A Feminist Approach to "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

33 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

The Canadian Problem
Anne in the Eyes of the Feminist

Chapter I: Anne Shirley vs. Tropes
1.1 “The Lovable Alpha Bitch That Dies”
1.2 “The Apron Matron That Gossips”
1.3 “The Capable Damsel in Distress”
1.4 “The Proper Lady”
1.5 “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl”

Chapter II: Tropes vs. Anne Blythe
2.1 “The Proper Lady”
2.2 "The Gossipy Hen"
2.3 “The Housewife”
2.4 “The Dying Swan”

Chapter III: Relationships
Works Cited


Anne of Green Gables series does not appear as obviously feminist. Anne Shirley, the heroine, is rather “girly”—she is interested in fashion (AoGG [1] 24), is vain (216), likes sentimental fiction (208), and her life choices are rather typical for a woman of her times, as evident from the fact that she takes up a job as a teacher (293), gets married (AHoD), and has children (108). Even her political views are rather troubling, for example, she is conservative (111). Other characters also do not seem to be interest11

ed in women suffrage; Mrs. Lynde wants women to have the right to vote (AoGG 143), but she criticizes Anne for her educational plans (281).

The Canadian Problem

The fact that the books are set in Prince Edward Island is a clue to solve some of the problems posed in the previous paragraph:

Everywhere [in Canada] the major foe was apathy, not just of the legislators but of women too; and that happy hunting ground of political scientists, Prince Edward Island, might be taken as setting the Canadian record. That blessed plot, Dr. Cleverdon reports, “never nourished a suffrage organization of any kind,” with the result that Island women did not receive electoral recognition until five years after the other English-speaking provinces. (Ward 543)

Additionally, the Canadian suffrage campaign was much more toned down in comparison to the American, British, and French ones (Millete). As Margrit Eichler claims, even now most of the Canadian women are considered “a reserve army of labor” and do not get an equal treatment or pay (416).

Another issue is the time the novels are set in. The only date mentioned is the beginning of the Great War, 1914, when Rilla, Anne’s daughter, is fourteen. Knowing that, it is possible to trace the beginning of the series, Anne of Green Gables, when Anne is eleven years old, to the late 1870s (“Interlude: ‘When Did Anne . . . ‘”). Hence the timeframe for the series is 1870s- 1910s. Unfortunately, Lucy Maud Montgomery mixed some facts from the times she was writing the novels, 1908-1939 (“Lucy Maud Montgomery”). For example, the puffed-sleeved dresses were fashionable around 1907, not in 1870s. Later on, when Anne gets married, she has a dress with short sleeves that was a must-have in 1917, not in 1890s (“Interlude: ‘When did Anne . . . ‘”). Additionally, in Anne’s House of Dreams Anne has a phone in Green Gables. Series-wise it would be in 1890s, but even in 1900s in Canada there was only one telephone per 250 people. By 1930 the ratio decreased dramatically—there was one telephone per 10 people (White). Logically, it is much more believable that there were no telephones in such a rural area as Avonlea in 1890s, but it was much more possible in 1910s. Therefore, in order to establish the political and social situation of women in the times the novels are concerned with, I will use the timeframe of 1870s-1939.

Women in Canada had rather rough life at the turn of the century; one of the most reliable sources for that statement are the legal regulations. Quoting a historical source, in 1876 “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” From 1884 women are allowed to buy property and be a side in agreements. In 1900 teaching becomes the only profession that makes it possible for a woman to get a pension (“History of Women Rights”). Not until 1909 abduction of a woman is considered a crime (Morris). In 1918 women of English-speaking provinces get a ballot (except for Prince Edward Island). From 1921 women are to be fired from Civil Service of Canada the moment they get married (revoked in 1955). From 1922 married women no longer have to forfeit their property rights. From 1925 divorce laws become equal for both sexes. In 1929 Canadian women are recognized as “persons” by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (“History of Women Rights”).

In 1870 Queen Victoria wrote, “Let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations” (qtd. in Haran). For a rather long period of time these words had proven themselves to be quite true for a large portion of women in the Commonwealth. Almost 90% of them were married and remained that way since divorce was a rare event. The husband was usually considered as a “head of household.” More than 80% of married women also had at least one child, and 20% of these had six or more children (Thomas). Only about 13% of women worked (“Women’s Rights”). Their pay was significantly lower than this of a man doing the same job, for example in the Eastern Canada it would be only one third of what men earned (Derrick). In 1901 teachers from Prince Edward Island had one the lowest salaries in the country (Gidney and Millar).

