Anne of Green Gables—the name probably calls to mind the cheery young girl with long braids, insisting that her name is “Anne with an E” and entertaining her readers with her absurd and lovable misadventures. Many of us love Anne for her cheerfulness and whimsy, but there’s more to her character than that.
The Anne of Green Gables series spans from eleven-year-old Anne’s arrival at the Cuthbert farm to the end of World War I, in which Anne’s own sons take part. Along the way, Anne grows up, goes to college, marries, and has seven children, with all the joy, confusion, hilarity, and pain that belongs to a life fully lived.
Far from being saccharine or overly optimistic, the books enter into the reality of suffering with an undying flame of hope and faithfulness. As I’ve grown up with—and in a way grown into—the books, I’ve realized how powerful they are in facing human suffering head-on. Particularly, I’ve come to understand that Anne’s cheerfulness and delight in life go hand in hand with the sufferings that she endured—her suffering and her joy are two sides of the same coin, a life fully lived.
Here are three lessons I learned from Anne about embracing suffering as part of a joy-filled life. In what follows, I’ve largely let Anne speak for herself—or the competent L.M. Montgomery speak for her—in hopes of inspiring you to pick up a book for yourself and find yourself encouraged and heartened by Anne’s example!
01. Suffering is a fact of life.
One of the hardest things about suffering is that it feels so unexpected. We tend to imagine that we are entitled to a world without pain. By contrast, Anne and her community are deeply rooted in reality—they know that the little inconveniences of life are real, but they don’t let them overwhelm their joy.
“Jonah days come to everybody”
In Anne of Avonlea, when Anne is teaching at a grade school, she wakes up one morning having not slept well and with a toothache. She has a terrible day and goes home to cry her eyes out. Marilla comforts her with advice we could all take to heart:
Marilla passed her hard work-worn hand over the girl’s glossy, tumbled hair with a wonderful tenderness. When Anne’s sobs grew quieter she said, very gently for her, “You take things too much to heart, Anne. We all make mistakes . . . but people forget them. And Jonah days come to everybody.”
Anne of Avonlea Chapter 12, “A Jonah Day”
What if, at the end of a long day, we just said to ourselves, “Jonah days come to everybody”!
“A cold in the head in June is an immoral thing”
In Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne experiences the struggles of being a grade-school teacher in a long-distance relationship—with a cold. What I love about this passage is how matter-of-fact it is about the sometimes banal realities of life and how they can kill our joy: “It darkened all her past and overshadowed all her future.” But the whimsical cheerfulness of the passage reminds me not to take my own little struggles too seriously.
Anne, correcting examination papers in the tower room one mid-June evening, paused to wipe her nose. She had wiped it so often that evening that it was rosy-red and rather painful. The truth was that Anne was the victim of a very severe and very unromantic cold in the head. It would not allow her to enjoy the soft green sky behind the hemlocks of The Evergreens, the silver-white moon hanging over the Storm King, the haunting perfume of the lilacs below her window or the frosty, blue-penciled irises in the vase on her table. It darkened all her past and overshadowed all her future.
“A cold in the head in June is an immoral thing,” she told Dusty Miller [the cat], who was meditating on the window-sill.
Anne of Windy Poplars, Chapter 11
02. Suffering can transform relationships.
One of the stories in the Anne books takes aim at the misconception that happy people are only shallow people who have never suffered. This assumption at first keeps a potential friend away from Anne, but her misconception is blown out of the water when she realizes that Anne is happy not because she has never suffered, but because she has chosen cheerfulness and delight in life over self-pity. In fact, this cheerfulness can be an intentional response to the suffering of life. Anne’s experiences of suffering also make it possible for her to relate to those who have suffered deeply and for them to feel that they have a true friend in her.
“Oh, haven’t I?”
In Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne struggles to make friends with her prickly fellow teacher, Katherine. Only after Anne opens up about her own difficult past as an orphan can she finally break Katherine’s barriers down.
“Oh . . . you can’t understand!” gasped Katherine. “Things have always been made easy for you. You . . . you seem to live in a little enchanted circle of beauty and romance. ‘I wonder what delightful discovery I’ll make today’ . . . that seems to be your attitude to life, Anne. . . . You seemed to have everything I hadn’t . . . charm . . . friendship . . . youth. Youth! I never had anything but starved youth. You know nothing about it. You don’t know . . . you haven’t the least idea what it is like not to be wanted by any one . . . any one!”
“Oh, haven’t I?” cried Anne. In a few poignant sentences she sketched her childhood before coming to Green Gables.
“I wish I’d known that,” said Katherine. “It would have made a difference. To me you seemed one of the favorites of fortune. I’ve been eating my heart out with envy of you. . . . I think the real reason I’ve hated you so is that you always seemed to have some secret delight . . . as if every day of life was an adventure. In spite of my hatred there were times when I acknowledged to myself that you might just have come from some far-off star.”
