Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Although it is the force of Anne’s personality that holds the book together and thrusts the plot forward, Montgomery explores a number of themes, giving the book an ongoing vitality and complexity that the sequels lack. The first such theme is the value of childhood. Anne’s early experiences as an orphan have suggested to her that she is unwanted, fit only to be a drudge and to “earn her keep.” The Cuthberts’ original desire to get a boy from the orphanage to be an extra farmhand reinforces this. Anne makes an immediate challenge to it, sufficient to save her being consigned to a Mrs. Blewett as that lady’s drudge. Orphans are traded around as if they have no feelings. Anne’s first achievement, therefore, is to win herself enough space to prove to Marilla and Matthew that she is to be valued as a person and to be treated with respect. It takes the traumatic episodes of anger at Mrs. Lynde and a false accusation of theft from Marilla to achieve this. Marilla never really accepts the imaginative life of childhood, but she learns to tolerate it in Anne.
Marilla’s treatment of Anne—harsh, discouraging, legalistic—demonstrates the dying vestiges of a Victorian discipline that sought to crush the spirit of the child in order to conform it to the moral and social confinements of a rigid and economically bound society. That society is shown to be disappearing slowly without regret. Lucy Montgomery’s own life showed similar patterns. Reared by rigid grandparents after her mother’s early death, she found and maintained her personal freedom via her writing ability and educational opportunities.
If this theme suggests the possibility of mobility and change, the other main theme stresses the permanence of the pastoral. Montgomery’s descriptions of the landscapes, and her heroine’s ability to appreciate their beauty, create a timeless world for the reader. It becomes the ideal setting to nurture Anne’s spirit. The maturing process, for her, is to move her imagination away from fantasizing so that it can find its real strength in this complex of nature, community, and close personal relationships.