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Life Lessons from Anne

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

Anne of Green Gables, that is.

First published in 1908, Anne of Green Gables (and the rest of the nine book series that detail Anne’s life and loves) is a phenomenally popular and lasting example of literature for young people that grips audiences regardless of demographic.  It’s one of my favourite books to teach, because students start off thinking they know the general story and being resistant to its charms — and then, eventually, they fall in love.

Often I lure them in by talking about author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s tragic life and the way Anne’s character worked as a kind of wish fulfillment for Montgomery, whose own desperately sad childhood and unhappy marriage do not resonate with Anne’s joyful spark.  But just as often, new readers to the Anne series are charmed by Anne herself: this plucky orphan who arrives at an elderly sibling-couple’s doorstep unwanted and yet determined to look on the bright side of life and reshape herself, no matter what the world expects of her.

But my journey through Anne’s story is also always a very personal one; I felt from a young age that Anne was my own, in her words, “kindred spirit,” and many of her life lessons have been important touchstones in my own life.

Lesson 1: Bloom where you’re planted.

I’ve made up my mind to enjoy this drive.  It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly you will.  Of course, you must make it up firmly.

This lesson has stuck with me through long-distance moves, bouts of homesickness, and even really really really awful dinner parties.  Anne says the above words while she is very likely on her way to yet another foster home — none of which have been particularly happy places — but Anne makes a conscious choice not to feel dread.  So admirable.

Lesson 2: Fashion is stupid.  But it matters.

I’d rather look ridiculous when everybody else does than plain and sensible all by myself.

This line always echoes back to me when I think about my inexplicable love of Uggs.

Lesson 3: Love and friendship are everything.

I thought you liked me of course, but I never hoped you loved me.  Why, Diana, I didn’t think anybody could love me.  Nobody has ever loved me that I can remember.  Oh, this is wonderful!

Anne is an orphan with a history of being neglected, abandoned, and unwanted.  Before meeting Diana, her best friends included her own reflection in the glass front of a bookshelf broken by her alcoholic foster father, and an echo.  If you’ve ever taken the concept of friendship for granted, you really can’t after spending a few quiet hours with Anne.

Lesson 4: When you can’t stop screwing up, think of all the things you could have screwed up but didn’t.

Oh, I know I’m a great trial to you, Marilla.  I make so many mistakes.  But then just think of all the mistakes I don’t make, although I might.

This was a particular comfort to me in grade twelve physics.

Lesson 5: Complicated is interesting.

There’s such a lot of different Anne’s in me.  I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person.  If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.

It must be a great deal better to be sensible; but still, I don’t believe I’d really want to be a sensible person, because they are so unromantic.

Anne, having been deprived of so much in her early life, almost never says no to an opportunity that crosses her path.  I am learning that while this leads for a life of scrambling, it’s ever such interesting scrambling (as Montgomery might pen).

Lesson 6: Equality just makes good sense.

Why can’t women be ministers, Marilla?  I asked Mrs. Lynde and she was shocked and said it would be a scandalous thing.  She said there might be female ministers in the States and she believed there was, but thank goodness we hadn’t got to that stage in Canada yet and she hoped we never would.  But I don’t see why.  I think women would make splendid ministers.  When there is a social to be got up or a church tea or anything to else to raise money the women have to turn to and do the work.

Actually, the itsy-bitsy moments of protofeminism in this 1908 novel is one of my favourite surprises.  Adoptive mother Marilla, for example, is adamant that Anne be able to earn a living for herself, and thus she and Matthew find the money to send Anne to teacher’s college.  Montgomery herself feared that her income as a writer wouldn’t support herself, and some suggest that this is how she ended up in an unhappy marriage.  She didn’t want that same fate for Anne.

Lesson 7: Successes are wonderful, but they don’t change your core self.

I’m not a bit changed — not really.  I’m only just pruned down and branched out.  The real me — back here — is just the same.  It won’t make a bit of difference where I go or how much I change outwardly; at heart I shall always be your little Anne, who will love you and Matthew and dear Green Gables more and better every day of her life.

Anne has a long and difficult road to find happiness, love, and family.  As a result, she knows how essential those things are to who she is.  Though she’s off to college with admirable test results to her name, she is adamant that who she is — deeply shaped by Marilla and Matthew’s love — will not change.  And this gets at one of the most compelling aspects of the Anne books: Anne knows herself profoundly.  Her self-assurance, even as she grows and changes and errs and fails, is deeply attractive.

Lesson 8: No matter what, life is marvelous.

Dear old world, you are very lovely and I am glad to be alive in you.

Whispered just after the central tragedy of the novel, Anne reminds us that the only way to move on is to move forward.  Her gratitude for life is moving.

I know I’m not the only Anne fan on the internet; there are wonderful blogs about Anne here, here, and here, just as a for instance.  What are your most compelling life-lessons from That Anne Girl?