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.