Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

“Scope for the Imagination”:  Imaginative Spaces and Female Agency in Anne of Green Gables

Lauren Makrancy

Lauren Makrancy holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a minor in Drama from The Catholic University of America and an M.A. in English Literature from The College of New Jersey. She has taken additional literature courses at Keble College, Oxford University and Princeton University, and, for the last eight years, has been an Upper School English teacher and Theater Director at The Lewis School of Princeton. In February 2015, she presented her paper “The Power of the Female Elsewhere: Christine de Pizan and The Book of the City of Ladies” at Vagantes, a Graduate Medieval Conference held at the University of Florida. Anne of Green Gables is her favorite childhood novel, and she is honored to be a part of this special L.M. Montgomery edition.

Within the canon of children’s literature, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stands out for its spirited heroine Anne Shirley and her lively imagination. An orphan who has lived an “unloved life” full of “drudgery, poverty, and neglect,” Anne has developed her imagination as a coping mechanism and as a means of survival (41). Throughout the novel, Montgomery reveals that Anne’s imagination is a powerful entity that is intricately connected to place; as a result, Anne is able to reconfigure the physical world that she sees until it reflects her idealistic imaginings. While scholars of the novel are in agreement on the radical agency of Anne’s youthful imagination, they are divided in their assessment of the older Anne’s imaginative agency. The majority of late twentieth century scholars depict Anne as a figure of female conformity; however, a handful of twentieth and twenty-first century scholars portray her as a girl who promotes a form of understated feminism. Ultimately, Anne’s imagination is a utopian “elsewhere,” an interior environment that geographical feminist Gillian Rose states “defies the repression and the limitations of the master subject” in the exterior world (156). By analyzing Anne’s imaginative elsewhere through Rose’s theoretical lens, one can see how truly progressive Anne is as a paradoxical figure who consistently possesses agency and actualizes her hopes and dreams into concrete realities.

Anne’s powers of imaginative agency must first be understood within the context of the literary tradition it follows: the Victorian female bildungsroman. The female bildungsroman was invented in the Victorian era to “praise and promulgate the period’s ideal of femininity” through a didactic agenda (Salah 194). These novels offer fictional examples of the Angel in the House and serve as cautionary tales for girls who strayed from the path of domestic perfection. Eve Kornfeld and Susan Jackson state that this female-generated genre is especially interesting because it “illuminates the social expectations of female life as well as the secret hopes and dreams which might not be revealed in another format” (140). As a result, female bildungsromans are centered on the “feminine utopia,” a safe place wherein which young girls can safely solve the problems of adolescence (Kornfeld and Jackson 143, 141). The problematic element to Kornfeld and Jackson’s idea of a feminine utopia is that it essentially has oppressive boundaries, and that the female protagonists are unable to achieve their masculine goals of advancement (150). Rather than oppressing her, Anne’s imaginative elsewhere liberates her from the Victorian ideal of the subservient and reticent female child. Her powers of imaginative restructuring make her anything but conformant; she is an “apostle of the imagination” who uses her otherness to awaken and convert the hearts and minds of everyone around her (MacLulich 98).

Montgomery’s creation of Anne’s female utopian imaginative space is akin to Gillian Rose’s claim that since the “female subject is a site of differences,” and her location is all about “vulnerability,” she is forced to imagine an “elsewhere beyond the violence and repression of the master subject” (Rose 138, 146, 156). Rose states that the space of feminism is ultimately paradoxical, as females simultaneously occupy the inside and outside of their social circles (140). Anne herself realizes her paradoxical and multi-dimensional personality, which echoes Rose’s notion of the “positivity of otherness”: “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that’s 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” (161, Rose 150). Holly Blackford reiterates Rose’s theory with her statement that Anne “self-consciously understands her interior multiplicity” and paradoxically symbolizes both “the outsider and the one who belongs” (xiii). Essentially, Anne’s paradoxical nature allows her to simultaneously inhabit the center and the margin of her world: she is an orphan and part of the Cuthbert family, an Avonlea outsider and one of their most beloved members, a girl and a scholar, a domestic and a dreamer. She has emerged from the asylum, an environment that Rose would term a “place of locational confinement,” and as she matures into a young lady, she settles into Green Gables and Avonlea, places of permanent belonging (145). Anne’s imaginative space is an elsewhere location from which she can see herself as the center, even when she is a marginal figure in society. Hence, her inner female utopia is a testament to her “positivity of otherness” and a challenge to the strict confines of her Victorian upbringing (Rose 150). As Anne becomes the central figure of her community, her imagination remains an essential but more refined part of her personality. Anne does not cultivate her imagination in order to make herself conform to the traditional Victorian feminine ideal; rather, she does so in order to mature and develop closer towards her own unique feminine ideal, one that is dramatic, keenly intelligent, and ambitious.

