The story begins by describing where Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s home is located in a town called Avonlea. Mrs. Rachel likes to watch people going by outside her window so that she knows everything going on in Avonlea. Whenever she sees something that she finds odd, she always tries to figure out what is going on. One afternoon in early June, Mrs. Rachel sees a man who lives nearby, Matthew Cuthbert, driving a buggy out of town dressed in fancy clothes. This intrigues Mrs. Rachel Lynde because usually, at this time of year, Matthew Cuthbert would be sowing a field at his home, which is called Green Gables. She is also intrigued because Matthew Cuthbert is usually someone who stays home and keeps to himself.
Mrs. Rachel decides to go over to Green Gables to talk to a woman named Marilla about what Matthew is doing. Mrs. Rachel walks the quarter of a mile to Green Gables, criticizing how far the Cuthbert home is built from the main road. She believes this is because the family is shy and odd. As she approaches Green Gables, Mrs. Rachel notes that it is extremely clean. Mrs. Rachel sees Marilla in the kitchen, with three plates laid on the table. Mrs. Rachel surmises that Marilla and Matthew must be expecting company because only the two of them live at Green Gables. She thinks that they must not be expecting anyone very important because the food laid out is nothing fancy.
Mrs. Rachel knocks and Marilla lets her in politely. Marilla is described as tall and thin, with dark hair that has some streaks of gray. The narrator notes that she looks like she has a “rigid conscience” (p. 8) and yet something about her mouth indicates that she has a sense of humor. Mrs. Rachel says that she has come over because she saw Matthew driving to town and thought he might be going for a doctor. Marilla says that Matthew went to the train station in Bright River to pick up an orphan boy coming from Nova Scotia. Mrs. Rachel is shocked. Marilla says that she and Matthew are taking in an orphan boy to help Matthew with work around the farm since Matthew is now 60 years old and has heart trouble. Matthew and Marilla thought about hiring a young man from France or London, but Marilla speaks disparagingly about this prospect and says she would prefer to have a “native born” (p. 10) Canadian. Marilla and Matthew asked a woman named Mrs. Spencer to bring them an orphan boy who is 10 or 11 years old since there will still be time to train him.
Mrs. Rachel informs Marilla that she thinks this is a foolish and risky idea and tells Marilla a story of an orphan boy burning down a house. Marilla replies that even biological children have risks and that she thinks the orphan boy shouldn’t be too different from them since he will be from nearby. Mrs. Rachel tells Marilla another story of an orphan girl who poisoned a well. Marilla responds that she would never dream of taking in an orphan girl. Mrs. Rachel would like to stay until Matthew comes home with the orphan, but she decides instead to go start spreading the gossip she has learned.
Matthew Cuthbert enjoys the ride to the train station, except for when he comes across women and has to nod at them—he is extremely shy around women besides his sister Marilla and Mrs. Rachel. When Matthew reaches the station, there is no train there and nobody on the platform except a young girl. Matthew asks the stationmaster when the train will be arriving; the stationmaster responds that the train has already come and that the little girl was dropped off for him. Matthew says that he was supposed to be picking up an orphan boy, and the stationmaster says that he had better talk to the girl about what happened. Matthew is very scared to talk to the girl, but he walks over to her anyway. She is wearing ugly and ill-fitting clothing and has bright red hair in two braids. Her face is thin, white, and freckled, with large gray-green eyes.
The girl realizes that Matthew is there to take her home and greets him maturely, if quite verbosely. She tells Matthew that she was vividly imagining what she would do if he didn’t come to pick her up. Matthew decides he must take the child home for the night since it is late and she has nowhere else to go. He offers to carry her bag for her, but the girl responds that she would rather carry it herself because “I’ve got all my worldly goods in it, but it isn’t heavy” (p. 18). On the way to Matthew’s buggy, the girl talks nonstop. She tells him how much she likes driving and how she is looking forward to having a home and belonging to someone after four months in the orphan asylum. When they begin driving back to Green Gables, the girl is quiet for a while, and then she begins to chatter again. She is highly imaginative and interested in nature and beauty. Matthew lets the girl carry the conversation by herself, for the most part, responding briefly when she asks him questions. However, the narrator notes that “Matthew, much to his own surprise, was enjoying himself” (p. 21). The girl expresses that she is glad to talk to someone who doesn’t tell her to talk less or not to use big words. The girl changes the subject to her red hair, saying it is something that causes her great distress and that she cannot even escape by using her imagination. She is distracted from this conversation by the beauty of nature yet again, which causes her to exclaim and then fall into rapturous silence.
