Leave Anne alone! - Macleans.ca

Leave Anne alone!

An academic suggests Canada’s most beloved literary heroine had fetal alcohol syndrome


Doug Wilson / Corbis

As if the red-haired orphan hadn’t already endured enough, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables has been criticized for being an inconsistent feminist role model and for harbouring lesbian urges, a claim made in 2000 by Laura Robinson, a professor of the Royal Military College.

But these allegations pale next to Helen Hoy’s new claim in Anne’s World: A New Century, a collection of scholarly essays about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s most famous creation and the global cult she spawned. In “ ‘Too Heedless and Impulsive’: Re-reading Anne of Green Gables through a Clinical Approach,” Hoy concludes that the very traits that have endeared Anne to generations—her flights of fancy, her loquacity, her theatricality, her impulsiveness—suggest she suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD. It’s an analysis destined to incite Anne fans and stir discussion when “Anne geeks” descend on Charlottetown later this month for the biannual L.M. Montgomery conference.

Hoy, a professor of English at the University of Guelph, realizes she’s in dangerous waters by recasting Canada’s most beloved literary heroine through what she calls a “disability framework.” Her theory that a character in a 1908 novel suffered from a condition diagnosed in 1973 will be seen by many as “involving deliberate, even mischievous perversity,” she writes. But using new diagnostic tools to reinterpret Montgomery’s text needn’t detract from Anne’s character, she tells Maclean’s. “I am simply suggesting a possible reading, not insisting on a single reading.” Still, she knows her thesis, which is nuanced and elegantly argued, will be met with resistance and resentment—and spawn sensationalized media headlines.

It isn’t her intent to “pathologize” Anne, Hoy says. She loved Anne of Green Gables as a child, taught it when she started out in academia 25 years ago, and read it to her children. She returned to the novel in 2002 after her partner, Thomas King, the creator of CBC Radio’s Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour, asked for her assistance when he decided one of the characters on the show would write “Dan of Green Gables,” a spoof featuring an orphaned native boy who goes to live with an elderly brother and sister.

At the time, Hoy was doing a lot of reading about FASD, a condition her adopted daughter has. “Anne’s challenging behaviours kept ringing bells for me,” she says, referring to the character’s chatterbox ways, her imprudent fearlessness, her slate-crashing and foot-stamping, her difficulty connecting cause and effect, and propensity to leap off on tangents—and from roofs.

The co-facilitator of a FASD caregiver support group, Hoy is upfront about her agenda: she wants to use Anne as a bridge to create greater tolerance toward a condition that afflicts at least one per cent of Canadians. Seeing the character “as developmentally challenged, with her impairments the source of some of her charm,” Hoy writes, blurs the line between what we see as normal and abnormal, or as she puts it: “destabilizes the bifurcation of normal and abnormal.” She also wants to redress FASD’s “association with marginalized communities, specifically impoverished and First Nations populations.”

Relocating FASD to fictional WASP Avonlea in the late 19th century certainly accomplishes that. Hoy plumbs the text for FASD indicators, beginning with Anne’s “excess of focus.” Anne didn’t have the facial dysmorphia associated with the condition, Hoy notes, but she is described as a “scrawny” baby and having a “small face,” hallmarks of the condition. Her facility with language could also be a sign, she argues, as some FASD sufferers are “verbal savants”: “They’re verbally expressive but not verbally receptive; they parrot very well without always understanding what they are saying.” As for Anne’s stellar academic performance, Hoy attributes it to the emphasis on rote learning at the time. The majority of people affected by FASD have average or in some cases above-average IQs but have specific deficits, including difficulty abstracting and problems with memory.

FASD children also possess many of Anne’s strengths, Hoy notes, such as a trusting friendliness and flair for storytelling.

