from reality and into her own imaginary world. This escape pleases Anne, but her rich inner life often comes into conflict with Avonlea’s expectations of appropriate behavior. Anne’s imaginative excursions lead to everything from minor household disasters, such as baking an inedible cake, to life-threatening calamities, such as nearly drowning in an attempt to act out a poem. Marilla does not indulge in fantasy, and equates goodness with decorum and sensible behavior. She adheres to the social code that guides the actions of well-behaved ladies. Anne has difficulty understanding why Marilla doesn’t use her imagination to improve upon the world. Partly Marilla is not naturally inclined to imaginativeness, and partly she worries for Anne, thinking that Anne will imagine and long for wonderful things and then experience painful disappointment when reality does not live up to her expectations. Anne wants to please Marilla by acting obedient and deferential, but she finds irresistible pleasure in her wild fantasies. As she matures, however, Anne curbs her extreme romanticism and finds a compromise between imagination and respectability.
Sentimentality versus Emotion
Anne’s feelings run deep; she loves and hates with passion, and dreams with spirit. However, as a child, she cannot distinguish between true emotion and mere sentimentality, or fake emotion, often allowing herself to indulge in sentiment because she thinks it romantic. Her weakness for sentiment colors her fictional stories, which feature melodrama, true love, eternal devotion, and tragic loss. She and her friends enjoy histrionic displays of emotion, working up a weepy farewell to Mr. Phillips even though they dislike him and terrifying themselves by imagining the woods to be haunted.
In part, Anne’s attachment to sentimentality provides a refuge from the real emotions of fear and loss she experienced as a child. Her parents’ death left her at the mercy of others, and as a young girl she was treated not with the love and attention that most children receive, but with cruelty and carelessness. Because Anne knows the pain of real emotion, the play-world of sentiment is comforting to her. When she imagines sentimental stories and games, she is able to control the situation, as she could not in her dealings with real emotion. Only when Anne becomes an adult can she deal with real emotion. When Matthew dies at the end of the novel, Anne experiences real loss. As a well-adjusted woman, she can cope with the loss of someone dear to her and recognize her pain as real emotion, not the sentimental fluff of her childhood games.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Although fashion interests Anne because she wants to look pretty, she wants to be fashionable mainly because she believes being good would be easier if she were well dressed and beautiful. For Anne, fashionable dress overlaps with morality. She feels she would be more grateful if her looks improved and says she cannot appreciate God because he made her so homely. Anne also views fashion as a means of fitting into her group of friends. Her increasingly stylish clothes represent her transformation from humble orphan to schoolgirl to successful scholar and woman. When Anne arrives at Green Gables, she wears ugly skimpy clothes from the orphanage, which represent her loneliness and neglect. At Green Gables, Marilla initially makes Anne sensible dresses devoid of frills or beauty. A few years later, Matthew buys Anne a stylish dress with puffed sleeves. Eventually, even Marilla agrees to allow Anne fashionable clothes. The gradual acceptance of Anne’s desire for fashionable clothes demonstrates the gradual shift of Matthew and Marilla’s feelings for Anne. At first, Marilla feels kindly toward Anne but does not see any reason to indulge her. Although Matthew would love to spoil Anne, he dares not speak against Marilla. Eventually, Matthew finds the courage to defy Marilla and give Anne a lovely dress, and Marilla comes to love Anne like a daughter and see the appeal of dressing her in fashionable clothes.
Images of Nature
Anne’s powerful imagination reveals itself during her first ride to Green Gables, when she talks romantically about the beautiful trees and natural sights of Avonlea. Nature not only pleases Anne’s eye, it gives her reliable companionship. She has lacked human friends and finds companions in plants and playmates in brooks. On her first night in Avonlea, when she fears no one will come for her, she takes comfort in the idea that she can climb into the arms of a tree and sleep there. For Anne, Avonlea, with its healthy trees, represents a pastoral heaven that contrasts with the sickly trees and coldness of her days at the orphan asylum. At Green Gables, she shows her respect for nature by giving lakes and lanes flowery, dramatic names. As she matures, she continues to love nature. During the stressful exam period at Queen’s Academy, her love of nature relaxes her and helps her to remember what is truly important in life. At the end of the novel, she looks to nature as a metaphor for her future: full of beauty, promise, and mystery.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Anne’s Red Hair
Anne’s red hair symbolizes her attitude toward herself, which changes as the novel progresses. Initially, Anne hates her red hair. She thinks it a blight on her life and complains about it at every opportunity. Her loathing for her hair reveals her dislike of herself. No one has ever loved Anne properly, and she does not approve of her own mistakes and bad behavior. Later, Anne’s acceptance and fondness for her red hair symbolizes her acceptance of herself.
The Light from Diana’s Window
Anne looks to the light from Diana’s window as a symbol of their eternal friendship. It is a familiar sight that gives Anne comfort at the end of the novel when she decides to stay in Avonlea and care for Marilla. Seeing the symbol of her loving friendship with Diana makes Anne feel better about sacrificing her ambition in order to do what she feels is the right thing.
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