The perfect woman of the times was Patmore’s “Angel in the House”—a submissive wife, who would not only forgive her husband, but would also take the blame for his offences; she would be “powerless, meek, charming, graceful . . . ” (“The Angel . . . “). Teaching was the only profession that was considered appropriate for a woman (“Schoolmarms . . .” 200). The female teachers were also expected to “behave like refined saints and paragons of virtue” (186).

The teacher was expected to be a somewhat superhuman exemplar of diligence, thrift, goodliness and other virtues. Women, because of their self-effacing dedication and supposed refined sensibilities, fit into this scheme of things with ease. The ideal schoolmarm would never drink, swear or engage in petty politics; she was expected to be an unquestionable model of all the state held dear. (204)

Teaching was an acceptable job because it was somehow connected to motherhood and nurturing, and when a young schoolmarm would finally marry, she would become a teacher for her children (200). Since they did not have to be paid as much as men, for they were not supposed to be “breadwinners” (201), they quickly outnumbered male teachers (189). It was uncommon for a woman to hold an administrating position or even teach higher grades (181). There were few female principals, especially in coeducational high schools (Hale).

Anne in the Eyes of the Feminist

There are numerous types of feminism, and the critics argue among themselves. For example, Mary Daly is a well-known advocate of the radical approach. She and her followers agree that patriarchy and gender roles “degrade all, but especially women’s, humanity”. Daly also blames the religion for being an agent of women’s degradation, and describes the relation between agreeing to live by patriarchal rules and declining them as being trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, since a woman who disagrees with the rules is bound to be “an extra-patriarchal anomie” (Mann and MacMahon).

Mary Eagleton, while interested mostly in literature, focuses on what it means to be a woman and criticizes the binary divisions. She claims that feminine characteristics, which she defines as being traditionally linked to being a female, are not only “largely inferior” to the masculine ones, but they were also “attributed to other oppressed groups” (Eagleton 155) in order to establish the relation of power between the white male and others.

Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Meg Coulson criticize the disconnection between the white women and “the peripherial” ones. They claim that white feminist cannot “represent women in general, [just like] white men could [not] represent humanity as a whole.” The main interest of race conscious feminism is to “free all women” (Bhavnani and Coulson).

In my BA Thesis I will be using the feminist approach, the kind that has been criticized for focusing on “white, middle-class, heterosexual” women (Quinn). I consciously disregard the race- or class-oriented kinds of the approach, since Anne and other female characters from the series are just that—white, middle-class, and heterosexual.

Robert DiYanni formulated such questions for feminist criticism, which I am also going to address in my work:

1. To what extent does the representation of women (and men) in the work reflect the place and time, in which the work was written?
2. How are the relationships between men and women, or those between members of the same sex, presented in the work?
3. Does the author present the work from within a predominantly male or female sensibility? Why might this have been done, and with what effects? (1908)

The first question was answered in “The Canadian Problem” part and will be developed in “Chapter I: Anne Shirley vs. Tropes”. I will compare Anne’s and her girlfriends lifestyle with the ones exacted by the law and present in other sentimental fiction of the times. As for the relationships, at the beginning of the series Avonlea appears as a matriarchal society, in which the majority of the most important decisions, the ones that affect the whole community and not only one’s field, are made by women: they are the ones who educate children, and they are the ones who organize the social life of the village. It is an example of maternal feminism brought to life, a branch of feminism that was rather popular in Canada (Rothwell 134-136).

Maternal feminism is based on a notion that women are natural caregivers and that they can be not only mothers to their children, but to the whole society (“Time Links . . . ”). In Anne of Green Gables the issue is further developed and even gains insignia of empowered mothering, which is connected to the Third Wave Feminism.

Erica Horwitz contends that there are several themes that characterize empowered mothering . . . These are as follows: “the importance of mothers meeting their own needs; being a mother doesn’t fulfill all of women’s needs; involving others in their children’s upbringing . . . not believing that mothers are solely responsible for how children turn out . . . (qtd. in Virokannas 22)

Similarly, Marilla does not give up the life she had “before Anne” when she decides to adopt her: she still manages the household, goes to Aid Society (AoGG 153), attends political meetings (175), takes part in the life of Avonlea, regularly visits Mrs. Lynde (101), and “retreats to solitude to cure her headaches” (Virokannas 29).