When the girl finally has the ability to speak again, she tells Matthew that the avenue they are driving down should be called the White Way of Delight. She informs him that she likes to make up beautiful, fitting names for people and places. As they get close to Green Gables, the girl asks about the name of a pond and finds out that it is called Barry’s Pond after the family that lives beside it. Matthew informs her that the family has a little girl named Diana who is eleven, the age of the orphan girl. The girl is scared to go over a bridge in the buggy, but she faces her fears by closing her eyes. When they approach the top of a hill overlooking much of Avonlea, the girl says she will guess which house is Green Gables. She guesses correctly and says that she was able to do so because “as soon as I saw it I felt it was home” (p. 29). Matthew is uneasy with the girl’s declarations of happiness at having a home, knowing that they plan to send her back to the orphan asylum and get a boy to replace her. He thinks to himself that he is glad Marilla will be the one to break the news to the girl. Matthew and the girl arrive at Green Gables and walk into the house.
Marilla is shocked when she finds Matthew has brought home a little girl instead of a little boy. While Marilla and Matthew argue over how this mistake could have happened, the little girl realizes what is happening and begins to cry. Marilla tries to persuade the girl not to cry, and the girl’s effusive response causes Marilla to smile. Marilla asks the girl’s name. The girl first asks to be called Cordelia, a name she likes more than her own. When Marilla refuses, the girl says that her name is Anne Shirley—specifically, "Anne" spelled with an “E.” Marilla asks Anne how it came to pass that she was sent instead of a boy, and Anne reports that Mrs. Spencer had told the asylum that they wanted a girl around eleven years old. Marilla serves dinner, but Anne says that she is too upset to eat. Marilla decides to have Anne sleep in a bedroom in the east gable. Marilla leaves Anne in the room to change into her nightgown. Anne feels upset that the room is so bare in decoration. She changes into her nightgown and buries her face in the pillow on the bed. When Marilla comes to say goodnight, Anne protests that it is not a good night at all.
When Marilla goes back downstairs, she finds that Matthew is smoking, which he only does when he is perturbed. Marilla tells Matthew that, the next day, she will go confront Mrs. Spencer about the mix-up and send the girl back to the asylum. Matthew agrees reluctantly, saying that if they were to keep her, they “might be some good to her” (p. 38)—and, besides, she is very interesting to talk to. Marilla ends the conversation saying that the girl will not be staying, and they go to bed. Upstairs, Anne cries herself to sleep.
Anne wakes up feeling a little better than the night before. She spends the early morning looking out the window of the east gable at the beautiful nature outside. Marilla comes to the bedroom and tells Anne to wash up, get dressed, and come downstairs for breakfast. Anne tries her best to look nice and leave the room looking neat. After breakfast, Anne offers to wash the dishes. Marilla allows her to do so and determines that Anne is relatively skilled at doing household chores.
Marilla tells Anne that she can go outside for a couple of hours, but Anne responds that she doesn’t want to because she will fall in love with Green Gables and it will make it even harder to leave. Anne tells Marilla about the names she has already given some of the plants and trees at Green Gables. Marilla thinks to herself that Anne has cast a spell over Matthew and that she is beginning to fall under Anne’s spell as well.
That afternoon, Marilla and Anne ride in the buggy to Mrs. Spencer’s house to see about sending Anne back to the orphan asylum. As the buggy pulls away from Green Gables, Marilla sees Matthew looking after them wistfully.
On the way to Mrs. Spencer’s house, Marilla asks Anne to tell her about her childhood. Anne tells Marilla that she is eleven years old and originally from Bolingbroke, Nova Scotia. Her mother and father were both teachers. When they had Anne, they were “a pair of babies and as poor as church mice” (p. 51). Anne’s mother and father died of fever when Anne was 3 months old. Anne did not have any relatives nearby, so a poor woman named Mrs. Thomas took her in. Mrs. Thomas had a husband who was a drunk and four children younger than Anne who Anne looked after until she was eight years old. At that time, Mrs. Thomas’s husband died and his mother said that Mrs. Thomas and her biological children could move in with her, but not Anne.
