Anne of Green Gables is an afterthought when I think of Lucy Maud Montgomery. I grew up on her pantheon of classic novels, which on the surface comprise cheerful sketches of rural midcentury life, but that are always veering away from cheerful sketches of rural midcentury life into gothic romanticism. Anne is her most popular novel, but in the lives of her orphaned, sensitive, and misunderstood heroines, sweetness and light is the exception, not the rule. She has an incredible yearning towards the transcendent, the good and true and beautiful, but her writing leaves me wondering if she ever found the source of that heavenly desire.
Her writing is also full of cats. Almost all of her heroines have a special love for them, and the few sympathetic grown-ups in her stories do as well – such as Jane’s father in Jane of Lantern Hill, and Father Cassidy and Uncle Jimmy in Emily of New Moon. On the other hand, the overbearing adults who willfully misunderstand Montgomery’s child heroines, such as Jane’s grandmother and Emily’s Aunt Elizabeth, are marked by their dislike of cats.
In her writing, a cat shows up when a heroine has finally found a home where she is safe and loved. They represent childlike freedom and innocence, which is why the few instances of cats dying in her stories are so meaningful. There are only three that I can think of, and they each reveal something about Montgomery’s inner darkness and the spiritual lens through which she writes her books.
Jane Stuart & Natural Death
Jane of Lantern Hill is an optimistic novel about a spunky child who grows into herself once she finds a parent who loves her for who she is. Jane’s new home has not one but two cats, both named Peter.
Dad put his arm around Jane.
“Second Peter died last week, Jane. I don’t know what happened to him … he got sick. I had the vet for him but he could do nothing.”
Jane felt a stinging in her eyes. She would not cry, but she choked.
“I … I … I didn’t think anything I loved could die,” she whispered into Dad’s shoulder.
“Ah, Jane, love can’t fence out death. He had a happy life if a short one … and we buried him in the garden. Come out and see the garden, Jane … “Jane of Lantern Hill, L. M. Montgomery
This is a coming-of-age book, and Montgomery captures the painful lesson that every child has to learn, that death can touch the things we love. It hurts, but it’s normal and healthy.
What raises my eyebrows about this scene is that there is no mention of redemption. Dad gives the words of comfort that we all hear when a pet dies: he had a happy life and was loved. Then he distracts her from the harsh truth that “love can’t fence out death”. In a novel otherwise bursting with all kinds of life – flowers, families, crops, children – it’s a chilling little reminder that death encroaches on all of it. Even though Jane and Dad talk about Heaven in other parts of the book, in this one moment where the sting of death is actually present, the hope of Heaven seems absent.
Bruce Meredith & Sacrifice
Montgomery’s novel Rilla of Ingleside captures the human response to World War I. There are moments of courage and self-sacrifice that keep the light shining, but there are also unresolved moments of spiritual darkness, particularly surrounding the character of Bruce Meredith. Bruce, a sensitive young boy, senses the helplessness and despair of the adults around him as they wait for their sons to return from the war, and makes a startling choice: he kills the pet kitten whom he dearly loves.
“Why did you do that?” Mrs Meredith exclaimed.
“To bring Jem back,” sobbed Bruce. “I thought if I sacrificed Stripey God would send Jem back. So I drownded him – and, oh mother, it was awful hard – but surely God will send Jem back now, ‘cause Stripey was the dearest thing I had. And He will, won’t He, mother?”
Mrs Meredith didn’t know what to say to the poor child. She just could not tell him that perhaps his sacrifice wouldn’t bring Jem back – that God didn’t work that way. Mr. Meredith is worried about the effect on Bruce’s faith in God, and Mrs Meredith is worried about the effect on Bruce himself if his hope isn’t fulfilled.Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery
The theme of sacrifice runs throughout this wartime book. Rilla and the others on “the home front” make many sacrifices in support of the war effort, from rationing sugar to letting their sons and sweethearts go to war, and at the end of the book, Montgomery declares through her character Susan that the victory was worth all the sacrifice. They suffered, but their suffering meant something. It went toward the great cause of victory, so all the pain was worth it.