Anne’s biological mother died when Anne was three months old (AoGG 52), so she cannot be called a mother figure. Anne was mothered by Marila, Matthew, Mrs. Lynde, Miss Stacy, Mrs. Allan and Miss Barry, Diana’s aunt (Virokannas 23). Marilla taught her domestic skills, such as cooking (AoGG 116); Matthew was the one to whom she would talk to (20), and who would always be tender towards her (91); Mrs. Lynde would often give advice regarding child rearing to Marilla (124); Miss Stacy cared for her intellectual and physical development (239); Mrs. Allan guided her in the matters of morality (261); and Miss Barry not only supplied Anne with cultural entertainments (294), but also gave her gifts (255).

The above also contests the idea of “mothers being solely responsible for how children turn out.” As evident from the Anne’s example, it may even be so that a child can take up nothing from the people, who are meant to be its “parents.” The first eleven years of Anne’s life are rather rough—she is not treated as a child, but either as a burden, or as a nanny/maid (52-53). Marilla, when reflecting on Anne’s childhood, thinks that she had “a starved and unloved life” (54). One would expect Anne to grow up to be a pathological person, but she is able to resist bad influence of her previous “mother figures.”

As for the last question posed by DiYanni, the series is written from a female perspective. Its protagonist is a woman, it deals with the same problems the women of these times had to cope with, for example, supporting herself (AoA), marriage (AHoD), child’s death (67), children rearing (110), children going to war (RoI 25), and dying there (118). Anne of Green Gables series is most plausibly aimed at a female audience: at first at children, and later on, perhaps at the adults, too.

I believe that Anne Shirley sets a fine example for an average woman of the times the books were written in. She is not a battling feminist, and even though sometimes I wish she was one, her lifestyle was probably much more approachable for the majority of women. Anne gets as much education as she is legally allowed to (AotI), she becomes a principal in a coeducational high school (AoWP), which was almost impossible to achieve for a woman in her times, she marries the man she loves (AHoD) and does it when she is twenty-five years old (“Anne of Green Gables”), when most of her girlfriends are already married. She also proved herself to be equal to or better than majority of the males she encounters—“And when she falls in love, it is with a man who respects her intellect, who spends years competing with her for top scholastic honours and who only wins about half the time” (Angyal).

My thesis is concerned with whether Anne Shirley (or later Anne Blythe) may be seen as a feminist character. I believe that before the change of her surname she possessed many feminist features—she was able to escape some of the most prevailing stereotypes about women and achieved more than the majority of the women of her times did, but after being married she became a secluded housewife, whose only interest was matchmaking.

Chapter I : Anne Shirley vs. Tropes

Anne Shirley is not portrayed as a typical woman of her times—she looks different; she does not possess the skills that are traditionally connected with womanhood in the Western Sphere, such as cooking, cleaning, making oneself and her environment beautiful or being a “good Christian”; she successfully competes with her male counterparts and has some tomboyish traits. Other female characters, on the other hand, represent some of the most prevailing stereotypes about women of the western culture and literature.

Frank Taylor, in his study devoted to gender stereotypes in children books, lists such characteristic female traits like being passive, indoor-oriented, domestic, and a follower of a male leader. Women are also considered less independent and they show no interest in career (304). John Gray in his popular book claims that men “value power, competency, efficiency and achievement” (15), while women are more interested in “love, communication, beauty, and relationships. Their sense of self is defined through their feelings and the quality of their relationships. They experience fulfillment through sharing and relating” (16). Also the roles that women play in literature and other media are often unimaginative, stereotypical and almost always in a relation to a male character. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work The Madwoman in the Attic claim that women are either “angels” or “monsters” (596), although there exist “variations upon the roles of angel and monster, they seem on the surface quite varied, because so many masks, reflecting such an elaborate typology, have been invented for women” (597). Furthermore, they are outside of the mainstream (male) society, being both the symbols of everything that is most good and most evil (598). Women can be innocent love interests, mothers, wives, or dangerous femme fatales, who often end as fallen women. Rarely do they exist for themselves and are fully developed characters.

1.1 “The Lovable Alpha Bitch That Dies”

Ruby definitely started and ended as a typical character. She is pretty, popular, cute, girly and likable. She is also able to make a not-very-nice comment, like calling Anne’s face “white, with awful little red spots in it” (AoGG 146). She is “fair . . . and has . . . lovely long golden hair” (278), she cries a lot and is even called “hysterical” (234), she is sentimental and “thinks of nothing but beaus” (261), and, when she is thirteen years old, plans to get a beau of her own when she becomes fifteen (261). Even as she grows up, she still has only these few traits—she thinks about boys and is popular with them (AoA). When Anne thinks about her in the moments before Ruby’s death, she claims that Ruby “had laid up her treasures on earth only; she had lived solely for the little things in life” (AotI). Later on she adds insult to the injury and reinforces this statement by thinking that “Ruby has always been beautiful; but her beauty had been of earth, earthy; . . . spirit had never shone through it, intellect had never refined it.” It seems to be a criticism towards shallow people or characters who possess nothing but their looks. This trope is and was popular both now and when Lucy Maud Montgomery was writing her books.