Anne moved to the home of a woman named Mrs. Hammond, who took in Anne because she had heard Anne could care for young children well. Life was very difficult for Anne during this time because Mrs. Hammond had eight children including three sets of twins. After two years, Mrs. Hammond’s husband died and Mrs. Hammond moved to the United States. Anne had to go to the orphan asylum, where she lived for four months until Mrs. Spencer came and took her away.
Marilla asks if Anne ever went to school. Anne responds that she went to school a very small amount when she was at Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Hammond’s houses, and she attended school while at the orphan asylum for four months. However, she says that she can read well and loves poetry. Marilla asks whether Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Hammond were good to Anne, and Anne gives a mature and empathetic response about how each woman tried to be good but had their hands full. It is clear that Anne had a very difficult childhood bereft of love, education, and fun. Marilla begins to think that perhaps she and Matthew should take in Anne, who seems to be respectful and teachable.
Marilla and Anne arrive at Mrs. Spencer’s house, to the surprise of Mrs. Spencer. When asked about the mix-up, Mrs. Spencer says that she was told the Cuthberts wanted a girl by the person who passed along Marilla’s message. Mrs. Spencer tells Marilla that if she doesn’t want to keep Anne, another woman named Mrs. Peter is looking for a young girl to watch her children. Marilla is worried about this idea because she has heard that Mrs. Peter had a terrible temper. Just then, Mrs. Peter approaches Mrs. Spencer’s house. Mrs. Peter asks Anne her name and age and then tells Anne that she can start caring for her fussy baby right away. Marilla sees that Anne looks miserable and tells Mrs. Peter that she will have to take Anne back to Green Gables for at least the evening to discuss the situation with Matthew. Anne’s face brightens when she hears Marilla say this, and when Mrs. Spencer and Mrs. Peter leave the room, Anne tells Marilla that she will do anything to stay at Green Gables.
Marilla and Anne return to Green Gables. Marilla tells Matthew about Anne’s childhood and the offer Mrs. Peter made. Marilla and Matthew decide that Anne can stay with them and Marilla will raise her. Marilla tells Matthew that he must not interfere with Marilla’s methods of raising a child, and Matthew agrees. Marilla decides not to tell Anne about staying at Green Gables until the next day.
When it is time for Anne to go to bed, Marilla instructs Anne to say her prayers. Anne says that she never says prayers. Anne says that she knows about Christianity from the orphan asylum’s Sunday school, but she has never liked God because she believes God gave her red hair on purpose. Marilla tells Anne that she must say her prayers if she is going to stay at Green Gables. Anne says that she will say her prayers once she is in bed. Marilla tells Anne that she must say prayers kneeling next to her bed, which Anne feels is silly because she thinks it would be better to pray while looking at the beauty of nature.
Nevertheless, Anne gets down on her knees and makes up a prayer thanking God for the nature she has seen in Avonlea and asking to stay at Green Gables and to grow up to be good-looking. Marilla feels that the prayer is not proper but will do for the time being. As Marilla leaves, Anne calls her back and asks if it makes a difference that she forgot to end her prayer with “Amen” (p. 68). Marilla says that it won’t. When Marilla goes downstairs, she tells Matthew that it’s about time somebody adopted Anne and educated her. Marilla vows to enroll Anne in Sunday school as soon as she can sew her some appropriate clothing.
The next day, Marilla keeps Anne busy with tasks all morning. After lunch, Anne begs Marilla to tell her whether she will get to stay at Green Gables. Marilla tells Anne that she can stay, and Anne begins to cry tears of joy. Anne would like to start calling her new guardian Aunt Marilla, but she is told to just call her Marilla, as everyone else in Avonlea does. Anne says that they could imagine that Marilla is her aunt, and Marilla says that she never imagines things.
