Chapter 11: Ilse
By, Julie Sellers
The Author at Work
“Chapter 11: Ilse,” is rich in topics for discussion: darkness and light, imprisonment and freedom, right and wrong, imagination and the concrete world, friends and antagonists. I have read comparisons between this chapter and the Red Room scene in Jane Eyre, so I won’t repeat those discussions here, nor will I draw parallels to a similar experience of being locked up that Montgomery details in her journal. Instead, I shall consider two levels on which we see a performance of authorship: one, the authorial narrator, and the other, Emily herself.
The authorial narrator is present in her detailed portrayal of the various settings in the chapter. She paints the spare-room as a dreadful location whose primary characteristic is its darkness. There is no light, for “[t]he window was hung with heavy, dark-green material, reinforced by drawn slat blinds.” Further, “the big, canopied bed...was...curtained also with dark draperies.” Emily’s imagination conjures up the image of “some great black hand” reaching out of that dark bed and grabbing her. The photographs of “departed relatives” cover the walls, infusing the room with the darkness of death; the sensation of impending doom grips Emily further when she remembers that it was family tradition to be taken to the spare-room to pass. The only color against the darkness is the large owl whose eyes strike terror into Emily’s heart. Indeed, the inky setting serves to accentuate the frightful bird.
Against this backdrop, Emily’s imagination begins to work and she writes a mental scene of her own death and Aunt’s Elizabeth’s resulting guilt: “she began to dramatize it [her death] and felt Aunt Elizabeth’s remorse so keenly that she decided only to be unconscious and come back to life when everybody was sufficiently scared and penitent.” Then, Emily imagines the passing of her relatives in that room, the owl jumping off the wardrobe towards her, and finally, movement in the bed curtains.
It is precisely at this moment that the authorial narrator intervenes with the contrast that will save Emily from her own creation: “A beam of sunlight struck through a small break in one of the slats of the blind.” Although this stray sunbeam at first frightens Emily by falling on Grandfather Murray’s portrait, it prompts her to rush to the window, throw open the drapes, and wash the room afresh with sunlight: “A blessed flood of sunshine burst in.” It is at this moment that the authorial narrator tips her hand, revealing her presence when she observes, “In less time than it takes to write of it Emily had got the window up, climbed out on the sill, and backed down the ladder” (my emphasis). The authorial narrator inserts herself conspicuously in the story, just as Emily inserts herself in the rewriting of what is happening to her.
From this point, everything changes for Emily. “Sweet was the wind of freedom” she encounters outside of her prison. She notes her own liberty when she observes, “‘I feel as if I was a little bird that had just got out of a cage.’” This freedom parallels her recent liberation from a one-sided friendship in Rhoda and sets the stage for her truer, lasting friendship with Ilse Burnley, whom Emily meets that afternoon and for whom the chapter is titled.
Once again, darkness threatens with a thunderstorm, but Emily weathers it and her fears in Ilse’s brave, devil-may-care presence. In Ilse’s company, Emily again exercises her creative prowess when she strives to explain to Ilse the different facets of God as she envisions Him. The girls share their hopes for their futures, and after Ilse hears Emily recite her most recent poem, she acknowledges what the reader has seen all along: “‘I guess you are a poetess all right.’” Emily is creator, author, poet, and along with the authorial narrator, she makes the creative process concrete.
As the darkness of evening approaches, Emily hies herself home to return to the spare room. The ladder, that bridge between the imprisonment of the spare-room and the freedom of the outside world, between dark and light, imagination and the concrete world, is missing, and Emily has no choice but to enter through the kitchen door. There, she finds in Aunt Laura a sort of middle ground of understanding. Emily chooses to obey Aunt Elizabeth, but of her own accord, of her own will. This, too, is an act of creation.
Much more than a depiction of emotional cruelty, Chapter 11 represents the creative process in the presences of the authorial narrator and Emily’s own creative production. Like Ilse, the title character of this chapter we recognize that, without a doubt, Emily is a a poet and a writer “‘after all.’”
Julie A. Sellers is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Benedictine College. Her article, “‘A Good Imagination Gone Wrong’: Reading Anne of Green Gables as a Quixotic Novel,” appeared in the first edition of the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies. Julie has published extensively on Dominican popular culture and identity; her third book, The Modern Bachateros: 27 Interviews, was released by McFarland in 2017. Julie’s short stories were selected as the overall prose winners in the Kansas Voices writing contest in 2017 and 2019. She lives in Atchison, Kansas with her husband PJ and her dog, Mozzie.