But Bruce’s sacrifice isn’t a material one like cutting down on sugar. It doesn’t contribute tangibly to the war effort. It’s the only spiritual sacrifice in the book, and the adults do not know how to respond to it – their theology is ambiguous on this point, except for a vague notion that “God doesn’t work that way.” Did Bruce’s sacrifice count for anything or not? It’s left open-ended.
Montgomery is a subtle writer and very often knows more than she lets on; she allows her characters to wrestle with questions to which she already knows the answers. But there are also times when she lets her characters face dilemmas which she can’t solve. In this case, I think Montgomery is letting us in on her own agony as she faces something far darker than the death of a pet: the idea that some suffering might turn out to have no meaning at all, that perhaps some sacrifices are in vain, and some pain might be absolutely pointless.
Brian Dark & Despair
As her books go on, the darkness deepens. In A Tangled Web, one of her last-written novels, references to “gods” and “fate” outpace references to God and prayer. Its protagonists are mostly older characters, made unhappy by their own poor choices, in contrast to the youth and innocence of her earlier heroines. For the first time in Montgomery’s writing, the story rewards characters for morally ambiguous actions. The whole novel feels more Shakespearean than Austenian, and bears the weight of a worldliness that was totally absent from her earlier ones. It gives me the terrible feeling that Montgomery was beginning to crumble under the pain of the world and lose her hope in the goodness that she had loved earlier in life.
This is by far the most traumatic cat death. A lonely, sensitive, unloved young boy finds solace in a trusting little cat that visits him at night, which he tries to hide from his uncaring guardian. Then one day, the cat disappears.
“Where’d that cat come from that woke me up pawing at my face? You bin having cats here, youngster?”
“No, only one – it came sometimes at nights,” gasped Brian. It seemed that his very soul grew cold within him.
“Well, it won’t come again. I wrung its neck. Now you hustle off after them cows.”
Later on, Brian found the poor dead body of his little pet among the burdocks under the window. Brian felt that his heart was breaking as he gathered Cricket up in his arms and tried to close his glazed eyes …
By some blind instinct rather than design, his feet bore him to the Rose River graveyard and his mother’s neglected grave. He cast himself down upon it, sobbing terribly.
“Oh, Mother – Mother. I wish I was dead – with you. Mother – take me – I can’t live any longer – I can’t – I can’t. Please, Mother.”A Tangled Web, L. M. Montgomery
This is not the natural death of a childhood pet as in Jane, or even a willing sacrifice as in Rilla. It is senseless, cruel violence against an innocent creature. Montgomery isn’t writing this scene from a detached distance: she is pouring out her own agony at the suffering that the world inflicts on those who are weakest, most trusting, most innocent. A Tangled Web is a provincial little novel, but it looks the universal problem of suffering full in the face. Why is the world so cruel? Why do we seem to suffer for no reason? Has the God who made us abandoned us here in our pain?
As a Catholic, I know that there is only one possible answer: the Cross of Jesus Christ. In all the suffering I have witnessed in the world, I cling to the truth that He took it all upon Himself and redeems it. All of it. There is no drop of pain anywhere in history that His Cross does not reach. The mystery of the Cross, the reason that Christians worship it, is that it takes all the senseless pain in the world and transforms it into glory. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).
Little Brian’s cry of despair is echoed in the note found next to Montgomery’s deathbed, which some believe to be a suicide note: “May God forgive me … My position is too awful to endure and nobody realizes it. What an end to a life in which I tried always to do my best.” I think that, like her character Brian, the pain of the world overcame her and she despaired of finding hope.
I love Montgomery for seeing the spiritual depths of everyday things. I love her for entering into the pain of children. I love her for daring to pour her pain out on paper. But I deeply wish for her sake that she had known that there is true redemption, even for the most senseless cruelty. Love does not fence out death; but in the end, the God who is Love overcomes death (1 Jn 4:8, 1 Cor 15:26). The same God who created everything good in the universe, including cats (which I believe Montgomery would agree are among His best work), redeems it from evil, so that cruelty does not have the last word.