When Ruby Gilis dies, she does it in a popular way too. Margueritte Gautler, the famous protagonist of Alexander Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias, is a prostitute, and a rather positive character, who is punished for her misconduct by suffering and death (Dumas 250). She is obviously a fallen woman and a flirt. Ruby Gilis, while much more innocent, dies of the same “romantic” illness (Yancey 17). Tuberculosis, or, as it was called back then, galloping consumption, pulmonary phtisis or White Plague (Yancey, 14), was used by many 19th-century authors to kill off their heroines (for example, Helen Burns from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables). Perhaps it was due to the fact that the illness made their faces more radiant, as evident from Ruby’s “brilliant cheeks” and “pale” complexion (AotI), and the popular, but contrastive ideas that the ill one was either purified by suffering, or cursed (Yancey, 19). Ruby Gilis is most flirtatious of all the Anne’s girlfriends (AoGG, 178) and she has many admirers, but when she decides to settle down, she dies in pain (AotI). She is also one of the most beautiful female in the novel, and as Edgar Allan Poe claims—“the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world” (4). I would also add “one of the most overused in the literature.”

In contrast to Ruby, the first thing the reader learns about Anne is her unusual appearance; she has red hair and freckles, is too thin by the turn-of-the-century standards, and, generally speaking, is not considered traditionally beautiful (AoGG 15-16). She is complimented on her looks throughout the series, but nonetheless her being different than other girls and women is usually heavily accented: “an extraordinary observer might have seen that the chin was very pointed and pronounced . . . our discerning extraordinary observer might have concluded that no commonplace soul inhabited the body of this stray woman-child” (16) or “even gruff old Doctor Dave gave her [Anne] an approving glance, and told his wife, as they drove home together, that that red-headed wife of the boy's was something of a beauty” (AHoD). Mrs. Rachel Lynde was not sure if she will be ever able to decide whether Anne was or was not a “pretty girl” (AoA). As Anne grew older, her appearance stopped being so important to her, but in the first book of the series she was extremely aware of the fact that she did not look like other girls and it saddened her, as shown in the incident with Mrs. Lynde (AoGG 83). She often tried to change her looks: she wanted to dye her hair to black (273) and remove the freckles (AoA), but she failed at these attempts – her hair turned green and her skin peeled off (yet the freckles remained).

She is, obviously, rather unpopular with boys and is not interested in it. While Ruby Gilis likes when her name is being “writ[ten] up in a take-notice” (261) (youths from Avonlea would write a boy’s and a girl’s name together in order to show that the two are in “love” with each other), Anne sees it as the “silliest” (138). Additionally, in Anne there is more to it than just looks, she has also academic successes (332), which were already mentioned in the introduction—she always gets good marks, and she becomes the principal of a coeducational high school.

What is even more interesting, characters like Ruby Gilis, the ones that could be described as “the popular girl with no intellect,” are usually either meant as positive (but then they are created solely for the purpose of being the male protagonist's love interest) or are the heroine's archenemy. Either way, the reader does not respond very well to them—they are considered boring or just plain evil. An example of such a female character being just a love interest is Charlotte, the alleged reason of Werther’s sorrows (Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther), while Caroline Bingley could be called a beautiful nemesis (Austen, Pride and Prejudice). In the case of Ruby Gilis the situation is different—she is just a sweet girl, Anne's schoolmate, and the moments, in which Ruby is talking about her “beaus” or acting “hysterical” provoke a giggle, but not a mean one.


[1] In the body of my BA thesis I will refer to the novels written by Lucy Maud Montgomery using abbreviations: AoGG for Anne of Green Gables, AoA for Anne of Avonlea, AotI for Anne of the Island, AoWP for Anne of Windy Poplars, AHoD for Anne’s House of Dreams, AoI for Anne of Ingleside, RV for Rainbow Valley and RoI for Rilla of Ingleside.

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A Feminist Approach to "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery
University of Gdansk  (English Philology)
American Studies
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ISBN (Book)
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I would like to thank Dr. Beata Williamson, my supervisor, for her support.
lucy maud montgomery; montgomery; anne shirley; feminism; feminist; canada; canadian literature; children literature; 20th century;
Quote paper
Paula Skarzycka (Author), 2014, A Feminist Approach to "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/277487


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