Story Skeleton: Anne of Green Gables
Story structure is essential to the psychological appeal of a narrative. It engages readers, builds anticipation, and creates a desire to know what happens next. This blog post aims to demonstrate the creative universality of story structure with a plot analysis of the classic novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
By David G Brown
Anne of Green Gables tells the story of a young orphan girl named Anne Shirley who is mistakenly sent to live with a pair of elderly siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, on Prince Edward Island. Despite Marilla’s initial reluctance to keep her, Anne's charm, intelligence, and imaginative spirit soon win over their hearts and those of the entire community.
Coming of Age
A coming-of-age narrative, also known as a bildungsroman, is often structured differently than most novels. The overall trajectory involves the character growing up through a series of formative experiences, but if we dig into the different relationship threads, it’s usually possible to find the one goal that forms the story’s backbone.
To put that another way, the primary narrative goal is an arrow fired in the inciting incident which will hit a target in the climax. However, in a coming-of-age story, that goal isn’t necessarily something the protagonist pursues on every page.
Anne of Green Gables offers many episodic threads that work together to deeply characterize herself, her adoptive parents, and many of the other residents of Avonlea. There is one thread, however, that directly connects the inciting incident with the climax: her relationship with Matthew.
Anne’s narrative journey is primarily relational—she wants to be accepted and loved, but she also has an irrepressible desire to speak her mind and express herself. Therefore, the plot grows out of several relationship threads in which Anne strives for love and acceptance. Her obstacles include the town’s initial prejudices toward orphans and Anne’s blunt tongue and temper.
Anne’s narrative goal crystalizes in her cart ride from the train station to her new home in Avonlea—a scene in which it’s clear Anne and Matthew have an instant bond.
Quite simply, Anne’s goal is that she doesn’t want to lose Matthew.
Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, aging and unmarried siblings, decide to adopt a boy to help them around the farm. Anne is an orphan and has been moving from one foster home to another before she is sent by mistake to the Green Gables farm in Avonlea.
As noted above, an inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist’s narrative goal crystallizes, setting them on a trajectory that will culminate in the climax. In a way, Anne’s arrival at the train station in Avonlea is an inciting incident for the entire narrative of adoption and the becoming of a family. However, given the climax, the true inciting incident is Anne’s first ride home from the train station with Matthew—this is when their initial bond forms and Anne’s goal is set: she is determined not to lose this newfound parental relationship.
Point of no return
Since the primary trajectory grows out of Anne’s desire to become Matthew’s adopted daughter, the point of no return is when Matthew confesses to Marilla that he doesn’t mind that they were sent a girl in error—he likes Anne and would like to keep her. There is no returning from this declaration of affection. With their bond established, the stakes are set. The reader knows exactly what they both stand to lose—each other.
Anne of Green Gables has an unusual story shape not only because it’s a coming-of-age narrative but also because it’s a tragedy. So while there is episodic rising action as Anne moves through various challenges, conflicts, and learning experiences, there is also an easing of tension as the original threat—that she might be sent back to the orphanage—fades from possibility.
Here’s where many coming-of-age stories tend to differ from other story shapes: The main trajectory—not losing Matthew—runs parallel to many other relationship threads, all of which relate to Anne’s desire to fit in, to be accepted and loved, and to leave behind the painful memories of her parents dying and the subsequent time she spent in orphanages and foster care. Over these episodes of conflict and resolution, Anne grows up, learning to be herself in a way that doesn’t run afoul of local sensibilities, learning empathy, understanding, and forgiveness, and eventually working toward a truly mature goal: to attend college and become a teacher.
Sometimes a midpoint reversal turns a narrative on its head. But coming-of-age stories don’t always have one clear reversal since the narrative is a tapestry of many relationships over time. Sometimes a midpoint is just a midpoint without the reversal, which means it’s the moment of highest tension leading up to the climax. For this novel, a good candidate is the scene wherein Anne accidentally gets her “bosom friend” Diana Barry drunk on red currant wine, after which Diana’s mother forbids them from seeing each other.
This midpoint presents Anne with another threat of loss, and thereby gives her a new episodic goal: to set things straight with Diana’s mother (which she does later on when she saves Diana’s sister).
The False Victory
In the tradition of the old Greek dramatists, there are two main story shapes: tragedy and comedy. (The meaning of comedy has definitely changed over the years.) In this original sense, there are two possible plot outcomes: the protagonist either achieves their goal or she fails while learning something important in the process. Success is the comedy; failure is the tragedy.
In a comedy, there is often a plot point right before the climax known as the “dark night of the soul” or the “all-is-lost moment.” This is when it seems the protagonist’s hopes are dashed, and she is in fact about to fail in her quest. However, in a tragedy, the dark night is instead a false victory. The protagonist is doing well, and it seems like she is poised to win, to succeed, to achieve her dreams. However, that’s not how it ends up.
Anne’s false victory involves her final successes prior to Matthew’s death. She has overcome the prejudices of the community. She is now widely liked, appreciated, and accepted. She has excelled at school, is usually at the top of her class, and has earned a four-year college scholarship. And her long rivalry with Gilbert Blythe has eased into a warmly competitive friendship.
In a tragedy, the protagonist doesn’t get what she wants in the end. When Anne arrives in Avonlea, she instantly connects with Matthew. More than anything, she does not want to lose him. For the first months that she lives with the Cuthberts, her biggest fear is of being sent back to the orphanage. As time passes and Anne settles into her life in Avonlea, it’s clear they aren’t going to send her back. However, her desire to stay on at Green Gables morphs into an effort to do well by the Cuthberts: to excel at school and gain community acceptance.
This gradual building upon successes reduces the tension surrounding her original goal, but it also increases the stakes of what it would mean to lose Matthew, because that is exactly what his death brings. They have developed a deep love, trust, and understanding, so it is all the more painful when Anne’s adoptive father is torn from her life.
Anne’s grand dreams of college education are dimmed by Matthew’s death and the fact that Marilla’s eyesight is deteriorating. While she has lost her adoptive father, her place in the Cuthbert family is well cemented, which also extends to Anne’s sense of duty. She decides to give up on her scholarship to stay closer to home so she can help Marilla.
In most novels, the main trajectory is a significant source of tension from the inciting incident right through to the climax. The protagonist’s risk of failure is ever present and increasing because they are struggling and striving toward a clear, specific, and relatable goal.
However, in a coming-of-age narrative such as Anne of Green Gables, it is Anne’s delightful character that drives the tension. She wants so badly to do well and be accepted that every misstep is agony for her. For that reason, her main trajectory—to not lose Matthew—transforms and eases as her place in the Cuthbert home becomes a given. And because of the tragic story shape, the rising tension is more of a gradual easing of tension, a strengthening of bonds, of her love for Matthew, such that when he dies, her loss is truly transformative.
She gives up on her scholarship because the Cuthberts are her family, so that sacrifice is the only reasonable option. They have taken care of her, and now it’s her opportunity to step into a duty of her own. In that decision, Anne's loss of Matthew solidifies her place as a member of the Cuthbert household.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.