Recently, I was staring at a huge tree, its branches covered in white blossoms. It had been a long winter in Washington, D.C., and I caught myself deliberately slowing my steps, wanting to savor the sight of the tree as long as possible.
Didn’t, I thought, Anne of Green Gables have a tree like this?
It might seem funny that I, at 27, recall a fictional child character’s affection for a non-existent tree. But I’m not alone, as shown by the widespread internet reaction to and numerous headlines about the unexpected early death of Jonathan Crombie, who played Anne’s romantic interest Gilbert Blythe in the 1984 TV miniseries adaptation of the novel.
I, like I suspect many others, know virtually nothing about Crombie besides the fact that he played Gilbert Blythe. CBC News reported that Crombie “happily answered to the name Gil when recognized by fans on the street,” according to his sister, who also said, “’I think he was really proud of being Gilbert Blythe.’”
Why does Gilbert Blythe elicit such affection? Why were fans, three decades after a movie’s release, still obsessed with the actor who portrayed Gilbert?
It’s because Blythe was the boy who loved Anne—and the man she eventually loved back.
Anne of Green Gables starts with the protagonist as an 11-year-old girl, a crucial time in any girl’s life, a time when adulthood and puberty is beginning to be right around the corner, and yet childhood isn’t forgotten.
One of the richest experiences of childhood is its intensity. A couple of years ago, I interviewed novelist Alison Espach, author of The Adults, for Verily magazine, and she talked about how vivid experiences were for children, mentioning their “ability to be completely excited about things.”
No fictional character captured that childhood essence better than Anne. (And yes, she did have a white tree she called the Snow Queen.) In one scene in the book, she and her guardian Matthew Cuthbert drive through a lane bordered by apple trees covered in white blossoms.
“It was wonderful,” Anne tells Matthew. L. M. Montgomery continues: “It’s the first thing I ever saw that couldn’t be improved upon by imagination. It just satisfies me here”—she put one hand on her breast—“it made a queer funny ache and yet it was a pleasant ache.”
As she grows into a young woman of sixteen, Anne changes—but she remains passionate. Experiences remain vivid to her; life remains something she fully embraces. She doesn’t lose her childlike wonder.
And that is remarkable. Life and peers have a way of tamping down childish enthusiasm and zest. No middle- or high-schooler is under any illusion that being passionate, that caring is going to make you popular. Instead, it’s being chill, nonchalant that elicits admiration.
Yet Anne, like most young women, very much wants people in her life. She doesn’t want to make the choice between being true to her personality and between being loved.
And Gilbert Blythe ensures she doesn’t have to make that choice. He likes Anne from the first moment they meet, and as they get to know each other better (admittedly, not through any help from Anne, who refuses to forgive Gilbert for years because he called her red hair “carrots”—which she memorably responded to by breaking her slate across his skull) through years of academic rivalry and shared community, he still likes her, even as her quirks and unusual perspective are known to him.
And Anne—and we—also grow to like the boyishly handsome Gilbert, to respect his intelligence and hard work and insight. While Anne isn’t romantically involved with Gilbert at the end of Anne of Green Gables—that won’t come until the third book in her series—there’s little doubt what her future holds.
But it’s also clear Anne isn’t settling. Gilbert may not experience life as vividly as Anne, but he wouldn’t want her to change—and his own personality—smart, a little teasing, serious, and of good character—complements her own.
Gilbert allows Anne to both be herself—even though her self is undeniably unusual, with her intensity and imagination—and to find love. For women in modern culture, told by everyone from advertisers to magazines to female friends to the (wrong) men that they can’t have it all, that they must conform to certain standards or forgo being romantically loved, Anne and Gilbert’s story seems remarkable—and worth wanting.
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