Marilla sends Anne off to learn the Lord’s Prayer, but Anne gets sidetracked on the way, as she often does. Marilla soon finds that Anne has been distracted by a picture of “Christ Blessing Little Children” (p. 72). Anne imagines herself as one of the children in the picture and says that she wishes the artist had not painted Christ looking sorrowful. Marilla again tells Anne to work on learning the Lord’s Prayer, and Anne sets about doing it. Anne breaks her silent study after a few minutes to wonder aloud if she will have any “bosom friends” (p. 74) in Avonlea. Marilla responds that Diana Barry is visiting her aunt but will be back home soon. Anne is excited about meeting Diana, especially because Marilla says that she is pretty. Anne tells Marilla about some imaginary friends she used to have when she lived with Mrs. Thomas and Mrs. Hammond.
Marilla sends Anne to her room to continue learning the Lord’s Prayer without distractions. When Anne gets upstairs, she finishes learning the prayer and decides to imagine decorations into the room since it is so bare. She also imagines herself looking more beautiful. She looks out the window and falls into daydreams.
L. M. Montgomery makes an interesting and impactful choice by starting Anne of Green Gables with a chapter from the perspective of Mrs. Rachel Lynde. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is a supporting character throughout the novel, but most of the chapters follow the actions of Anne, Marilla, and Matthew. Montgomery's choice to start with a chapter about Mrs. Rachel Lynde acclimates the reader to the culture of Avonlea, particularly the fact that things that are out of the norm will quickly be noticed and gossiped about. This is important for the reader to have in mind when Anne arrives in Avonlea a few chapters later because Anne is sensitive about feeling different from others and wants more than anything to feel accepted.
Marilla and Mrs. Rachel Lynde display a variety of prejudices when discussing Marilla and Matthew's decision to take in an orphan boy. Mrs. Rachel Lynde feels that taking in an orphan is a bad idea and tells multiple stories about orphans causing havoc in their adopted families' homes. Those who end up as orphans are likely those from lower-income backgrounds since their parents may not be able to afford consistent health care or work dangerous jobs. Therefore, the reader may infer that Mrs. Rachel Lynde believes lower-income people are more likely to cause problems in a community. Marilla also shows prejudice against those from other countries, a practice known as xenophobia. Marilla says, "There's never anybody to be had but those stupid, half-grown little French boys...no London street Arabs for me...Give me a native born at least...I'll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born Canadian" (p. 10). It is likely that Marilla holds these views due to the fact that she has seldom traveled outside of Avonlea and may find the customs of foreigners unfamiliar.
Montgomery causes readers to feel sympathy for Anne through dramatic irony as Anne and Matthew travel from the train station to Green Gables. The reader knows that Marilla and Matthew wanted an orphan boy to help Matthew on the farm, and Matthew thinks to himself that they will have to send her back to the orphanage. However, Anne does not know this and speaks with happiness and awe, telling Matthew, "I've never had a real home since I can remember. It gives me that pleasant ache again just to think of coming to a really truly home" (p. 26). Experiencing this irony makes the moment when Anne finds out she will be able to stay at Green Gables all the more impactful for the reader.
From the beginning of her time in Avonlea, Anne is very self-conscious of her appearance making her different, which she sees as a negative thing. Anne asks Marilla whether they would want to keep her at Green Gables if she were beautiful and had brown hair, and she later tells Marilla that she doesn't pray to God because she thinks he gave her red hair on purpose. Since red hair is the rarest hair color, Anne has likely felt that she is different from everyone throughout her life. Having this difference on top of the neglect she faced due to being an orphan created a desire to try to fit in as much as possible. However, though Anne wants to fit in so that she will be accepted, it is actually her differences that make so many people in Avonlea love her.
Anne has developed many defense mechanisms due to her traumatic and tumultuous childhood. Anne's main defense mechanism is using her imagination to distract her from sad situations. This serves her well much of the time, but sometimes it seems as if she were almost dissociating from reality, such as when the narrator says, "Anne became more and more abstracted, eating mechanically, with her big eyes fixed unswervingly and unseeingly on the sky outside the window" (p.44). Anne also elects not to experience certain things so that she will not have to go through the pain of missing them. As she explains, "There is no use in loving things if you have to be torn from them, is there?" (p. 46.) These defense mechanisms help Anne stay resilient through hard times, but as she settles into Green Gables and matures over the following years, she must learn to trust that she will not be abandoned again.