The novel is densely peopled by a rural community about its everyday business. Although there is a pastoral quality to the writing, Montgomery’s characterization does not idealize. Characters have faults and virtues; many have icy exteriors with softer hearts. Only Anne’s two role models are idealized: They are presented as Anne would see them, on pedestals, rather than as rounded personalities. The contrasting presentations of Mr. Phillips and Miss Stacy exemplify this characterization dichotomy; however poor a teacher Phillips is, he can be imagined in real-life terms. It is difficult to do this with Miss Stacy.
The novel is dominated by Anne’s strong, willful, and brilliant character, which is revealed through a series of episodes that usually fit a pattern. Anne typically experiences a situation, reconstructs its reality imaginatively, goes through a catastrophe, then experiences contrition, punishment, and insight; finally, she becomes reconciled to reality. However, several episodes depart from this pattern significantly. In one, Anne has to nurse a sick child through the night. Her bravery and initiative are shown here as constructive rather than as compensatory fantasy. The episode demonstrates both the degree to which Anne has grown up and also the community’s gradual recognition of her real qualities. As she grows into mid-adolescence, Anne’s successes outweigh her failures; her characterization perhaps becomes sentimentalized at times because of this.
Traditional village life is personified in Marilla and Matthew, yet both are individually characterized. Matthew’s desperate shyness fights with his fondness for his orphan charge. Anne’s natural and unaffected ability to communicate with him thus seems all the more poignant. By contrast, Marilla is portrayed as the one who both suffers from Anne’s catastrophes and administers the traditional moral wisdom to counter them. Montgomery manages to show both the limitations of such wisdom as well as the genuine concern behind it that makes it acceptable.
By contrast, Montgomery supplies an unloving moralist in Mrs. Rachel Lynde, the village know-all and conscience. One of Anne’s first outbursts of anger is directed against this moralism. The fact that Marilla sides with Anne marks an important move for her. If Mrs. Lynde represents convention, Montgomery supplies an antidote in Miss Barry, Diana’s rich maiden aunt, who takes a fancy to the “Anne-child,” recognizing in her the free spirit she is herself. Significantly, she lives in town.
Anne’s school friends are realistically portrayed. Although none has Anne’s imaginative and verbal dexterities, they are portrayed as a good-natured bunch. Only Josie Pye has the ability to make herself objectionable. The girls are most strongly characterized—Diana particularly, in her engagement with Anne’s imaginative life at first and then in her domestic situations. It is she who unobtrusively gives Anne the friendship she needs to allow her to let go of her imaginary persona. Yet it is never a feminized society: Montgomery well portrays the gradual growth from preadolescent to adolescent feelings between the sexes, with its growth of consciousness of differentiation, problematized for Anne by her antipathy to Gilbert Blythe. Preadolescent enmity gradually erodes, with great difficulty, to adolescent acceptance. For contemporary readers, these adolescents have maturity thrust upon them: It is difficult to realize that at the end Anne can hardly be seventeen and yet is ready to begin her career as village schoolteacher.