Anne of Green Gables recounts, through a series of short episodes, Anne’s girlhood, from her arrival at the village of Avonlea to the time she graduates from Teacher Training College. Based on L. M. Montgomery’s own childhood memories, Anne’s life is shown to be intertwined with the pastoral rhythms of this particular eastern seaboard province of Canada.
The story begins with a middle-aged brother and sister in search of a young orphanage boy to help around their farm, Green Gables. As the result of a misunderstanding, they get a ferociously talkative, red-haired, plain little girl. Matthew, however, takes an immediate liking to her, and Marilla is also sufficiently sorry for her not to send her back. To Anne, the farmhouse, with its little east gable room as her bedroom, is like paradise. Her imagination, already highly trained to overcome the harsh, unadorned realities of her previous existence, is kept busy as she absorbs new sights and situations. Her upbringing proceeds along two domestic channels—school and home. Marilla, a spinster, has severe and old-fashioned notions of rearing a child as austerely as possible, with little encouragement or praise. Her regime, therefore, is in constant conflict with Anne’s natural creativity and love of beauty. All requests for nice clothes or bedroom decoration are turned down. At times, it is a grim struggle on Marilla’s part to teach traditional modes of female behavior and skills to this maverick who has no aptitude for domestic roles. Fortunately, Marilla, under her crusty exterior, is good-hearted, willing to admit to her own mistakes. Matthew keeps out of the domestic battleground for a while; in the end, though, he recognizes Anne’s need for adornment and takes her side in getting some fashionable dresses. Both brother and sister encourage Anne academically and make no attempt to tie her to the farm.
At school, Anne is shown to be an apt pupil, soon making up for an indifferent start to her education. Her greatest rival at school is Gilbert Blythe—who, unfortunately, offends her early on by teasing her about her red hair, about which she is desperately sensitive. In a typically dramatic gesture, Anne declares undying enmity with Gilbert, and despite all of his best efforts, and even a melodramatic rescue from a sinking boat, she maintains that stance until almost the end of the book.
If her enmity runs deep, though, so does her friendship. On the next farm lives a large, prosperous family, the Barrys. Diana is about Anne’s age, and their friendship ripens naturally and easily. Anne is a popular girl at school; her imagination makes life interesting. Montgomery’s description of a one-teacher village school—with all its petty bickerings and rivalries, and the excitement of outings and performances— is excellent.
Anne’s first teacher, Mr. Phillips, is inexperienced and at times treats Anne quite unfairly. However, her next teacher, Miss Stacy, is a “kindred spirit” who is able to nurture Anne intellectually and emotionally, providing the role model she needs (along with Mrs. Allan, the minister’s young wife). In the end, Miss Stacy’s efforts are rewarded, and Anne passes at the top of the entrance list for Queen’s College, the island’s Teacher Training College. In Mrs. Allan, Anne sees a paradigm of moral excellence, of unselfish sympathy, that counters the rigid legalism of much of church life as Anne experiences it. Gradually, Anne emerges into a more rounded adolescent; her need for a compensatory fantasy world drops away, and she is able to find the inner discipline and resources to make the most of her abilities.
The book closes with two contrasting events. First, Anne’s success at Queen’s College is crowned with a coveted scholarship in English to a degree-granting institution, Redmond. She can break free of the usual village school-college-village school cycle to which most of her academically gifted but poor contemporaries are consigned. At the same time, however, Matthew dies from overwork and the shock of losing his life savings in a bank failure. Anne sees it as her clear duty to support Marilla by taking over from Miss Stacy at the Avonlea school. Anne accepts this cheerfully, as she has accepted so many other vicissitudes. Her compensations are the continuing friendship of Diana and the new one of a now-acceptable Gilbert.