Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Anne of Green Gables was Montgomery’s first novel. Its success was immediate (six editions in six months) and continuing; the book has been dramatized, televised, and filmed and has been translated into dozens of languages. The demand for a sequel produced a series of seven further books tracing Anne’s career through marriage and motherhood. Other heroines were also created, including an Emily, who is seen to be the most autobiographical of them all. The other characters of Avonlea also feature in several volumes of short stories. All are based on Montgomery’s own memories of Prince Edward Island, even though in later life she moved away. A museum in Charlottetown, the island’s capital, is devoted to Montgomery’s life and works. Montgomery herself never believed that she had achieved the status of a great writer, though modern critical interest has established her as a major exponent of Canadian adolescent fiction.

In a wider context, Anne of Green Gables belongs to the core tradition of domestic realism in North American children’s literature, especially in its focus on the heroine’s development from girlhood onward. Thus, Montgomery stands in a tradition stretching from Louisa May Alcott to Laura Ingalls Wilder. The novel’s immediate contemporary in this tradition is Kate Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), set just over the border in Maine. It has been suggested that Anne is a straight pastiche of Wiggin’s heroine, but the germ of the idea was certainly in existence before the publication of Rebecca, and the novel is autobiographical enough to suggest that the material was personal, not derivative. However, the resemblances are strong.

More significant is the change in the two books away from piety and moral goodness as the major source of influence (as in the Elsie Dinsmore books) to the sheer force of personality of the heroine. A slightly later contemporary book, Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna (1912), reverts to moral goodness as central, though it is mediated through a vivacious and irrepressible heroine in the Anne and Rebecca mold.

The style of the book and its appeal calls into question the modern categorization of “children’s literature” as something separate and linguistically and tonally different from “adult” fiction. A more useful classification of the book might be as part of a “family reading” genre, to be enjoyed by adult, adolescent, and child alike; such a grouping would be more typical of the Victorian Bildungsroman and adventure story tradition. The continuing popularity with such a “family” audience suggests the strength of Montgomery’s writing in Anne of Green Gables.