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Mortal Characters

Re-Reading Death in Childhood Favourites

Writer: Olivia Brunton

It is a book quite rightly heralded as a classic of children’s literature. Who wouldn’t absolutely love the wildly imaginative, albeit slightly irritating, heroine? Her ginger pigtails and fiery spirit are culturally iconic. I am, of course, talking about Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

The story of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, their mistaken adoption of Anne and the idyllic life that they had on Prince Edward Island immediately swept me out of my own childhood and into someone else’s. Avonlea, Green Gables, the schoolroom – all were real to me. With every turn of the page, I basked in the love at the centre of the novel; permeating every aspect, it shone in all of its small, large and contradictory ways.

There was a problem though. My attachment to these fictional characters, my conviction that they were eternal, was disrupted when disaster struck. To those who don’t know the story: brace yourself. I still find this hard to write. In the midst of such a seemingly innocent tale, my beloved Matthew died.

And in that moment, this book became one of my most feared.

Forget putting Stephen King in the fridge: how could I ever possibly face this childhood classic again, knowing the inevitable tears? My copy sat there for years, tucked away and yet somehow staring me in the face. A blueprint for the inevitability of death in real life, Matthew’s demise was central to my understanding of mortality. That Anne grieves, then ultimately goes on to live a supposedly happy life gave me no comfort whatsoever. My heart had been irrevocably broken before the age of eight.

What to do with this fear though? I still remembered loving the book, despite its tragedy. Over a decade later, I finally felt I had enough courage to face it again. I owed too much to Anne not to. This time, I had no false sense of security: I experienced pure terror as I once again felt myself fall for the charm of Matthew the curmudgeon. Seeing how much love really was felt between him and Anne pained me. After all, it is pretty clear that the characters are maybe a bit too real in my heart. I spent the preceding pages waiting for it to happen.

When he did die, for the second time in my life, the toll was even greater. I knew it was coming, but despite my dread, I could do nothing. I just had to experience that grief all over again.

It is an unbeatable kind of dread: no matter how many times I read the book, the outcome will never change. My pain will always be inevitable and Matthew will never make it past chapter 37. There are days when I think that I will never be able to touch Anne of Green Gables again.

Despite this, I know that even if it takes another decade, I will return to the novel once more.  Some things are more important than fear. I know that I will suffer again. The wonderful world of this book will forever keep me coming back for more. Though I will always dread the death of Matthew Cuthbert, Montgomery’s quiet wisdom is a reward almost worth suffering for.

Editor’s Response:

When I was a teenager, I read a book called The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. At one heart-wrenching moment, Todd chooses to let Manchee, his talking dog, get murdered instead of a girl he fancied. (Yes, it is more nuanced than that, but I’m allowed to be ridiculous because my heart was broken, okay?) I was on holiday and I was reading in bed when I got to that chapter. I could barely breathe upon finishing as I was crying so hard. I actually went downstairs and read out the death scene to my bewildered looking dad and step-mum - still in a flood of tears - because I just could not truly believe that this was happening. It must have seemed very dramatic, but that’s because it was very dramatic. It wasn’t just the fact that I loved Manchee so much, it was also a very well written moment, if Ness’s motive was to literally ruin lives.

Reading this piece, I couldn’t help but be reminded by the absolute agony that I felt upon reading Manchee’s demise. I am not over-exaggerating when I say that I still feel like I’m going to cry when I think about it. I’m not as brave as you, however: I’ve never revisited the book. I absolutely fear the pain of reliving that loss - I didn’t even finish the trilogy that this book was part of because I was so mad and actually a little depressed. And yet, I do want to revisit it one day because by doing so I’ll get to re-experience Manchee. I’ll get to experience falling in love with him all over again. Yes, I’ll have to experience his death again, but - as you put it - some things are more important than fear.

Image: Via Wikipedia

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