Lessons Learned from Anne of Green Gables: Characters with Trauma Backgrounds

I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery, as a girl. There are many stories I loved when I was young that have lost some of their charm in adulthood, but this series is not one of them. The older I get, the more I appreciate Anne Shirley and the communities she finds herself in.

I have read the first three books in this series many times, but this post was brought on by a recent viewing of the 1985 Sullivan film and its sequel. We’ll be talking in broad strokes today, so I’m not worried about the errors in my memory about the difference between the book and movie versions. However, this does mean you should prepare yourself for an unseemly number of GIFs.

Yes, there will be spoilers for Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of the Island.

If you are in the mood, you might enjoy listening to the movie theme while reading:


Background

The Story

Anne Shirley is a Canadian orphan girl in a time when orphanages were very poorly equipped and it was common practice for families to take in orphans as a form of unpaid labor/house help. She arrives at Green Gables farm, where elderly siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthberts had asked for an orphan boy to help Matthew with the farm chores. After an inglorious beginning (the Cuthberts almost give her back, but they’re quickly endeared to her and decide to keep her), Anne begins a new life at the first permanent home she has ever known.

Young Anne is soon infamous in Avonlea, the town, for her temper and her propensity towards scrapes. Everything about Anne seems exaggerated and surprising to the quiet, gossipy rural folks, and many have doubts that Anne will come to anything.

Anne quickly declares herself “bosom friends” (aka bffs) with neighbor girl Diana Berry and mortal enemies with academic rival Gilbert Blythe. As she lives in Green Gables longer, her friendships deepen.

She builds friendships with other children. She grows to trust that Matthew and Marilla are, in fact, going to keep her, and learns their ways of expressing their love. Other adults in and out of the community also support Anne.

She goes on to college (a remarkable accomplishment for a girl at that time), moves from rivalry into friendship with Gilbert, continues to develop new friendships, mentors younger people, and after initially rejecting Gilbert and nearly marrying someone else, realizes her love for Gilbert and enters a long engagement with him.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Through my experience and education as a youth volunteer and teacher, I’ve become familiar with what broken childhoods can look like. Abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction can have lasting negative impacts on children. These are sometimes called “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs.

In case this is new to you, here is an infographic from RWJF.org, with information from the CDC, about ACEs:

This is just a very surface level overview, of course. The older I get, the more I realize Anne probably had experienced several ACEs and had a traumatic childhood prior to arriving at Green Gables. It’s likely that at the very least she:

  • had been physically and emotionally neglected
  • had lived in several homes, knowing each of them was temporary
  • had witnessed men in those households being abusive to the women
  • could have received physical abuse from the adults in the households
  • had witnessed men in those households addicted to alcohol
  • had not been given enough to eat on multiple occasions (was food-insecure)

How is one of literature’s most beloved childhood heroines a survivor of such great trauma? I think great deal can be learned from the way Montgomery addresses Anne’s trauma.

What Montgomery Doesn’t Do

As easy as it would be to try to make us pity Anne by delving into her broken past, Montgomery never does that. If you noticed above, I said “it’s likely that” Anne experienced those things. There may be a couple that are alluded to in the books (I think she may have referenced the husband of the family she’d been with before the Cuthberts as “alcoholic,” and we know she’s had to care for a couple pairs of twins before she was high school-aged). At least in the first three books, though, Anne never goes on a rant about “you have no idea what I’ve suffered” or “oh wow you’re so nice here, let me list the awful things other families did to me.”

By avoiding or strictly limiting mentions of the past, Montgomery keeps the story child-friendly. More than that, though, her story also avoids triggering or re-traumatizing her readers who may have had similar experiences (note the above chart: at least 64% of children have experienced one ACE, and more than 12% have experienced at least 4 adverse childhood experiences). There are many hurting people in our world. Green Gables does its part to intentionally not stoke those hurts or deepen them.

The Power of Showing…and Not Showing

Point of View

Montgomery chooses a rather distant point of view in telling Anne’s story. Often, first person or deep point of view are preferred nowadays, especially when dealing with emotional stories. In the case of Green Gables, however, a more distant point of view accomplishes a couple things.

It helps keep that traumatic background implied. This adds depth for adult readers, but more innocent/child readers can enjoy the story more. Kids can laugh at Anne’s temper and empathize with her chagrin at having to apologize while grown ups can realize that Anne had never been taught to manage her emotions, and had probably witnessed violent bursts of emotions modeled by the adults in her life. The distance allows this subtext to be present for those who are ready for it, but frees those who aren’t ready for it to enjoy the story on a different level. And that’s good.

The distant point of view also provides a safe environment for children who may have similar experiences to Anne to process their emotions. Montgomery doesn’t force her readers to feel anything; she creates a stable setting and allows them to explore hard life situations when they are ready to. (Kind of like the safe Green Gables environment she creates for Anne to do the same thing in.)

The Story’s Focus

Montgomery avoids in-depth study of Anne’s past; instead, she focuses on Anne’s recovery. Anne finds her own identity in her new, real home. Similarly, survivors of trauma heal by coming out of the experience and choosing to live in the present and dream for the future. There is nothing flashy in Anne’s story, and the plot often meanders and focuses on pockets of time. Montgomery keeps us grounded in Anne’s present, just as we need to learn to embrace our present.

We see the consequences of trauma in the way Anne reacts and acts. She lashes out at the slightest perceived threat. She forgets simple steps, despite being really bright. She disassociates through daydreams that disconnect her from reality. A key is that none of these things are presented as a check-box mark of trauma. They are presented simply as Anne. It’s part of who she is.