As a medical diagnosis, it’s not exactly airtight. Hoy admits there’s zero indication that Anne’s birth mother, a schoolteacher, was a tippler. Here Hoy grasps at straws to support her thesis, suggesting that Anne’s mother might have inadvertently consumed a “women’s tonic” containing alcohol. Even then, there’s no suggestion that Montgomery, who refers to alcoholism often in her work, made any such link with Anne, the notable exception being the famous scene in which Anne unwittingly served Diana currant wine instead of raspberry cordial.

There’s also the fact FASD affects a part of the brain that can’t be changed. But Anne changes markedly throughout the novel and achieves her goals. And though FASD sufferers often require lifelong support, Anne herself becomes a caregiver when she sacrifices going to university to stay with Marilla (a decision criticized by some feminist scholars).

Undeterred, Hoy contends that Anne benefited mightily living where and when she did—long before FASD was diagnosed. “It’s a world that can accommodate Anne’s kind of brain and turn her into a positive figure who is appreciated for her differences rather than seen as deficient,” she says. Montgomery unwittingly “articulates strategies” for creating an environment supportive of neurologically challenged individuals, Hoy writes, by placing Anne in a stable, nurturing home with a lack of sensory overstimulation and proximity to nature.

That she might be romanticizing FASD by associating it with such a successful, popular character wasn’t a concern, Hoy says, though she expects caregivers of FASD children to respond that Anne was much less difficult to handle.

Irene Gammel, a professor of English at Ryerson University and co-editor of Anne’s World, calls Hoy’s essay courageous: “It’s a tour de force argument and it’s a rigorous argument,” she says.

That it is. Still, it makes the nine-year-old in me for whom Anne of Green Gables was a defining book want to shout out: “Leave Anne alone!” It’s discombobulating to see a cherished novel reread as a mental-health primer. What’s next? News Emma Bovary suffered from “female sexual arousal disorder”? The very idea that imaginative Anne is “brain damaged” unhinges a central childhood tenet, like finding out Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but a thousand times worse.

Even today, the thrall of reading the novel for the first time remains vivid: being swept into Anne’s fanciful world, commiserating with her many woes, cheering her triumphs, and coming to care as deeply for her as any real person, the first fictional character to elicit that response. I loved “Anne with an e”—and not in a Sapphic way. When she shed tears when Matthew died, so did I.

Only later would I fully appreciate the novel’s archetypal themes and the multi-layered richness of Montgomery’s prose, which makes it ripe for the academic cogitation found in Anne’s World.

Gammel, author of Looking for Anne: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic, believes recontextualizing the novel is critical to keep it relevant to a modern audience. That’s an audience who looks to books as self-therapy tools, as is evident in Gammel’s essay in Anne’s World “Reading to Heal: Anne of Green Gables as Bibliotherapy,” which examines how rereading the novel has become a coping mechanism, even an antidote to depression.

Just how Anne has been exploited to advance a range of social and cultural agendas is a theme that underlies many of the 15 essays in Anne’s World—most explicitly in “An Enchanted Girl: International Portraits of Anne’s Cultural Transfer,” a fascinating study of how the novel is reinterpreted globally: in the West, Anne is celebrated for her individualism and mischievousness; in Iran, she’s valued for forging familial and community bonds; in China, she’s revered for respecting her elders and ultimately making traditional choices. Within such a tradition, Hoy’s provocative reading fits right in. No doubt we’ll see more like it arising from the upcoming conference devoted to “L.M. Montgomery and the Matter of Nature.” Anne as eco-villain? Don’t laugh too soon.


Leave Anne alone!

  1. Note to Helen Hoy: Anne of Green Gables is a fictional piece of literature. If she had FASD I'm sure Montgomery would have made a note of it. Also, it would probably be in your best interest to stop over analyzing the popular work of others in a vain attempt to bring yourself to a higher professional status.

    • While FASD has probably been around since about nine months after the invention of alcohol, I don't think Montgomery would have been aware of a condition that wouldn't be diagnosed for another 60 years or so. Much likelier is the possibility that Montgomery had known children with FASD and based the young Anne partly on them.