This “freckled little witch” enters the ordered world of Avonlea and proceeds to create disorder and then a “superior new order” simply through the powers of her imagination (15, Rubio 68). Joy Alexander notes that Montgomery posits Anne in the “mythic space” of Avonlea, a world “governed by space, place, and nature” in order to find a “cult of place” and belonging (43). Alexander goes on to state that Anne’s attachment to place is a “crucial aspect of her psyche, deriving from her orphan status” (44). As soon as Matthew Cuthbert picks up Anne from the train station, she begins a monologue that explains how her imaginative prowess has been a coping mechanism for her formerly “lonely, heart-hungry, friendless” existence at the asylum, where there was “so little scope for the imagination” (29, 13). Anne’s arrival on Prince Edward Island is significant in the sense that her imagination and her reality are converging for the first time, which will cause a transformation for herself and her new community: “I used to imagine I was living here, but I never really expected I would. It’s delightful when your imaginations come true, isn’t it?” (14). As the pair rides in the carriage toward Green Gables, Anne is overwhelmed by the natural splendor that surrounds her. When she sees the Avenue, a stretch of apple trees in full bloom, their beauty strikes her “dumb,” and she reveals her “strongly affective response to place” (17, Alexander 57). As a result, she proclaims that the Avenue is the “first thing [she] ever saw in [her] life that couldn’t be improved upon by the imagination” (18). Even so, Anne is not simply satisfied with witnessing this astounding beauty; she must “rename” and “fix” the world around her to give her a sense of “rootedness and a sense of belonging to a specific place” (Alexander 49). Anne firmly states that when she “doesn’t like the name of a person or place” she “always imagine[s] a new one and always think[s] of them as so” (18). As a result, the Avenue becomes the White Way of Delight and Barry’s Pond becomes the Lake of Shining Waters. A powerless female orphan, Anne uses her imagination to take “upon herself the power of the Father – signification” (Berg 158). This is a radical stance for Anne to take, but one that she is able to make through her “positivity of otherness.” Since she is other, she is not beholden to any female stereotype and can therefore access the traditionally masculine power to perceive, create, and restructure her environment. Within her paradoxical position as an orphan/outsider, she can reenact a veritable genesis for herself and Avonlea in a way that is denied to any lifelong inhabitant. Anne thus utilizes her ability to be a “site of differences” in order to be a site of resistance to the established environment (Rose 138, 150).

The strength of Anne’s vivid imaginative elsewhere has allowed her to cope with being the orphan/other, thus giving her the ability to recover from whatever loss or absence she has encountered. Anne does not use her imagination as a substitute for her reality; rather, she exercises it as the exact representation of her very practical hopes and dreams. Montgomery utilizes Anne’s imagination as a necessary threshold between her multiple existences, since it has provided her with the opportunity to embrace a life in the center while still existing as a marginal figure. Even as she reimagines her new room and herself at Green Gables, she already begins to accept who she is, and she tells her mirror reflection, “You’re only Anne of Green Gables, and I see you, just as you are looking now, whenever I try to imagine that I am the Lady Cordelia. But it’s a million times nicer to be Anne of Green Gables than Anne of nowhere in particular, isn’t it?” (60). When Anne signifies herself as “Anne of Green Gables,” she creates an “inextricable linkage of person and place where she has found her preferred state of being” (Alexander 58). With her place in the world secure, she can focus her imaginative powers on converting the lives, minds, and hearts of those around her.