In the midst of her trauma-induced behavior, Montgomery shows us that Anne becomes deeply loved. She doesn’t have to fix herself first. She’s lovable even in her most broken moments.

I’ve been honestly surprised at how little Anne’s friends, and especially the adults in her life, fail to understand the depths of what she went through before coming to Avonlea. Despite that, Montgomery shows us Anne’s positive interactions with those adults—Matthew buying her a pretty dress despite his sister’s disapproval, Miss Stacy believing Anne could thrive in higher education, Josephine Barry simply delighting in who Anne was, etc. She shows us sheltered Diana’s deep love for her self-appointed best friend, Gilbert’s endless support despite years of animosity, Phillipa’s simple devotion to her new chum. And she shows us how Anne’s reactions change as she grows to realize the love and support she has.

In short, Montgomery focuses on the person who came out of trauma. She focuses on the ways her community supports her. And she focuses on the ways Anne heals.

Character Growth as Theme

I’ve written previously about developing themes in stories. There can be more than one right way to develop themes, however. Anne of Green Gables doesn’t follow all the story beats we’re used to. Instead, Montgomery uses Anne’s gradual growth over the series to explore themes of healing.

That’s a key: Montgomery doesn’t focus on this character’s trauma. She focuses on what it means for Anne to heal. There is a place for stories that do explore exactly what adverse experiences can do to people. There is something so much more empowering in stories that let survivors know they can find wholeness, community, and a future.

Throughout the series, we see Anne’s coping mechanisms adapt into healthy practices.

Her dissociative daydreams of early on, when she imagined friends in her reflection and pretended she was someone else, slowly grow into storytelling with friends as she realizes she can rely on real companionship now.

She starts to dream of the future in healthier ways. Rather than dreaming of “romantically” nearly drowning, she starts dreaming of someday being loved and getting married. For a while, her dreams still reflect her wounds. She protects herself from her fear of a good man not thinking her good enough by setting her standards impossibly high, imagining an unrealistic story-book hero. She still has a hard time believing her worth, wanting to marry someone who’s a bit wicked rather than wholly good.

It takes nearly marrying Roy Gardener, who served as an empty canvas for her dreamed-up man until she realized better, and Gilbert’s near-death, along with years of gentle prompting by her friends and family, for that dream to grow fully healthy. Then Anne dreams of a realistic, loving relationship with her best friend.

This is just one example.

As Anne heals, we also see her breaking the cycle of violence and neglect through her relationships with younger children. She becomes the same kind of safe, unchanging support to Davy and Dora Keith and Paul Irving that she was missing until she came to Green Gables. Not only does she heal, she perpetuates healing.

Of vital importance, Anne’s growth is not linear. She encounters plenty of bumps in the road. When Diana gets married, for example, Anne reverts to her fear of abandonment and acts out against her best friend.

But Anne’s story doesn’t stop in the places where she slips backward. Montgomery always moves us, and Anne, forward to wholeness, even though the journey is hard.

The Effect

In these ways, Montgomery tells a children’s story that is an escape for children who are in hard situations. Anne’s capers and adventures provide a safe alternate dimension for hurting kids to find refuge in. But when they are there, children can imagine themselves in Anne’s healing process. They see what it looks like to learn to have healthy communication, to build strong relationships with people who will respect them, and to keep moving forward toward a good future however hard it may be.

In the same way, Montgomery weaves a story of hope for adults who work with or have been traumatized children. Adults realize that they can heal from past wounds and lead full lives of love, loss, and hope. They see that they can help younger people do the same even if they don’t know what the younger person has gone through. Even if we never know a person’s trauma, we can still be instruments in their road to healing.


Again, not every story that deals with trauma needs to follow this method. Yet Anne of Green Gables provides a thought-provoking contrast to the gritty, violent way stories of trauma are often told nowadays. We authors should think about our goals in writing characters from hard backgrounds. If our goal is to reach and support readers who have similar backgrounds, we might do that better not by focusing on the background, but by focusing on the truth that traumatic experiences don’t make us victims; that we are strong enough for the hard work of healing; that goodness and love and family can come to those who long for it.

What are your thoughts on writing stories about characters with traumatic experiences? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Anne of Green Gables: Characters with Trauma Backgrounds

  1. I was noticing many of these things last time I watched the miniseries. You have articulated it perfectly – and applied it to writing traumatic characters well. Thanks for this! Sharing

  2. All the yes. I think there is significant evidence of abuse in her past. She definitely does reference one family with an alcoholic father who used to break things when he was drunk. In my last read through I noticed a passage where Marilla asked if a particular family was “good” to Anne and she can’t answer in the positive. She dodges the question in embarrassment and Marilla has a moment of understanding of what Anne has been through.

    I would also like to point out that even Anne’s impulsive behavior (dying her hair etc.) is a huge sign of her emotional disregulation. And her over-talkativeness may be her desperately trying to be heard/valued.

    It’s worth mentioning that the controversial new Netflix series does recognize her childhood trauma and brings it out, but in my opinion it goes against everything L.M. Montgomery was trying to accomplish. I do not think the author was an expert on trauma or abuse (though I have a feeling she was sketching from real people she had met), but she knew very well Anne came from a dark, love deprived background and she very intentionally puts her on a path of healing and beauty and community.

    One of the things I love most about the series is that the author makes Anne so very relatable to everyone. You don’t have to have shared Anne’s childhood to see yourself in her. The books touch on the beautiful commonalities of childhood, empathy, and being human.

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