The LMMI's celebration of the 110th anniversary of Anne of Green Gables continues with Vappu Kannas's response to "Chapter XXXVII: The Reaper Whose Name Is Death."
Chapter XXXVII: The Reaper Whose Name Is Death
By Vappu Kannas
This is the chapter that makes everybody cry. At least it makes me cry. But wait, am I thinking of the actual chapter in Anne of Green Gables, or the scene in the Anne television series? Do I see Megan Follows running over the field, her face panicked as Matthew, the actor Richard Farnsworth, collapses on the ground? I hadn't read Anne of Green Gables in a while before this read-a-long, but I have watched the TV series at least once a year. Often, I find, because I want to have a good cry, because I have to see Matthew's death scene. Call that morbid or sentimental, but a good cry over a character's death is what I need sometimes. And Matthew is such a good character to die. He's the ultimate bedrock of Anne's life, he's the kind of father figure everyone wishes they had: kind, caring, quiet enough so that you can share your thoughts and open up your heart, generous and loving. True, Matthew is also scared of people (especially women) and awkward, he's described in the book as "the shyest man alive" already on page three, but he provides the perfect backdrop to Anne's vivacity and bubbliness by being exactly that, quiet and shy and constant. When he dies, it is as if your own father had died, or whoever it is in your life that fills the place of a Matthew.
Montgomery writes in The Alpine Path that she regretted killing off Matthew, but I think his death provides the perfect emotional denouement for Anne's story and also for the structure of the book. Even though Anne of Green Gables doesn't begin with Matthew, but Rachel Lynde, it kind of does also begin with Matthew. He's the one Rachel is watching from her kitchen window, he's the one who's driving the buggy in his Sunday clothes, and by doing so, he arouses Rachel's curiosity to the extent that she has to go and visit Marilla and figure out what the heck is going on. In other words, it's Matthew who gets the whole story going. The penultimate chapter, the chillingly named "The Reaper whose Name is Death", finishes this story and in some ways the ride Matthew takes first by himself, and then, famously, with Anne when they get back to Green Gables. The figure of the reaper is fitting for the rural setting of Anne of Green Gables, but it also evokes the idea of a figure who transports people through liminal spaces, from this world to the next, from the world of the living to the land of the dead. In this sense, Matthew himself is a transporter, a crucial character in the book; he transports Anne from the train station in Bright River to Green Gables, enabling her to start her new life as Anne of Green Gables. He's also the one who enables Anne to stay at Green Gables. When Marilla still hesitates, Matthew already knows that Anne needs to stay.
When I read this chapter, I was struck by its symbolism. Matthew doesn't die on a field, as in the series, he collapses in the porch doorway, even though he's more associated with the outdoor spaces around Green Gables rather than with the house. "They were both too late; before they could reach him Matthew had fallen across the threshold." When he falls, it is as if he's already travelled from this world to the next, he's crossed the threshold. Matthew's death is explained to be caused by the shock of receiving news of the failure of his bank, and although this financial failure tarnishes his last moments a little bit, Montgomery is quick to note like a true Victorian that "the white majesty of death had fallen on him and set him apart as one crowned". Matthew might be a financial failure, but his death makes him a person of interest, even noble: "For the first time shy, quiet Matthew Cuthbert was a person of central importance".
I wanted to focus on Matthew in this text, because he so rarely gets to be the centre of attention. But what about Anne in this chapter? She and Matthew are intricately linked, not only because of their first ride together, but because they complement each other in the book. When Anne witnesses Matthew's last moments, she's holding white narcissus in her hands. Again the symbolism is striking: narcissus is connected with spring and rebirth, but also death, both of which take place in this chapter. Matthew dies and leaves Anne and Marilla grieving, but by the end of the chapter Marilla is talking about Gilbert, as in a reference to whom Anne will turn to next.
Vappu Kannas is a writer and Montgomery scholar. Her PhD dissertation examined Montgomery's journals and romance. A life-long Anne and Emily fan, it will be an epoch in her life when her first poetry book is published in June. She keeps a blog on women writers called the Scribbling Women Blog.