Anne of Windy Poplars, Chapter 5
“Barriers Swept Away”
Anne’s new neighbor in Anne’s House of Dreams, Leslie Moore, has had a life full of suffering—she saw her youngest brother killed in a farming accident, found her father’s body after he committed suicide, and entered an abusive relationship. She can’t really relate to Anne until Anne goes through a profound suffering of her own—the miscarriage of her first child. That pain, terrible as it is, sweeps the barriers between Anne and Leslie away.
Anne, there have been times this past winter and spring when I have hated you. . . .
I kept it down—sometimes I forgot it—but sometimes it would surge up and take possession of me. I hated you because I envied you—oh, I was sick with envy of you at times. You had a dear little home—and love—and happiness—and glad dreams—everything I wanted—and never had—and never could have. . . .
I hope you won’t misunderstand me if I say something else. Anne, I was grieved to the core of my heart when you lost your baby; and if I could have saved her for you by cutting off one of my hands I would have done it. But your sorrow has brought us closer together. Your perfect happiness isn't a barrier any longer. Oh, don’t misunderstand, dearest—I’m not glad that your happiness isn’t perfect any longer—I can say that sincerely; but since it isn’t, there isn’t such a gulf between us.
Anne’s House of Dreams Chapter 21, “Barriers Swept Away”
03. We must confront fear with both cheerfulness and courage.
Suffering and even fear become transformative forces for good in Anne’s life when she chooses to face them with cheerfulness and courage. Rather than becoming weaker because of her pain or paralyzed by her fear, she makes the conscious decision to be brave and enjoy all the glorious beauty of life, even when it is accompanied by danger or pain.
“Don’t let’s ever be afraid of things”
In Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne encounters the constantly-worrying “Cousin Ernestine Bugle,” whose querulous fears are her only topic of conversation. Constantly looking forward to what might happen in the future, Cousin Ernestine is completely unable to enjoy the present. Anne almost succumbs to the same temptation—then rejects it, deciding instead to face the future with cheerfulness and courage. In a letter to Gilbert, she tells the story.
‘I said of laughter, it is mad, and of mirth, what doeth it?’ I’m afraid I’ll turn gray young . . . I’m afraid I’ll end up in the poorhouse . . . I’m afraid my hair isn’t auburn after all . . . I’m afraid I’ll have a mole on the end of my nose when I’m fifty . . . I’m afraid my school is a fire-trap . . . I’m afraid I’ll find a mouse in my bed tonight . . . I’m afraid you got engaged to me just because I was always around . . . I’m afraid I’ll soon be picking at the counterpane.
No, dearest, I’m not crazy . . . not yet. It’s only that Cousin Ernestine Bugle is catching.
I know now why Rebecca Dew has always called her ‘Miss Much-afraid.’ The poor soul has borrowed so much trouble, she must be hopelessly in debt to fate.
There are so many Bugles in the world . . . not many quite so far gone in Buglism as Cousin Ernestine, perhaps, but so many kill-joys, afraid to enjoy today because of what tomorrow will bring.
Gilbert darling, don’t let’s ever be afraid of things. It’s such dreadful slavery. Let’s be daring and adventurous and expectant. Let’s dance to meet life and all it can bring to us, even if it brings scads of trouble and typhoid and twins!
Anne of Windy Poplars, Chapter 9
“I hope I shall be strong and brave to meet it”
While in college, Anne realizes that, even with the sufferings that are behind her, there are many more sufferings to come. Rather than letting this realization inspire fear, though, she chooses to be hopeful and courageous.
“I think, if ever any great sorrow came to me, I would come to the pines for comfort,” said Anne dreamily.
“I hope no great sorrow ever will come to you, Anne,” said Gilbert, who could not connect the idea of sorrow with the vivid, joyous creature beside him, unwitting that those who can soar to the highest heights can also plunge to the deepest depths, and that the natures which enjoy most keenly are those which also suffer most sharply.
“But there must—sometime,” mused Anne. “Life seems like a cup of glory held to my lips just now. But there must be some bitterness in it—there is in every cup. I shall taste mine some day. Well, I hope I shall be strong and brave to meet it. . . . But we mustn’t talk of sorrow on an afternoon like this. It’s meant for the sheer joy of living, isn’t it?”
“If I had my way I’d shut everything out of your life but happiness and pleasure, Anne,” said Gilbert in the tone that meant “danger ahead.”
“Then you would be very unwise,” rejoined Anne hastily. “I’m sure no life can be properly developed and rounded out without some trial and sorrow—though I suppose it is only when we are pretty comfortable that we admit it.”
Anne of the Island, Chapter 6
Because Anne loves life in all its beauty and complexity, she also knows that pain and suffering are part of a life fully lived. But she also knows that the solution to this problem isn’t to shrink away in fear; the very cheerfulness and delight in life that might at first make her appear shallow are in fact the powerful response of courage to the prospect of suffering. Like Anne and Gilbert, let’s “dance to meet life and all it can bring to us,” trusting that whatever the suffering that comes, we will have the grace to meet it.