For any Anne of Green Gables fans, this is one of the most iconic scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved first book. Anne is an orphan who has been mistreated and used for free labor her whole life. Living at the turn of the 20th century, this was no joke. We’ve all seen Newsies. We know that child labor laws weren’t exactly a thing. Not only has Anne been an orphan her whole life, she’s also a red-head. Long before Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone, having red hair was considered a source of shame and inferiority.
So here Anne is, sitting in a new classroom surrounded by new children, in a new home with a dubious level of security, and a popular boy immediately teases her about her hair. In the midst of Anne hoping that her life might be different, she is reminded of all that she can’t leave behind. She responds by doing what most of us have wanted to do at one time or another, breaking her slate over the offender’s head.
A lot of buzz has surrounded Netflix’s new adaption “Anne with an E.” A grittier and more realistic take on the classic children’s book, Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation for the CBC has been drawing mixed reactions. On the positive side, the casting is excellent and the personality of each character is consistent with the source material. The setting of Prince Edward Island during the time period is brought to life in vivid detail. You feel immersed in the difficulty as well as the magic of life on a rural Canadian island. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening episode, are word-for-word from the book. What is different about this Anne (and drawing much of the criticism) is highlighting her background of trauma and uncertainty. The first few episodes include flashbacks from Anne’s life before Green Gables and take some creative license in speculating on this theme. At some points I found the backstory embellishing to be a bit excessive, and the last few episodes have a darker tone that departs further from the source material than I would prefer. But in general Walley-Beckett invites us to think about Anne as a human, not just a heroine.
Montgomery implied that Anne’s life before Green Gables was marked by servitude, being shuffled between homes and the asylum, and having experienced cruelty. Anne is continually penalized with suspicion and fear for being an orphan, as though that were somehow her fault. Her entire young life has been a struggle to belong, to feel wanted. She only arrives at Green Gables by mistake, the Cuthberts having sent for a boy but receiving a girl. Her hopes and dreams of having a home and a family are initially dashed when she finds out that she is not what they were expecting. “Anne with an E” explores what a real child would think and feel if that was her reality. A real child would experience flashbacks, would be paranoid about people’s motives, and would need to have found ways to cope.
This is the greatest strength of “Anne”, blending the character’s famous imagination and optimism with her suffering. While Anne’s carpetbag might have been light, she arrived with some real baggage. Her way of processing her bleak life was to find resiliency in imagining something much better. She was instinctively drawn to books and stories and words in order to draw beauty from barrenness. Rather than detracting from the positivity of the book, I think this approach only enhances the power of Anne as a role model. Anyone can be optimistic who has never suffered, it takes real strength to go through the fire and still find beauty and joy in the world around you.
“Anne” also asks more of its audience than the popular 1980s adaptation. Part of the backlash against the new series is that it shows too much of the harsh reality and not enough of the whimsy and flowering landscapes. But in this response, viewers are sending a dangerous message to Anne and each other. We are functionally saying that you can only be beloved if you leave your baggage at the door and embody what others want you to be. Be upbeat, be charming, be pretty, and people will like you.
And yet none of us are a blank slate. We all carry around painful experiences and sources of shame that cause us to feel trepidation about our place in the world. As with Anne, many of those things have occurred outside our control. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Til We Have Faces” there is a profound line
“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”
We are at our most vulnerable when confronted with things inside us and around us that are not our choice. Our greatest shame is our powerlessness to make ourselves and our lives exactly how we think they should be. We want to just break the slate of our past and powerlessness and act like we are everything we want to be.
But at the end of the day we don’t actually want to be a blank slate, we want to be fully known and fully loved for all that we are. We want to be able to tell our whole stories and see that who we are is still worthy and lovable. In “Anne with an E,” Anne doesn’t break her slate in half over Gilbert’s head, she only cracks it. Perhaps this is the invitation “Anne” offers. To not try to leave our histories behind and pretend to be blank slates, but to find love and belonging as whole people.