      Personally, I think finding good role models (real or literary) for your adopted daughter falls under the category of being a good parent.

  2. My, my. Looks like we're looking for grant money for the next project. I love that sentence "association with marginalized communities, specifically impoverished and First Nations populations.” I am sick and tired of hearing everything being connected to activist causes. I am surprised she didn't work global warming into the thesis as well. More grants that way.

    • The global warming argument will be in the book, right after the chapter discussing how Anne's realtionship with Diana Barry deconstructs Canadian-American political relations in the post modern/post 9/11 era. LOL

  3. FASD is the most common, most expensive yet most preventable of all mental disorders in the industrialized world. Maternal drinking in pregnancy is the cause but many don't realize this. Our children who struggle with this disability — all in varying degrees — need our support and not be dismissed out-of-hand for something they had no control over.

    • What on earth does your message have to do with the article? No one is suggesting children with this disability don't deserve support. No one is suggesting children with this disability be dismissed out-of-hand.

      People are reacting with incredulity over the claims of this academic because the claims are far-fetched, and many rightly suspect she is hitching concern over the disability to interpreting a literary heroine, of whom many have fond childhood memories.

      You have written the most bizarre non sequiter I have ever seen. This is another example of an activist jumping to grotesque conclusions.

  4. Mourn for the death of literary criticism. I'm embarrassed for Ms Hoy. Co-opting a beloved book for one's own agenda is pathetic and disgusting.

    Dan of Green Gables, however, I could get behind — a relevant homage to the original character instead of a preposterous and sadly laughable conjecture posing as an academic pursuit. Shameless.

  5. Deapite having been born in the Age of Hypocrisy (i.e. the Victorian era) and despite having to endure a very difficult marriage, Lucy Maud Montgomery created, through her many novels and stories, very appealing and very real characters. Anne Shirley continues to be loved by everyone who reads her at the level LMM meant her to be read by…that was 'girls' who were not yet women, and who still have a sense of humour, an unwillingness to conform, a high level of curiosity and compassion for others, and a sense that all was not right with the adult world. A wonderful, powerful character…and nothing any idiotic theories cooked up by ambitious academics totally lacking in humour can harm. "It is to laugh" says the old French axiom. Indded.

  6. Sorry for the typo. I meant to end with "indeed" but then, I'm not an academic.

  7. This is the dumbest article I've ever read Ms.hoy needs to stop relating fiction to reality and get her head out of the fas litrature and drawing such ludocris comparisons. I have the disorer and I say GIVE ME A BREAK and echo LEAVE PEI'S Beloved Anne ALONE!

  8. I'm sorry, but has Professor what's her face completely gone of her rocker? We are talking about a fictional character! Does this professor not have anything more intelligent to talk about? Keep in mind, this professor (what's her face) formed this opinion while in a drunken state of mind (admittedly). Can anyone really take her seriously again? It's a blatant attack on Tourism PEI and she probably should be sued. Kathy b

    • In this country, we have the right to an opinion especially about a piece of literature, but we do not have the right to "slam" anyone personally. You have damned Helen Hoy and professors in general. I happen to be a professor too, and 30 years ago, I worked with Helen Hoy–she a professor and I a lecturer. In fact, I have a PhD in Contemporary Literature and Medical Humanities. I examine patient-centered texts, mainly Canadian ones, and use such texts to help students (often medical students) glean a concrete visual image of a particular illness. While I have not read Dr. Hoy's essay, I do not need to in order to know that what you have done could be a case of libel. I highly suggest that you refrain from personal comments about Dr. Hoy who is a distinguished Canadian Literature Professor. Medical Humanities is a highly valuable method of studying literature and she has every right, whether the analysis of the text works or not, to approach it in this manner. In fact, Dr. Hoy's observations may well generate much needed re-newal and discussion in the area of Canadian literature.
      Dr. Yvonne Trainer
      The Pas, Manitoba

  9. that is "off" her rocker…ooops!!!

