On my ten-year-old daughter’s recommendation, I recently read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) for the first time. I had an idea of the story’s outline but was neverthless bowled over by it and now consider it one of my top ten favorite novels.
Anne is an irrepressible and imaginative orphan adopted by two elderly siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who live in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. After some adjustment, Matthew and Marilla come to love Anne dearly and gradually recognize her artistic and academic ability. They use a portion of their savings for her to attend Queen’s College nearby, where she can earn a teaching license. While at Queen’s, Anne excels and wins a prize scholarship to Redmond College, a baccalaureate institution in Nova Scotia.
But soon after Anne returns home in triumph from her Queen’s graduation, Matthew dies, the bank holding their savings fails, and Marilla learns that her weakening eyesight may very well be a descent into blindness. Anne knows that Marilla needs her, but she naturally longs for the chance to attend college. The crisis of decision occurs the evening of Marilla’s diagnosis. Anne reflects sadly on her family’s changed fortune, but “before she went to bed there was a smile on her lips and peace in her heart. She had looked her duty courageously in the face and found it a friend—as duty ever is when we meet it frankly.” Anne decides to forego her scholarship and remain at Green Gables.
When I was talking to my sister about the book afterwards, she mentioned this moment and wondered how differently it might play out today. What would the Anne of 2021 (or her male counterpart) do in a similar situation? Perhaps she or he would do the same thing, but I’m certain that this choice wouldn’t be the presumptive one, that it would be a struggle against the current of a contemporary western culture that often emphasizes self-fulfillment over duty. “You only live once, Anne,” some might say. “Achieve your dreams. Leave those little people and that lame town behind. You owe it to yourself.”
Anne does think she owes something to someone, of course, just not to herself. Rather she’s making her decision according to a sense of duty, which emphasizes what we owe to others. From my perspective, and maybe yours, too, Anne’s choice, influenced by her sense of duty, seems the better one (though I don’t think we could assert therefore that Anne would be wrong to pursue her collegiate dreams instead).
My preference for Anne’s decision seems to be based on an older conception of the person and morality, one that assumes that moral obligations are somehow real and that our greatest obligations are to fellow humans because they bear God’s image. I could be even more to the point by saying that I assume, as Anne seems to, a particular idea about love. Anne doesn’t stay with Marilla merely from a sense of duty; she stays because she loves her.
Love can be hard to define. In popular culture, it seems to mean something like acceptance, tolerance, and kindness. Because this concept of love is intertwined with the current western imperative of self-fulfillment, it can’t make sense of or justify Anne’s sort of love, the sort that denies self for the good of another. Love in Anne’s sense should be defined differently, then. Maybe we could say that Anne’s love is the kind that wills the good of another. This seems to fit her situation. Anne attends to Marilla because she wills Marilla’s good. But what about Anne’s own good? Wouldn’t college be good for her? Why does Anne choose Marilla’s good over her own?
What this seems to indicate is that love defined simply as “willing the good of another” isn’t enough. Love in the highest sense involves self-sacrifice, willing the good of another at one’s own expense. We see this love illustrated by parents with their children, soldiers in war, by friends and lovers. But to my way of thinking, we see the archetype of this love in Christ, who loved to the point of death even those who hated him. Not only is Christ the definition of love, but he is its guarantor. When we love, we don’t love in vain because Christ—who is love itself and the source of our love—cannot be defeated.
I’m loading this moment in Anne of Green Gables with a lot of meaning, I know, but our decisions aren’t made in a vacuum; they’re made on the basis of certain assumptions about the meaning of life, whether we know it or not. What Anne’s decision reveals is an alternative to today’s materialist assumptions about life. In choosing Anne’s kind of love, we implicitly reject a godless, meaningless universe and, just as significantly, reveal it as a dry husk, empty at the core. If what we want is love, this isn’t the kind of universe that can give it.
The good news as I see it is that this isn’t the kind of universe we’ve been given. Happy Easter!
Luke William Mills is associate professor of English at Wingate University. He can be reached at email@example.com.