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Who is Anne Shirley?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Anne Shirley is the beloved creation of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. Anne Shirley was first introduced to the world in the book Anne of Green Gables published in 1908. Montgomery would publish several more novels featuring Anne Shirley including: Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams and Anne of Ingleside. In addition to these, Montgomery published four other books that take place in the setting she established for Anne, two featuring Anne's children as the protagonists.

The Anne Shirley novels became quite popular almost immediately. Since its first publication, the initial novel has sold an estimated 50 million copies, and been translated into numerous languages. Anne Shirley is thought to have been the model for Astrid Lundgren’s Pippi Longstocking.

We first meet Anne Shirley as an eleven-year-old orphan, accidentally sent to live with siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert at their farm Green Gables on Prince Edward Island. Marilla and Matthew had initially requested a boy, but a series of mistakes sends Anne instead. Marilla, at Matthew’s insistence, decides to keep and raise the skinny redheaded girl.

Anne is an inveterate talker who drives Marilla to distraction with her inability to control her tongue and her frequent dips into fantasy and imagination. However, Marilla recognizes that Anne Shirley is also a sweet-natured and pure-hearted girl who is generous and intelligent. Though Marilla cannot get past her rather crusty exterior to express her feelings to Anne, the first book deals with Marilla’s growing but private reflections on how much she loves Anne.

Anne Shirley is famous for getting into “scrapes.” In the first novel she cracks a slate over a boy’s head, dies her hair green, flavors a cake with lineament, and tries to walk a ridgepole of a roof with tragic consequences. She also becomes “bosom friends” with Diana Barry, but their friendship takes a turn when Anne accidentally “sets Diana drunk” with currant wine. Though their friendship is ultimately restored, Anne suffers through many months away from Diana.

In the first book, Anne Shirley forms a distinct antipathy to Gilbert Blythe, who calls her “carrots.” They become rivals in the Avonlea School, and later at Queen’s College. At the end of the first Anne Shirley novel, Gilbert and Anne finally become friends. The pair will marry at the beginning of Anne’s House of Dreams.

Anne Shirley is beloved by many fans because of her sweetness, her penchant for mistakes, her vast sweeps of imagination, and later for the fine moral compass that guides her decisions. She willingly gives up attending college to care for Marilla, whose eyesight is threatened. She is also a budding writer.

The later Anne Shirley novels deal with Anne as a young adult and a young mother. Though the novels are overtly sentimental, they remain charming. The last of the Anne series Rilla of Ingleside is perhaps Montgomery’s best novel. It is the least sentimental and concerns Canadian involvement in World War I. It represents Montgomery’s own devastation at the onset of the war, and provides an interesting contrast to American sentiment regarding the First World War.

Because of the popularity of the books, Anne of Green Gables has been adapted into plays, teleplays, films and even a cartoon. Most agree that the best interpretation of Anne Shirley belongs to the actress Megan Follows in the 1980s PBS versions of Green Gables and of Anne of Avonlea. However, the same audience tends to deplore a PBS adaptation of the later books produced in the late 1990s.

Modern critics have looked at Anne Shirley as a feminist heroine. Anne pursues her own dreams and ultimately attends college. She laughs at conventional thinking on a woman’s place, but of her own choosing becomes a wife and mother. In this way she resembles Louisa May Alcott’s great heroine Jo March.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Jun 12, 2014

I learned about Anne Shirley in school this week. I had never heard of this character before and I haven't read any of the books. The books are over one hundred years old, so that's not surprising. I don't think the young generation know much about Anne Shirley in general.

I asked my mom about it and she knows all of the books and had read them as a child. She wants me to read them as well and promised to buy a copy of each for me.

By burcinc — On Jun 11, 2014

@bluedolphin-- As far as I know, friends of Lucy Maud Montgomery adopted a child in real life. They were expecting a boy but a girl arrived instead. They say that this is how the author was inspired and went on to write about the Anne Shirley character. But other characteristics of the girl, like her personality and her physical appearance have nothing to do with that adopted child. So the author definitely developed the character out of her imagination. Just the adoption bit is inspired from real life.

By bluedolphin — On Jun 11, 2014

Does anyone know where Lucy Maud Montgomery got the idea for the Anne Shirley character? Was she inspired by something or was it just her imagination?

By Lostnfound — On Jun 04, 2014

@Grivusangel -- I've been reading these books since I saw the PBS series in the 80s. They really are quite wonderful.

I love the Alcott books too, but it seems like in her later work, she got a little too preachy sometimes, while Montgomery never did. Alcott's later books weren't quite up to the standard of "Little Women," although they are good, but Montgomery seemed to keep up her quality. Maybe it's because she only had one main character, while Alcott kept an ensemble cast going.

By Grivusangel — On Jun 03, 2014

Anne Shirley is one of my favorite literary characters -- probably because she reminds me a lot of myself. She's intelligent and imaginative (remember "scope for imagination"?) and is a thoroughly likeable character.

I came to the Avonlea books a little late, but when I read them, I completely enjoyed them, and now I see I need to find the Ingleside books, too.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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