  10. Have we stooped this low to look for problems in a beloved fictional character? Maybe if our children today possessed half her wholesome imagination instead of either having everything planned & scheduled for them, our nation may be a whole lot better off. If anything, Montgomery should be commended for creating a character for women in that era which portrayed a female having her own sense of mind & identity. There, how's that for analying!?

    • Substantial Medical Humanities programs have existed in the United States and Britian for over forty years. In Canada both Dalhousie and the University of Alberta offer Medical Humanities courses and programs to students, particularly medical students. Medical students, nurses and others read literature and discuss various problems fictional-patients present.
      As such,literature plays a significant role in helping medical residents see medical problems from various perspectives. By reading literature from a medical perspective, they can attempt to gain empathy and a greater understanding of the whole person (families, environment, culture . . .) before they step up to the bedside of an actual patient. In short, Medical Humanities and related discussions such as Helen Hoy's puts Art back into medicine. Your comments about "stooping this low" are ungrounded. Many of us who study and teach in the area of Medical Humanities, look for problems in literary characters.After all, given that literature is primarily about the human condition why not examine characters in the light of their medical problems?

      Dr. Yvonne Trainer
      The Pas, Manitoba

  11. Interesting thought on FASD but it seems to me Anne would meet the criteria for Aspergers Syndrome. She was in the top of her class academically. She lacked the ability to control her outbursts over small slights, she had a hard time understanding when others where upset with her. She droned on and on over subjects that interested only her. She preferred the solitude of the woods so she could cool down. The descriptions of her appearance at birth must be tempered with the fact that they would not have known if she was full term or not.
    If we are to analyze the work of fiction for our own enjoyment we might as well consider all of the options, Aspergers seems like a better fit than FASD to me.

  12. So, not only do we feel the need to slap labels on our current school kids, but we also have to go back through our literary history and label fictional characters. hmmm
    I enjoy writing fiction in my spare time and any characters I have end up sharing personality traites and behavioural quirks with me, my friends, and people I have been around. Writers use what they see or imagine to round out characters and give them life.
    I don't have FAS or Aspergers or ASD but I was often compaired to Anne (also my middle name, with an e ofcourse) when I was a young outspoken, imaginative, red-haired child. I enjoyed the comparison when I read the books.

    I don't see the purpose in diagnosing the characters from books. Next we will hear that Harry Potter a sex-addict because he pulls his phallic wand out a little too often.

  13. Dear Dr. Trainer
    Dr. Hoy's laughably incoherent thesis about Anne of Green Gables is just part of the trash heap of worthless commentary that professional literary studies per force churns out every day, but which only occasionally shows its ridiculous face outside of university campuses.

    The intelligent, if somewhat captious, responses of everyday readers to this silly argument is a good reminder of why, for the most part, scholars don't like the public to see the kind of stuff tax payers' money is wasted on.

  14. I am sick to death of 'so called' Academics! I have never read 'Anne', nor have I any wish to, but an entire army of over-paid, under-worked University types is just about to waste another heap of my tax-money picking this one apart, and arguing relentlessly in their stomach-churning, 'holier-than-thou' tone about the 'merits and detriments' of this theory. Get me a bucket! Why don't you people get a proper job?!?!?! I am 10 minutes away from University of Victoria, and a bigger load of bumptious, jumped-up, egg-heads you've never met. Yet they can't even figure out how to manage population control of their resident abandoned pet rabbits without resorting to an extermination programme that would have made Hitler proud! UVic, and all its Academic Geeks should be ashamed of themselves!!!! Feral rabbits are worthy of better treatment! As for Dr. Trainer, as Billy Joel said it best: "You can speak your mind – but not on my time!"

    • Your e-mail reminds me of one of those phone calls one occasionally receives in the middle of the night, where someone is making gasping noises at the othe end. The advice of most phone companies is to put the receiver down and not answer. So that is exactly what I am doing. Ka-plunk!

