Anne of Green Gables
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the quintessential Canadian book. It’s popularity among Canadians is accounted for by the observation that it fits the manner in which Canadians like to think of themselves, just as mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn do for Americans. I mean, it feeds our national myth we carry about ourselves. But beyond that - exactlyhow or whythey prosper by feeding our national myths - I do not know. Each of these books stands the test of time and remains popular more than a century after they were written, which brings me to the topic of the year 2005.
This year marks the centennial of Anne of Green Gables. Although the book was not published until 1908, Montgomery wrote it in 1905. It is one of my favorite books. I have read it half a dozen times, and I love the Kevin Sullivan movie starring Meagan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, and Richard Farnsworth, with music by Haygood Hardy, that was made in the 1980s. It’s bright and sunny, it was filmed on location in Canadian pioneer villages, and the character of Rachel Lynde reminds me of our neighbor in Guelph, June McArthur. She looks and sounds remarkably like the actress Patricia Hamilton, who played Rachel Lynde in the movie, and her personality is not unlike that of Mrs. Lynde, I think. The story idealizes life in old Canada, before we became a multi-cultural urban, G-7 nation. The film version is cleaner than the book, and that fact makes it misleading. The smells of outhouse dung and farm animal dung don’t come across. The dirt of the roads, the itch of woolen clothes, and the labor of pumping water for everyday use are completely absent. The short life expectancy of Canadians in those days - about half of today’s - doesn’t register. Nor does the low literacy rate. Canada one hundred years ago was like a Third World country today - a rural, agricultural land with a natural resource-based economy, low literacy rates, and low life expectancy. The population of the country at the time was about the size of metropolitan Torontotoday, which I think is very interesting. I think it speaks of the ability of a population base to produce and support a culture - even a brilliant, high culture. (Parisbuilt Notre Dame Cathedral and produced a scholar like Thomas Aquinas with a population of a mere 50,000. Athens at the time of Aristotle had, maybe, 300,000 souls. The entire population of the world in the time of Christ is estimated at around 300 million, which is approximately the increase in human numbers seen in the 1990s alone.)
Anne became a schoolteacher at the age of 16, which, considering the life expectancy of the time, is not far-fetched. Of Anne’s girlhood friends from the original novel, at least one (Ruby Gillis or Jane Andrews, I forget which) dies of scarlet fever. Another ends up living in China, married to a missionary. In the later novels, after Anne marries Gilbert Blythe, one of her children dies in infancy. These sorts of things are not at all common in modern Canada. Infant death is relatively rare. Scarlet fever is practically unheard of now. 16 years is way too young to be finished with school, let alone to be teaching it. And, how many Canadians these days even know about overseas missionaries?
Of course the film screenwriters took liberties with the novel and re-wrote it into modern English, as well as re-positioning some of the scenes. If you read the novel one of the first things that will strike you is the old style language, both the dialog of Prince Edward Islandfarmers as well as Montgomery’s prose. Another thing that strikes me is the ethnically insensitive language - slurs of French Canadians and gypsies - that would not pass muster in modern Canadian. The Sullivan film could easily delete or re-write this, and the many stage adaptations that have been made can do the same, so people who have never read the book may have no idea what Marilla Cuthbert really says about French Canadians and other minorities.
It is well known that Anne of Green Gables has been extremely popular in Japan for many years. Here it is called “Aka ge no Ann,”or “Red Haired Anne.” Several years ago there was even an Anne of Green Gables theme park in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. It is closed now, but the fact that it survived for a time speaks to some appeal that the story has for Japanese. So, what is the attraction? What accounts for Anne’s popularity with so many Japanese?
Two things primarily, I think. First, Anne as a young girl is very flowery. She always talks about flowers and the beauties of Nature, and she herself is rather cute (despite the ugliness of red hair - an affectation of demons in Japanese mythology). All of these things together appeal to Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, and the young and girlish personality of Anne synchronizes with the Japanese psyche. (It might be rude to say so - I think there is some legitimacy to it, however - but the psychological age of the average Japanese is about 12-years-old, and there is a large portion of what Westerners would call femininity in Japanese culture.)
Second, and by far the more important of the two points, is Anne’s behavior when she finishes studying to become a teacher and Matthew Culthbert dies. Anne displays admirable filial piety by giving up her scholarship to university in order to stay at home on the farm, caring for Marilla. Traditional Asian cultures revere filial piety and feminine submission, both of which Anne epitomizes (to Japanese eyes) in her relationship with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. For me, though, I like to re-read the novel and watch the movie on video periodically if I feel homesick, or if I want to nurture a feeling of homesickness. Although Anne of Green Gables does not represent any real Canada that I ever knew I can’t help it that it is woven into my mythology of Canadianness.