Through the glory that is e-books, I have finally read the 1913 classic novel for girls, Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; I’m so glad I didn’t pay money for it. Pollyanna was so popular for so long that even those who have no idea of the plot of the novel understand the ethos: like France Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), Pollyanna is the predominant literary example of excessively joyous innocence triumphing over the bitterness created by the adult world.
Upon the death of her father, orphaned Pollyanna travels to live with her mother’s sister, Aunt Polly. There are strong echoes of Anne (of Green Gables) in Pollyanna’s verbosity and exuberance when she is greeted at the station, as well as in the situation she finds herself in. Aunt Polly, like Marilla Cuthbert, doesn’t really want a child living with her; Old Tom, the handyman, plays the role of Matthew Cuthbert in his sympathy with the orphaned Pollyanna. While Pollyanna shares some of Anne’s liveliness, her character is far too saccharine to be believable; this, of course, is why the epithet “Pollyanna” is often given to do-gooders and those who push forward their own seemingly altruistic agendas regardless of the reality surrounding them.
The narrative element that underpins Pollyanna is Pollyanna’s “just being glad game,” taught to her by her father. Pollyanna’s childish logic are almost reductio ad absurdum; examples abound, one being when she is punished by Aunt Polly with only bread and milk for dinner, yet gushes: “I’m really glad about it, Aunt Polly. I like bread and milk, and Nancy too. … I’ve had such a lively time here so far. Your house is beautiful! And I know I am going to like living with you.” We do on occasion see Pollyanna’s tears—she has after all just lost her beloved father, and is being treated unfairly—but her ability to suppress her sorrow in public and private is sufficiently uncanny to be troubling. Her character is drawn such that we do not see the struggles she might have in keeping a brave face against Aunt Polly’s unnecessarily harsh attitudes.
Incomprehensibly, Pollyanna’s excessive cheerfulness melts the bitterness of old Mrs. Snow, the crotchety John Pendleson, and eventually even her Aunt Polly. Aunt Polly’s transformation is made complete when—through fate in the form of a crippling accident that begins to test even Pollyanna’s emotional fortitude—she is reunited with the lover from her youth. Maybe if the writing were stronger, or the characters more richly constructed, or the plot less predicatble and contrived, it would be a better vehicle for Porter’s moral instruction. As it is, rather than feeling uplifted by Pollyanna’s cheerfulness, we end up saying, with Aunt Polly: “Glad! … will you please stop using that word!”
Perhaps it is because we have Anne of Green Gables (1908) as such a solid part of our Canadian children’s literature heritage, but I can’t help feeling that Pollyanna is little more than a poor imitation of a real children’s classic.