      • Oh Evie, you're so clever!!!

  15. Am I the only poster who thinks this is a really cool idea? it's a different way to see the material. A "what if?" alternate universe

    chill out, everyone. This is what academics do, they play with ideas and concepts. It's all in good fun and very interesting.

  16. I think the hate may be a little misdirected. Prof. Hoy is stating that this is one of many ways to read the novel, and expressly stated that the reading is intended to help children with FASD and their families realize that you can be a perfectly ordinary child who happens to have a disability. She is trying to say that Anne can be a rolemodel for kids with FASD, not that Anne is some sort of disabled freak. And, again, it's just one of many possible readings.

  17. Umm….she's not real? Anne I mean. How in blazes can a not real character, a figment of someone's imagination, have any kind of attribute, be it a disease or otherwise, that the person who imagined them didn't give them? I think I'll apply for a grant so I can write a thesis on how the Terminator's puppy was run over by his sociopathic father/mad scientist alien cyborg builder, resulting in the Terminator's future violent behaviour. Anyone want to throw some coin my way so I can do that? Any takers? Oh come on, there must be a dean of Film Studies out there who wants to see my 'research', it should only take me 5 years or so to complete….

  18. So let me get this right. If you have a child who is imaginative, impulsive, creative, impulsive, spontaneous, fun, high spirited, highly intelligent, articulate, eloquent, a good writer, with a temper and who is strong willed and stubborn she automatically has FASD? Wow! Apparently half the population had mothers who pickled them as a fetus.
    No disrespect to any people with FASD or their caregivers but seriously?

  19. I want a t-shirt that says "I got a crap undergraduate education so my tuition could fund drivel like this."

    • You just made my day, lol….

  20. Some people have really nothing to do….

  21. Join the anti anne of green gables group on Facebook!

    • She probably started it, lol…

  22. academics need to take a step into the real world occasionally. Anne Shirley is a fictional character. She couldn't possibly have any kind of disorder, she never existed.

  23. Most of us think horses when we hear hooves – but if we have just seen a video on Zebras…?

  24. Sheesh. What of Pollyanna? Does Prof Hoy know no children at all? Was she never a child? I'm with Common Sense, if she'd meant an afflicted child Ms Montgomery was quite capable of mentioning it. This whole line of conjecture is absurd. The good prof needs some remedial lit, back at about grade nine.

  25. The bottom feeding continues. Maybe a story is just a story, enjoy it for what it is.

  26. Hoy's a feminazi scumbag. Not and academic.
    There's a feminist 'scholar' at our university who told students that Oka warriors were unarmed. I was old enough to question her about it. Total liar. You know what she's doing next year? For a full year, on YOUR tax dollars, she's writing a book a small women's shelter in Lennoxville, Quebec, while being paid as though she was teaching. But personally, I think it's better to keep her out of the school where she can spread her lies. However, another feminist, surely will replace her: on YOUR tax dollars! Check her out on RateMyProfessor and you will see almost everyone agrees with that conclusion.
    I have no sympathy for these man-hating feminist 'professors'. They lie constantly. Take them to court.

  27. Just another stupid story from McLean's Magazine. Stay tuned there will always be plenty more with Andrew at the helm.
    Are there any editor's working there?

  28. Deconstructionist garbage . . . typical of literary critics who've drunk the Kool-aid and destroy the text's ability to just tell a story. The best stories appeal because of the universals that draw us in and capture our imaginations. Anne is a beautiful and engaging character, warm, fully human, and not to be used by the "Authoritative Reader" for her own agenda. For Dr. Hoy to point to some of her traits and tell her child, "See, this beautiful child is like you in many ways" is parenting with encouragement. On the other hand, the good doctor's "clinical diagnosis" of Anne is just further evidence regarding the present sad state of literary criticism.