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.
Montgomery’s journal for 1904 contains the germ for her first published novel, Anne of Green Gables: An elderly couple intend to adopt a young boy, but the orphanage sends a young girl instead. Spinster Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew decide to adopt an orphan boy to help Matthew with chores. Complications occur when Matthew, a shy bachelor, is completely overwhelmed by the imaginative girl waiting at the train station. Anne talks all the way to Green Gables, explaining how imagination helps her cope with the unpleasantness of life as an orphan; she creates personalities for trees, brooks, ponds, even a geranium at the doorstep, giving each an imaginative name. This love of nature seems excessive to many in Avonlea, but Matthew is charmed, insisting that she remain. Anne declares Matthew the first “kindred spirit” she encounters in Avonlea.
Eventually, Marilla decides Providence sent Anne to Green Gables. She never completely understands Anne, and she has difficulty expressing affection, but Marilla’s pride in and love for Anne grow throughout the novel. Seeing her role as disciplinarian, Marilla allows Matthew to spoil Anne, while she tries to inculcate religious principles, etiquette, and a degree of practicality, but she too insists that Anne have the best life the Cuthberts can afford.
Impetuous and quick-tempered, Anne must learn tact, restraint, and etiquette before she moves from outsider to part of the community. Her hasty words and rash actions offend adults like Mrs. Lynde and Josephine Barry, Diana’s rich, elderly aunt, but Anne’s profuse, heartfelt apologies charm the injured parties.
Anne also learns that problems can result from carelessness. The special cake she bakes for the new pastor and his wife is seasoned with anodyne liniment instead of vanilla because Anne has not checked the bottle’s contents. In a similar mix-up, she serves Diana currant wine instead of raspberry cordial; though neither girl recognizes what is happening, Diana becomes drunk, and only Anne’s dramatic rescue of Diana’s younger sister reconciles Mrs. Barry to their continued friendship.
Anne considers Diana a kindred spirit but recognizes her “bosom friend’s” more limited imagination. It is Anne who tells stories of the Haunted Wood, making both of them scared to walk there alone after dark. Anne also nearly drowns when she decides to dramatize the story of Elaine, the lily maid, using a flatboat on the creek. Fortunately, Gilbert rescues her.
Anne’s relationship with Gilbert is a continuing plot line. Her pride prevents acceptance of his attempts at friendship, and his pride will not allow him to continue trying. Their classmates believe they will eventually reconcile and marry; Marilla secretly hopes that the son of her one-time beau will someday marry her adopted daughter. For Anne, though, the presence of Gilbert spurs her ambition, making her determined to win the highest academic honors and give the most effective dramatic readings. The two become friends only at the novel’s end, when Gilbert gives up the Avonlea school so Anne can teach there and help Marilla save Green Gables.
Despite Matthew’s death and Marilla’s failing eyesight, the novel ends on an upbeat note as Anne renounces her scholarship to Redmond College, taking the teaching job in Avonlea. Anne says she is staying because she loves Green Gables; in fact, she also loves Marilla and feels responsibility toward her. Realizing Gilbert’s sacrifice, Anne approaches him and apologizes for her stubbornness. The two agree to study together to prepare for Redmond.