If the first half of the novel displays Anne’s imagination as a revisionist power, the second half of the novel portrays her imagination as her personal wellspring of emotional and mental restoration. While this transition might seem less radical, it nevertheless has an undeniable narrative potency. As the novel progresses, Anne attains each of her desires: a home, friendship, belonging, and security. With her foundation secure, she freely exercises her transformative power “onto her daily life, until Avonlea is converted, through her agency, into a space where she can be both a correct woman and a free one” (Salah 207). Anne discovers that her “purpose in life” is to be a teacher, and she moves her academic ambitions to the forefront and prepares for the Queen’s College Entrance exam (243). Despite her practical preparations, Anne reveals that she has followed Matthew’s advice and continues to shape “glittering castles in Spain out of the mists and rainbows of her lively fancy,” where “adventures wonderful and enthralling were happening to her in cloudland” (238). After working diligently all term, Anne tells Marilla that she is “so tired of everything sensible,” and that she is going to let her “imagination run riot all summer” (247). Anne’s physical health and academic success vitally depend on the health of her imagination, and during that “golden summer” she “dream[s] to her heart’s content,” thus revitalizing her “heart full of ambition and zest” (250). The mature Anne is less verbose, but her dreams are still an integral component of her personality: she believes it is “nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one’s heart, like treasures” (254). Anne is now on the threshold of young adulthood, and the chapters “An Epoch in Anne’s Life,” “Where the Brook and River Meet,” and “The Bend in the Road” aptly reflect this transient yet crucial phase of decisions and development. When Anne first arrived at Green Gables, she loved to imagine herself with jet-black hair, named Cordelia, and lavishly dressed in silks and jewels. At sixteen, Anne has become a lithe young woman whose auburn beauty stands out (as Mrs. Lynde states) as a red peony among June lilies. While her friends dream of looking like the elegant women at the White Sands concert, Anne reminds them that they already possess beauty, talents, and gifts: “We are rich. Why, we have sixteen years to our credit, and we’re happy as queens, and we’ve all got our imaginations, more or less. Look at that sea, girls—all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen…I don’t want to be anyone but myself…I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads” (273-4). The possession of imagination is a source of wealth for the young women, since it allows them a “vision of things not seen.” Here, Anne does not promote imagination as a form of escape or self-revision; instead, she avidly advocates that imagination enriches their inherent beauty and happiness. Accordingly, her imaginative female utopia is no longer an elsewhere created to articulate an absence; rather, it is an elsewhere established to convey her abundant interior and exterior life.

Montgomery’s female bildungsroman climaxes with three thresholds that complete Anne’s rite of passage from girl to woman: academic triumphs, personal tragedy, and the call of familial duty. Anne’s last night at Queen’s College is marked by her “dreams of a possible future from the golden tissue of youth’s own optimism” (286). Anne returns home with the Avery Scholarship and the opportunity to attend Redmond College in the fall. Months away from Green Gables has left Anne deprived of the imaginative locations that give her strength, and she must “visit all the old dear spots and hunt up [her] old dreams” so that she will have a “brand new stock of ambition” stored up for university (289-90). Anne’s return is fraught with Marilla’s degenerative eyesight, Matthew’s death, and the possibility of losing Green Gables; consequently, Anne makes the decision to give up her scholarship and stay at Green Gables. Anne’s reasons for staying reveal that her sacrifice is silver-lined with the imaginative “bend in the road” that innately resists confinement (303). Anne has transformed from a precocious signifier into an idealistic academic who imagines infinite possibilities for her future; therefore, she faces her duty with optimism and grace. 

