- Community and the Individual in Anne of Green Gables The Meaning of Belonging
Finding one's rightful place in the social fabric is part of the challenge of growing up, and as such, it is an important focus of many books for and about children. An entire tradition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century "orphan tales" is explicitly concerned with the problem of identifying and occupying that rightful place. In books, like The Wide, Wide World (1850), Elsie Dinsmore (1867), and Pollyanna (1913), an orphaned or motherless heroine finds herself in a new and strange situation; the novel traces the course of events and adjustments which are made to ensure that the heroine takes her proper place at last. These adjustments usually work in one of two ways: either the child is subdued to the pattern of the adults, as in The Wide, Wide World (a book which is in this way not much more than a Sunday school tract), or like Elsie and Pollyanna, the child manages by the sweetness of her character and the power of her example to transform the narrow and bitter adults around her. In either case, belonging actually means conformity; the only question which remains is who is to conform to whom. The more realistic, and not coincidentally, the better-known, books in this tradition accept that the process of adjustment is a mutual one, in which both the stranger and the community are changed by their contact with each other. Adoption, in short, means adaptation. [End Page 15]
Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is one of these more realistic orphan tales. The very title of the book suggests how important belonging is. The heroine's identity is defined not by her deeds, not even by a name which is particularly and essentially individual, but by the name of the household of which she is a part. From its title and from its initial pattern of movement—the entrance of a stranger into a small and literally insular community—the reader may expect the novel to deserve its frequent epithet "heart-warming". For Anne is one of those well-loved children's books the virtues of which are obscured by the very affection in which they are held. Its popular appeal, and its reputation even among those who have not read the book, mean that it requires a strong as well as a sensitive reader to see past the expected patterns to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the experience the book presents. Any novel, however, which begins with three successive chapters entitled "Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised", "Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised", and "Marilla Cuthbert is Surprised" ought to alert the reader to the possibility that this novel will confound expectation as often as confirm it.
Although the novel does trace stages in the mutual adaptation of individual and community, stages by which the one comes to belong to the other, it exhibits a more complex pattern than one of moving inward, of increasing conformity and stability. Instead, an essential part of belonging is the movement outward, for it is only with the independence made possible by the security of belonging that the fullest meaning of belonging can truly be realized. Beneath its heart-warming popular image, in short, Anne presents a vision of the relation between community and individual which is complex as well as close, challenging as well as comfortable.
If the title suggests that individuality is less important than community, the first chapter of the book seems to confirm that suggestion, for it is an introduction not to the eponymous protagonist, but to the community to which she is to belong. What is important to notice about this introduction is twofold: first, it is clear that belonging to Green Gables necessarily means belonging to the larger Avonlea community, and second, it is implied that "belonging" is a more complex relationship than one might initially expect—not one of subordination, possession, or conformity, but of interdependence and tension.
Anne of Green Gables opens with a broad view of Avonlea, both its countryside and its inhabitants, and gradually narrows its focus from the community as a whole, to...