For Love of Puffed Sleeves

“The dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.” – Mark Twain

In honor of my trip to the northern country of Canada (Calgary, Banff, and Vancouver), I’ve decided to share with you my favorite Canadian children’s series: Anne of Green Gables! Unfortunately, this trip starts in about five hours (a la 6:00 am) so I won’t be able to gush as much as I would like to. But fear not, seeing as how this series has been a beloved treasure of mine since the 7th grade, I’m sure I’ll continue to reference and write about it in the future.

Before Hannah Montana, the Babysitter’s Club, or even the Little House on the Prairie, there was red-headed Anne. Anne Shirley was fiery and stubborn, imaginative and brave. She was mischievous and got into loads of trouble (from dyeing her hair green to getting her best chum Diana drunk off of raspberry cordial), but she also sincerely wanted to be good. From the day I became acquainted with Anne, she became my role model and best (literary) friend. I admired her audacity and dreamed of having her flaming red hair. I loved the fact that she understood that sometimes seemingly trivial things (like having puffy sleeves or owning a set of pretty highlighters) can make the bigger problems in life more bearable. Most of all, she saw the world as better than it really was and in doing so, allowed people to prove themselves worthy of such expectations. 

In a modern era of cynicism, its refreshing to visit a bygone age of innocence and optimism. Some people write off Anne as a form of sentimental escapism, and it may well be, but its themes of placing imagination above the banal constraints of reality are wonderfully reminescent of the best of children’s literature.

Situated on Prince Edward Island, the world that L.M. Montgomery created celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Its always been a dream of mine to visit good ol’ PEI and visit some of Anne’s haunts, but I was surprised to learn just how big Anne is in Canada; Anne of Green Gables – the Musical is now in its 42nd season, people get married each year in L.M. Montgomery’s childhood home, and PEI even has an Avonlea Village that features key locations depicted in the novel as well as an assortment of Anne-based events. Apparently, due to Anne of Green Gables, PEI receives the largest amount of literary tourism in Canada. (Hopefully this means people won’t look at me funny when I tell them that my dream vacation of the moment is staying for a week on the island and satisfying my Anne-fanaticism by going to tea parties and buying a very cute Anne tote.)

For a glimpse of the big celebration, visit anne2008.com.

Commemorative essays by both Newsweek and Slate point out the merits of a series that is often overlooked for more male-centric novels by literary scholars (highly recommend reading the full version of both). Ramin Setoodeh writes in “It’s Still Not Easy Being Green“:

That “Anne” has survived so long—and, with 50 million copies sold, so strong—is a small miracle considering the state of young-adult literature. It’s rare to find a best seller with a strong heroine anymore, in large part because, although girls will read books about boys, boys won’t go near a girl’s book, no matter how cool she is. Even in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, the strong, grounded Bella is willing to chuck it all for the love of her vampire boyfriend. “The literary smart girl is still showing up in literature, but she’s often the sidekick,” says Trinna Frever, an “Anne of Green Gables” scholar. “It is a reflection of a culture that’s placing less value on intelligence, and also treating intelligence as a stigmatized quality.”

In “100 Candles“, Meghan O’Rourke makes the argument that Anne Shirley is a feminist character of her own right despite the character’s choice to forsake her writing career in order to raise her children:

Unlike many other children’s heroines—Jo of Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, even Nancy Drew—Anne is not just a sensibility incarnate; she has an irreducible human soul. Her inner spiritual life exists utterly apart from the domains of domesticity and romance. She may be capable of telling her best friend, Diana, “I’d rather be pretty than clever,” but she is also organically indifferent to the courtship tactics of the popular Gilbert, whose smooth brown eyes wholly disarm the other girls. The immunity of the questing self to the distracting temptations of the flesh is most often an attribute of heroic men, from the hardboiled detectives who pass up luscious blondes to Greek warriors who heed not the sirens. Anne, with her endless wealth of subjectivity, is nobody’s object but her own.

I realize Anne of Green Gables is not a particularly edgy choice for someone who claims to be serious about literature, but it is my pet project to prove to the world that this kindred spirit is worthy of consideration. So here’s to all the girls who take poetic license with renaming local haunts, like to quote Tennyson in normal conversation, and aren’t afraid of hitting a boy on the head with a slate if he deserves it.

Happy birthday, Anne! May you never grow old.

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No Regrets

I have very fond memories of Dostoevsky’s White Nights. Despite the novella’s blatant ridicule of sentimentality and Romanticism, I felt drawn to the dreamer who went through life clinging to his imagination. I too imagine conversations with houses and create life stories for strangers I meet on the street. This dreamer was a kindred spirit.