Anne’s decision to remain at Green Gables has elicited a strong response from various scholars, who either highlight Anne’s confinement or her agency. The majority of scholars support Anne’s conformity, deeming her oppressed by female obligation. Kornfeld and Jackson speak to this scholarly strain, as they emphasize that even though Anne “can dream,” she cannot realize her male ambition to attend university until she has done her “duty in the matriarchal world” (151). Despite the apparent power of this perspective, Anne’s decision to remain at Green Gables is a definite sign of female agency; it demonstrates that Anne is “powerful enough to rewrite the sacrifice (the ultimate Christian virtue) as a romantic source of pleasure” (Salah 207). Anne even dismisses any notion that staying would be an obligation: “There is no sacrifice!” (303). Anne’s own language as she speaks to Marilla is characterized by personal contentment: she is “heart-glad” and as “ambitious as ever,” and it is she herself who has changed the “object of [her] ambitions” (303). Herein lies her agency: she still retains her ambitious and creative nature. Essentially, Anne accesses her “positivity of otherness” in order to maintain her central duty to Marilla while also remaining committed to her academic dreams (Rose 150). For a Victorian female bildungsroman, this is a far cry from conformity, and Anne actually takes the feminine ideal to new heights. Certainly, Anne has acquired the “prescribed feminine heroic virtues” that one expects in female didactic fiction, such as domestic graces, filial obedience, and poise; however, this is only “after she has rearranged the priorities of her world” (Salah 197). Anne’s academic and career-oriented goals and dreams are a testament to Robinson’s claim that Montgomery’s novel ultimately celebrates the “heroine’s lack of conformity” (137). Familial duty does not restrict Anne’s dreamy horizons; rather, it allows her to expand them. She believes that the “bend in the road” has a “fascination of its own” and possesses the “best” for her future. Imaginative visions of abundance and splendor still abound for Anne; there are still opportunities for “green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows, new landscapes, and new beauties” (307). The fact that Anne can still readily access her imaginative elsewhere despite personal hardship is a testament to Annis Pratt’s belief that the imagination is “strategic, a withdrawal into the unconscious for the purpose of personal transformation” (177). Throughout the novel, Anne’s imaginative agency and its relation to physical space has allowed her to rename and reshape the present, and it will continue to assist Anne as she creates and utilizes opportunities for intellectual stimulation and academic achievement.

            With her novel Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery clearly demonstrates that a young girl’s imagination is a powerful source of agency. While many scholars have limited the scope, force, and purpose of Anne’s imagination, it is clear that Montgomery created this interior world as a radical elsewhere environment that emphasizes her “multitudinous, shifting, and contingent” status (Rose 151). Through her imaginative elsewhere, Anne reshapes the physical world around her and maintains a vibrant boldness amidst Avonlea’s traditional community. Gillian Rose’s theory of paradoxical space is an indispensable lens through which to see the full spectrum of Anne’s imaginative agency and her connection to place. Anne remains a dynamic female hero who retains her “positivity of otherness” and continually resists confinement and repression (Rose 150).


Works Cited:

Alexander, Joy. “Anne with Two “G”s: Geographical Identity and Green Gables.” 100 Years of Anne with An ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. Print.

Berg, Temma F. “Anne of Green Gables: A Girl’s Reading.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print. 

Blackford, Holly. “Anne with an ‘e’: The Enduring Value of Anne of Green Gables.” 100 Years of Anne with An ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. Print.

Gay, Carol. “Kindred Spirits All: Green Gables Revisited.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print. 

Kornfeld, Eve, and Susan Jackson. “The Female Bildungsroman in Nineteenth-Century America: Parameters of a Vision.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print. 

MacLulich, T.D. “L.M. Montgomery’s Portraits of the Artist: Realism, Idealism, and the Domestic Imagination.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. 6th ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. Print.

Mullins, Melissa. “Negotiating the Well-Worn Coin: The Shifting Use of Language in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.” 100 Years of Anne with An ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. Print.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Print.

Reimer, Mavis. “Introduction: The Anne-Girl and the Anne Book.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print.

Robinson, Laura M. “Anne and Her Ancestors: Self-Reflexivity from Yonge to Alcott to Montgomery.” 100 Years of Anne with An ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. Print.

Rose, Gillian. “A Politics of Paradoxical Space. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Minnesota: Polity Press, 1993. Print.

Rubio, Mary. “Anne of Green Gables: Architect of Adolescence.” Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Mavis Reimer. Metuchen: The Children’s Literature Association, 1992. Print.

Salah, Christiana R. “A Ministry of Plum Puffs: Cooking as a Path to Spiritual Maturity in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Books.” 100 Years of Anne with An ‘E’: The Centennial Study of Anne of Green Gables. Ed. Holly Blackford. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. Print.



Lauren Makrancy

Volume 18, Issue 2, The Looking Glass,December 2015

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"“Scope for the Imagination”:  Imaginative Spaces and Female Agency in Anne of Green Gables" © Lauren Makrancy, 2015
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