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Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long: Chapter XXVII: Vanity and Vexation of Spirit

This week's edition of L.M. Montgomery Institute's Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long is from Sarah Conrad Gothie, an author and researcher who is developing a very interesting program called, Pages to Pilgrimages, which archives people's experiences traveling to the Island. 

 

Chapter XXVII: Vanity and Vexation of Spirit

By Sarah Conrad Gothie

“Vex not thy spirit at the course of things; they heed not thy vexation.”

Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 AD

Anne’s red hair perennially vexes her; she tells Matthew that it is the reason she will never be “perfectly happy.”  When a peddler arrives at Green Gables with hair dye for sale, Anne seizes the opportunity to achieve the raven tresses she’s longed for. Chapter XXVII shows the aftermath of this home dye job gone wrong: Anne’s red hair has been turned a “grotesque” shade of green.

Scores of readers have been inspired to emulate Anne’s red hair, from celebrities, such as Christina Hendricks, to the merry tourists who arrive at Green Gables every summer with real or faux orange braids swinging at their ears.  Anne’s plight may seem quaint to 21st-century readers with a vast array of at-home and salon options available, but a timeless theme rears its grotesque head in this chapter: there will always be things about ourselves that we cannot imagine away. Chapter XXVII demonstrates that inner peace can come from accepting what is not within one’s power to change.

Though Montgomery expresses Anne’s misfortune in religious terms (wickedness and penance) I read this, and many other moments in the book, as a lesson in stoicism. Stoicism is a branch of philosophy dating to the 3rd century BC that has been enjoying a revival in the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Interpreters and scholars disagree about how best to adapt ancient Stoic ideas to modern life, but, generally speaking, stoicism can help us eschew needless, self-induced suffering. The modern day “Serenity Prayer,” a well-known precept of 12-steps programs, finds its origins in stoicism. Like Montgomery’s stories, lessons from the Stoics can furnish helpful perspective during trying times.

Anne does not always exhibit the inner (or outer) tranquility the ancient Stoics strove for, but she does take a realistic approach to circumstances beyond her control. Her parents’ deaths and her years of servitude devoid of meaningful, loving relationships were beyond her control, but she developed a rich inner life and a skill for mentally framing unpleasant events in constructive ways. She invented Katie Maurice and Violetta for ‘comfort and consolation,’ and she recalls her early caregivers as not unwilling to love her, but unable, due to their circumstances. Anne controls how she thinks about events when changing the events themselves is beyond her power.

What Anne refuses to accept are facets of her identity that she believes could be improved. She optimistically tries to persuade Marilla to call her Cordelia. She buys the black hair dye that turns her hair green. Anne grasps at opportunities to make change for the better where change might be possible. The failed attempt at dyeing her hair black is her turning point de coiffure; once Anne experiences outcomes worse than red hair (green hair, ‘scarecrow’ hair), she accepts that her red hair is immutable. With Stoic resolve, Anne vows to look at her shingled hair in the mirror at every opportunity. After returning to school, she tolerates, and forgives, Josie Pye’s insults. Earlier in the chapter, an exasperated Marilla vents that the absentee Anne’s “head is full of nonsense,” but we see admirable resilience in the aftermath of this personal tragedy as Anne stoically bears what she cannot change.

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Chapter XXVII is about Marilla as much as it is about Anne. The chapter opens with Marilla coming home from an Aid meeting, anticipating “a briskly snapping wood fire and a table nicely spread for tea.” This scenario, impossible before Anne’s arrival, demonstrates the child’s positive effect on the household. “Marilla’s sober, middle-aged step was lighter and swifter because of its deep, primal gladness,” and our omniscient narrator attributes her elevated mood, in part, to her anticipation of hearth and home. Her expectations are abruptly thwarted. No crackling fire. No meal. No Anne. Marilla feels betrayed, and rightly so. In her rant to Matthew, she shows how much she has come to care for and depend on Anne.

Reference to Marilla’s worsening headaches at the close of the chapter may seem an afterthought, skillfully woven as it is into a confirmation that Anne’s chatter has become a comfort to her.  It is no accident, however, that this chapter begins with Marilla’s hard-won trust in Anne shaken, and ends by foreshadowing that Anne’s selfless devotion will be crucial in the years to come. With each ‘scrape,’ Anne matures a little more, and when Marilla truly needs her, she will be ready.

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Sarah Conrad Gothie made her first trip to Prince Edward Island as a tourist ten years ago, fulfilling a childhood dream. She returned as a PhD candidate to conduct research at Green Gables Heritage Place a few years later. Captivated by the profusion of red braids adorning souvenirs and tourists, she published “Playing ‘Anne’: Red braids, Green Gables, and Literary Tourists on Prince Edward Island” in Tourist Studies (2016). After a year away from literary tourism to write a book about plums (Damsons: An Ancient Fruit in the Modern Kitchen, available Summer 2018), she launched Pages to Pilgrimages, a digital research project that invites fans of all ages, from all over the world, to share their personal stories of travel inspired by L.M. Montgomery’s works. The collected stories will contribute to a research project about literary tourism before being transferred to UPEI’s Robertson Library for preservation as part of the Island’s history. If Montgomery’s words have inspired you to travel, please share your story at www.pages2pilgrimages.org.

 

 

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