Today on the Anne of Green Gables Read-a-long, author Nancy McCabe walks us through one of the most memorable scenes in the novel ... when Anne is insulted by Rachel Lynde's remarks and causes quite the scene. Here we go!
Chapter IX: Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Properly Horrified
By Nancy McCabe
When I was young, this chapter tapped into my own fierce childhood sense of injustice at the hands of authority figures. Identifying so strongly with Anne, I’m pretty sure I skimmed the parts of this chapter about Rachel Lynde. As an adult rereading it, though, I’m struck by the wicked, if affectionate, social satire embedded in Montgomery’s description of Rachel. Irene Gammel has observed that Montgomery was a “consummate social satirist” who gleefully skewers the self-importance and self-righteousness of small town communities. And this is one of those passages where Montgomery is clearly greatly enjoying herself.
From the beginning, the narrator pokes fun at Mrs. Rachel’s self-righteousness and high self-regard, though later we will catch glimpses of her heart as well. In this chapter, though, what stands out to me are the contrasts between Rachel Lynde’s confined, judgmental world and Anne’s gloriously expanding one. We quickly shift from the tight, claustrophobic first paragraph about Mrs. Lynde to a passage about Anne that allows us to breathe again. Anne has been “making use of every waking moment,” exploring trees and shrubs, lanes and woodlands, “brook and bridge, fir coppice and wild cherry arch, corners thick with fern, and branching byways of maple and mountain ash.” These descriptions are joyous, lyrical: “Gossamers glittered like threads of silver among the trees and the fir boughs and tassels seemed to utter friendly speech,” a sharp contrast to the critical, cruel speech she will soon encounter.
When Anne enters the more oppressive adult realm, Mrs. Lynde sees her as an “odd looking creature,” awkward, bursting out of her dress, with her “numerous and obtrusive” freckles and “hatless” hair. She is wild, untamed, disordered, uncontainable, in danger of being crammed into a mold too small for her by people like Rachel, “one of those delightful and popular people who pride themselves on speaking their minds without fear or favor.” The narrator’s words here are laden with irony, as Rachel does indeed speak her mind, criticizing Anne’s appearance harshly.
Anne’s response is one of my (many) favourite passages in the book, words that every girl brought up to be polite even when affronted wishes she could utter in such situations:
“I hate you—I hate you—I hate you—“ a louder stamp with each assertion of hatred. “How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I’m freckled and redheaded? You are a rude, impolite, unfeeling woman!”
When Anne goes on to say that her feelings are hurt more by Mrs. Lynde’s blunt unkindness than by the intoxicated husband of a previous foster family, we are reminded of the extent of this child’s deprivation and the miracle of her survival.
Rachel’s response is to cling even more tenaciously to her view of Anne as not quite human, saying to Marilla, “I don’t envy you your job of bringing THAT up.” To her own surprise and Rachel’s indignation, Marilla feels sympathy for Anne; we will soon find that this confrontation has evoked her own memory of a childhood injustice. For the first time, the narrator overtly takes sides, too, describing Rachel's departure with the same lack of mercy she has shown toward Anne: “Whereas Mrs. Rachel swept out and away—if a fat woman who always waddled COULD be said to sweep away.”
Marilla has the self-awareness to understand that “she felt more humiliation over this than sorrow over the discovery of such a serious defect in Anne’s disposition,” and she struggles with her own moral compass. Marilla may be flawed; she can be severe; but she also has the wisdom to find a punishment designed not to kill Anne’s spirit but to encourage her to develop the necessary tools for survival in this society, particularly respect for her elders.
She has underestimated Anne’s wounded dignity, however, and I love Anne’s typically hilariously overblown dramatic response: “You can shut me up in a dark, damp dungeon inhabited by snakes and toads and feed me only on bread and water and I shall not complain”—anything, she pleads, but to have to apologize to Mrs. Lynde. As funny as this is, as equally humorous is Marilla’s dry response (“We’re not in the habit of shutting people up in damp, dry dungeons. . . especially as they’re rather scarce in Avonlea”), it’s also a poignant reminder that for Anne, the mores of a community that would compromise who she is appear far more constricting even than being locked in a dungeon underground.
Interestingly, the chapter ends on Marilla, “grievously troubled in mind and vexed in soul,” yet having to restrain herself from laughing at the memory of Mrs. Lynde’s expression. Through Anne, Marilla’s world is expanding, too. Previously set in her ways, Marilla is surprised in her middle age to find herself growing, changing, rising to an unexpected challenge that will ultimately bring her great wisdom and joy.
Nancy McCabe is the author of five books, including From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, which contains a chapter on Anne and is due out in paperback this spring. Her website is, nancymccabe.net.