The White Nights of St. Petersburg

That’s why I remember being disappointed that Dostoevsky portrayed this archetype in such a tragic light, lonely and alienated from the world. To Dostoevsky’s proto-realist mind, a dreamer was “a Petersburg nightmare, it is sin incarnate, it is a tragedy.” A person needs to invest themselves in society to have meaning in their life and to live separate from it would result in a sort of spiritual death.

As a frequent dreamer myself, I found myself concerned by this diagnosis. Was I estranged from reality? Is burying myself in the humanities my own form of escapism? But what of the worlds of Anne of Green Gables and The Little Princess? In this debate between Romanticism and Realism, I know where I stand and yet how do I defend the imagination against an argument that is equally true?

I recently reread White Nights and this passage jumped out at me:

“You ask yourself: where are your dreams now? And you shake your head and say how swiftly the years fly by! And you ask yourself again: what have you done with your best years, then? Where have you buried the best days of your life? Have you lived or not? Look, you tell yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. The years will pass and after them will come grim loneliness, and old age, quaking on its stick, and after them misery and despair. Your fantasy world will grow pale, your dreams will fade and die, falling away like the yellow leaves from the trees… Ah, Nastenka! Will it not be miserable to be left alone, utterly alone, and have nothing even to regret — nothing, not a single thing… because everything I have lost was nothing, stupid, a round zero, all dreaming and no more!”

When I was younger I decided that my life goal would be to die with no regrets. Of all the vague all-encompassing goals out there, I thought this one would take care of everything. It ensured that I would be a good person, chase after the things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and most of all, have the strength to accept the mistakes that I will inevitably make. But I think Dostoevsky’s take is extremely interesting, the idea that having something to regret means you actually have something you value in life. There are things worse than regret: apathy – to have nothing to care about in the real world.  

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with dreams and imagination. The trouble comes when it gets in the way of your ability to love life. Dreaming becomes hazardous when the brilliance of the fantasies makes the world seem dull in comparison and causes one to be apathetic towards real  experiences. Anne Shirley and Sara Crewe are such beautiful characters because they so dearly love the world and use their imaginations to find the nuggets of goodness within it whereas the dreamer of White Nights lives a desolate existence in which his best memories are only figments of his imagination.

An Army of Jack Bauers

Seeing as I haven’t posted anything for exactly two weeks, I am ashamed to admit that I am a terribly unreliable blogger. I have several drafts in the works, but I haven’t felt like finishing them lately. However, all this dreadful AWOL behavior shall cease immediately because I hate feeling unproductive.

To celebrate my return from the doldrums, I thought we’d talk about torture today! (Yes, Sophia is all rainbows and butterflies.) Recently, I read an interesting article in Newsweek called “The Fiction Behind Torture Policy” by Dahlia Lithwick about how the show “24” influenced US torture policy. While I am dubious about some of her claims (they’re probably a little exaggerated) , I think it’s a good example of the difference between learning from literature and confusing fiction with reality.

In a nutshell, the article shows how the television show’s heroic portrayal of Jack Bauer as a man who saves the world by extracting information through torture has been cited by Bush lawyers as a defense for the torture methods employed in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The examples within the article seem to suggest that the admiration for a fictional character resulted in a misplaced belief that Jack Bauer style torture was justifiable on a wider scale.

An excerpt from the article that shows why fictional role-models can be misleading:

U.S. interrogators rarely if ever encounter a “ticking time bomb,” someone with detailed information about an imminent terror plot. But according to the advocacy group the Parents Television Council (which has declared war on “24”), Bauer encounters a ticking time bomb an average of 12 times every season. Given that each season represents a 24-hour period, Bauer encounters someone who needs torturing 12 times per day. Experienced interrogators know that information extracted through torture is rarely reliable. But Jack Bauer’s torture not only elicits the truth, it does so before the commercial. He is a human polygraph who has a way with flesh-eating chemicals.

Even though it is often said that art is an imitation of life, I suppose sometimes people need to be reminded that an imitation or reflection is still not the same as the real thing. I remember seeing a video at the Getty Museum last May of this guy awkwardly attempting to walk while shifting all his weight from one hip to the other. This contrapposto posture in statues may appear natural and aesthetically-pleasing to the viewer, but, as the short film shows, it is still in a way forced and fabricated.

I don’t think it’s fair to criticize “24” or any other show for “corrupting the youth (or government) of America.” Art, literature, and film were always meant to be a little larger than life. They’re not meant to act as a play-by-play of reality; in my opinion, the humanities can never be objective enough to serve as a perfect mirror for society and this is precisely why it is so given to multiple interpretations. Instead, the arts make us privy to its creator’s perspective upon a certain subject. Whether we support or deny the work’s message is really our own choice. In fact, it’s really our fault if we fail to think critically about what we watch or read and just passively ingest what we are told.