By Nicki Johnston
While I’d venture to guess that most Well-Read Moms had previously read Anne of Green Gables but were new to The Violent Bear It Away, I am just the opposite. As a huge Flannery O’Connor fan who, like Flannery, read nothing but “slop with a capital S” as a child, I’d yet to experience Anne of Green Gables until it appeared on the list for the Year of the Family. As I read it aloud to my four sons, I couldn’t help but make connections between the two.
I imagine that most readers who are introduced to Avonlea as children connect with the red-headed protagonist of the story. But reading the story for the first time as a forty-year-old woman, I related not to Anne but to Marilla. The story struck me not as a story of a young orphan seeking a family or a coming-of-age tale about a girl but a story of a woman and her transformation. And that woman, to my great surprise, reminded me of another character we had recently met in the Year of the Family, Flannery O’Connor’s “schoolteacher,” George Rayber.
Both Marilla and George receive a child who they did not want. Marilla and Mathew were expecting an orphan boy, and Marilla remarks that “a girl would be of no use to us” (37), while George expects his son to be intelligent enough to be put to use. Both of their children are perceived by their parent as a mistake precisely because of their lack of utility. At the novel’s beginning, neither parent can see their child for the person—the gift—that they are.
Marilla and George want to instill a “good and useful moral” (55) and train their children to be helpful. When Bishop proves useless in George’s eyes, George targets Tarwater as the object of his obsession. Marilla doesn’t want to accept Anne into her life but ultimately acquiesces out of a sense of duty—the same duty that led George to offer to raise the orphaned baby Frances Tarwater (later kidnapped by Mason Tarwater), but their intentions are still misplaced.
Their obsession with utility extends beyond the children in their care. Marilla busies herself with work, disdains poetry, and cannot appreciate the beauty of nature. Montgomery’s narrator tells us that Marilla’s aesthetic sense was “not noticeably developed,” and both Marilla and George practice a twisted asceticism, depriving themselves of feeling pleasure with/toward their children. Marilla quenches Anne’s chatter when she finds herself enjoying it, has a strong reaction to Anne holding her hand, and acts brusque with Anne after she feels the pleasure of her kiss. George denies the same enjoyment of Bishop’s touch by refusing to let him sit on his lap and forcing himself not to touch Bishop’s head.
They both expect life to disappoint them, see tenderness as a weakness, and are appalled by their own emotions. And yet they cannot imagine their lives without their children. This character trait is most evident through dramatic revelation—for Marilla when Anne fell off the ridgepole and for George when he unsuccessfully tries to drown Bishop. And yet, Marilla Cuthbert and George Rayber are very different. The story of Marilla’s transformation, the way that she slowly, over time, with reluctance, allows herself to change as the result of her love for and by Anne, while George, to the very end, cuts himself off from loving or being affected by Bishop’s love, may make the critical difference between these two novels.
So, why is it that Marilla can and does change, yet George does not?
First, their natures are very different. Through neglect and habit, Marilla has become a person whose smile is “rusty from long disuse” (35) and who struggles to show affection. She has to learn to love Anne, whereas George loves Bishop from the start but chooses to learn not to love. George’s tenderness toward Bishop comes naturally, and he consciously refuses to allow himself to act upon it. Marilla does let herself feel pleasure—so long as it is secret from others, such as when she kisses Anne after falling asleep. On the other hand, George doesn’t want to feel pleasure at all. He doesn’t just hide his delight from others but denies it from himself.
Next, Marilla is a woman of faith, which has formed her conscience and led her to forgiveness and humility, two traits utterly lacking in atheists. Marilla responds to the “qualm of her conscience” (64), and her heart stirs with pity. She humbly acknowledges that she might make a mess of raising Anne, whereas George insists that he has all the answers. Marilla experiences pangs of regret for not forgiving John Blythe, whereas George actively kindles his resentment for Mason Tarwater. Marilla’s intentions are in the right place, though scrupulous when she berates herself for her “rather sinful” (339) love of Anne and considers her newfound tendency of laughter to be “unholy” (185). But George’s rejection of and detachment from his son has no religious motivation. His recognition that Bishop is made in God’s image is part of his reason for rejecting him.
Finally, the critical difference between Marilla and George and the one that might have the most significant impact on her ability to change is the presence of Matthew. Marilla finally admits to Anne that she misses her and even tells her of her love, primarily because of witnessing Matthew’s love for Anne. Matthew’s masculinity draws something out of Marilla that cannot happen to George because of the absence of Bishop’s mother in George’s life. Without this other person, George can shut himself off to love and grace in a way that Marilla simply can’t, thanks to Matthew’s silent but strong presence at Avonlea. This action ultimately manifests itself in Marilla and George’s responses to the death of a beloved. Marilla’s grief for Matthew is “impassioned… breaking all the bounds of natural reserve and lifelong habit in its stormy rush,” whereas Rayber responds in silence to Bishop’s drowning. What Marilla had inadvertently repressed came pouring through in her grief, while George succeeded in making himself utterly devoid of feeling, even upon the death of his son. Thanks to Matthew’s influence, the correction required for Marilla was not nearly as drastic as what happened to George.
We don’t know what happened to George Rayber after Bishop’s death. Still, I read hopefulness in the line from earlier in the novel, “If anything happened to Bishop, Rayber would have to face his terrifying love. Then the whole world would become his idiot child” (Three by Flannery O’Connor, 410). I want to believe that the terrible event of Bishop’s baptism, the drowning, will be the dark grace that breaks him open and enables him to be finally transformed by love. As for Marilla, we know that she has changed. As Mrs. Lynde says, “crispness was no longer Marilla’s distinguishing characteristic” (438), and I now have a whole series of Anne books in which I get to read more about her ongoing transformation.
(Page numbers are from Anne of Green Gables unless otherwise noted)
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