Carrie Eben: Anne Shirley and The Great Books

I recently picked up Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery to reread for an upcoming trip with a “bosom friend” to Prince Edward Island, Canada. I was feeling a bit melancholy and overwhelmed with other academic pursuits, and reading about Anne’s brave and hopeful outlook and dedication to study seemed the right thing to do. I have read the book several times (and watched the PBS series) over the years and go to it when I am feeling out-of-sorts.  Anne is a “kindred spirit” whose soul saw and articulated mine when I was eleven. Even still.

Anne of Green Gables might not be considered one of the Greatest of the Great Books. At just over 100 years old, it is young compared to the ancient epics and plays. There is no battle, there is no trip to Hades, and there is no pantheon of gods, but it has a quality that keeps me returning: Anne is real. Each time I enter her world, I discover something new about human growth and development in virtue.

All of the Greatest Books have this same quality and more: biblical stories, the ancient epics that include The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, Virgil’s The Aeneid, the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. Other Great Stories that teach about the realities of being human can also include the more recent comedic trilogy of Dante and Shakespeare’s works. These are just a taste of the Greats and are what I recommend as the essentials for building understanding of all other types and genres of Great Books. These books show us an “Ideal Type,” as David Hicks says in Norms and Nobility, that help us see humans as they are—good and bad. They are not necessarily morality tales that tell us how to be, but they instead, through their unfolding, show us the best ways to be. Within just these few are types and themes which unlock understanding to a bounty of others.

Like most people my age, I received a modern education during my formative years. While I was introduced to three Shakespeare plays, one Greek tragedy, and The Odyssey (since I was an AP student) throughout my entire junior and high school experience, I lacked a foundation to understand many other works of great literature. As a younger reader, I could not commiserate with Anne and her education, because I had not read what she had read. At first, I had to take Anne’s word for it when she mentioned the rapturous feelings she felt reading Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” (and I finally read it myself to understand the romantic beauty of Camelot). Since then, I have been redeeming my own education and reading all the books that are the Rosetta Stones for how the great minds of centuries past understand the world and how to live in it.

I now have a greater appreciation for Anne and her education, as well as a deeper appreciation for everything else I read. Going deep with even just a few of the Great Books has already opened many doors of “scope for imagination” (as Anne would say).  When I read Anne of Green Gables now, I can compare Anne to the hero Odysseus, both of whom share a love of being “home.” The battle-weary Odysseus, who spends ten years traveling home, longs to reunite himself to his proper place in the world. Anne, who was born without a place, longs for any home which will simply see and unconditionally accept her for who she is. I can also associate Anne’s sense of duty to her new-found family to the resolute duty of Aeneas. Anne forgoes a prestigious scholarship in favor of staying home with her adoptive mother, Marilla, after Matthew dies, just as Aeneas forgoes Dido to establish the nation of Rome. Finally, I can relate Anne’s outrage and subsequent sulk for being called “carrots” to the outrage and sulk of Achilles who was forced to quit Briseis—both were instances of insulted pride resulting in lost opportunities. 

Inviting the ancient epics into my conversations with Anne, or vice versa, adds new layers of profundity to this little book of coming-of-age-angst and connects the best parts of it to years of wisdom and truth about human reality. The Great Books are foundational to the great conversations held over centuries and hold the secrets to understanding other great books since subsequent Great Books reference them. They are a keystone.

While I recommend the Bible, ancient epics and dramas, and Dante and Shakespeare as a starting point, I want to be clear that I do not think they are the only Great Books (the Bible being the exception as the inspired Word of God). They are only a snapshot of literature that incarnates truth, goodness, and beauty from the western tradition and what my particular culture is based upon. I have only begun to uncover tales from Africa, Arabia, and the Far East that portray real stories and hold universal truths. And, like the tale of Anne’s growth and education in Anne of Green Gables, there are many more Great stories told by women and other traditionally marginalized groups that continue the humane threads of discussion about living well.

In summary, you can spot a Great Book by how it weaves beautiful truths and transcends reality. This quality often invites us to return to them again and again as a faithful “kindred spirit.”  While certain Great Books like the ancient epics and plays unlock understanding of other Great Books, there continues to be Great Books in other traditions and in modern times which mirror these truths. Ultimately, all Great Books illuminate the Creator’s purpose for humanity and bring us together in our common journey of being human.

Carrie Eben, MSEd (PhD student), is owner of Classical Eben education consulting (, founding board member of Sager Classical Academy in Siloam Springs, AR and adjunct instructor of Integrated Humanities at John Brown University.

Carrie Eben
Founding Board Vice-Chair, Curriculum Chair, 
and Teacher Mentor at Sager Classical Academy

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