A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BRIEF NOTE] Towards a queer reading of Matthew Cuthbert

In my July review of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, I devoted a paragraph’s consideration to the character of Matthew Cuthbert.

I was also left wondering, of all people, about Matthew Cuthbert. We learn, in the musical and in the books, all about his sister Marilla, how her life was defined by her rejection of John Blythe when the two were younger. We the audience see Matthew Cuthbert as a kind man and a good man, the first kindred spirit that Anne met in Avonlea. He is the person whose counsel to Marilla that they might be good for Anne convinces her to let the young Nova Scotian orphan stay. We learn nothing about Matthew’s past. Why did he stay single and unmarried, living with his sister in the family homestead? Did he have no great lost loves, no terrible disappointments? I’m more than a bit tempted to speculate about the possibility of a queer Matthew.

I’ve been thinking about this idea more in the one month and few days since I posted this review. There is certainly plenty of room for the exploration of queer themes in Anne of Green Gables–Wikipedia has an article about the Bosom Friends scandal of 2000, and Buddies in Bad Times here in Toronto explored the idea of Anne as a queer icon in 2008–but I have found very little exploration of Matthew Cuthbert.

A brief article at the official Anne of Green Gables website makes the compelling argument that Matthew Cuthbert’s power lies in his silence, in the import of his carefully measured observations. In this, he can be said to buttress the real powers in the Cuthberts’ odd household, Marilla and Anne and even Rachel Lynde. As we find out in the first chapter of Anne of Green Gables, it is this silence that makes him stand out from his peers.

Matthew Cuthbert had never been known to volunteer information about anything in his whole life.

And yet here was Matthew Cuthbert, at half-past three on the afternoon of a busy day, placidly driving over the hollow and up the hill; moreover, he wore a white collar and his best suit of clothes, which was plain proof that he was going out of Avonlea; and he had the buggy and the sorrel mare, which betokened that he was going a considerable distance. Now, where was Matthew Cuthbert going and why was he going there?

Had it been any other man in Avonlea, Mrs. Rachel, deftly putting this and that together, might have given a pretty good guess as to both questions. But Matthew so rarely went from home that it must be something pressing and unusual which was taking him; he was the shyest man alive and hated to have to go among strangers or to any place where he might have to talk. Matthew, dressed up with a white collar and driving in a buggy, was something that didn’t happen often. Mrs. Rachel, ponder as she might, could make nothing of it and her afternoon’s enjoyment was spoiled.

Matthew Cuthbert stands out for his lack of engagement. Matthew is not known to Avonlea at large, not as anyone who does anything but quietly and reliably follow the rules set forth by his society, fulfilling the expectations of his peers in doing the minimum possible to exist but not more than that. Why? We the reader never find out just what makes Matthew so retiring even by the standards of a Cuthbert family that intentionally built Green Gables far back from the Avonlea Road. When I came across an observation made in 2012 by Gay Christian Geek, I found myself nodding.

There’s Matthew, whose quietness and passivity contrast strikingly with the active and opinionated women around him – Rachel Lynde, Marilla, Anne, Josephine Barry… Actually, it’s possible to read Matthew as an explicit example of queer masculinity. Check out his response to Anne’s asking him whether he ever went “courting”:

‘Well now, no, I dunno’s I ever did,’ said Matthew, who had certainly never thought of such a thing in his whole existence.

Queer as a fish. Welcome to the club, Matthew.

If the reasons for Matthew’s difference are unspoken, could they be–by the standards of his time–literally unspeakable?

I’m not alone in this. The aforementioned blogger aside, if you turn to fan fiction, that genre of secondary literature most sensitive to the nuances of character and text, the popularity of a queer reading of Matthew Cuthbert is evident. Of the fourteen stories at Archive of Our Own featuring Matthew Cuthbert, the only two stories having him involved in any intimate relationships have these relationships be same-sex relationships, experienced in his youth.

Matthew Cuthbert was born in 1816, at a time when the scale of the repression directed against LGBT people in Prince Edward Island almost cannot be understated. Hamish Copley’s excellent Canadian LGBT history blog The Drummer’s Revenge catalogues LGBT history in Canada, including official repression. At the time when Matthew Cuthbert was alive, becoming a young adult, the crime of sodomy carried a mandatory death penalty. Copley could find no instance of the penalty being used, judicial clemency reducing the penalties of the few people convicted of sodomy to imprisonment, but it goes without saying that such stern and repressive measures would make any sexual networking among non-heterosexuals hideously risky, to an extent beyond what someone in the pre-legalization 20th century might have feared. (Well, sexual networking among non-heterosexual men, at least: it seems that the people making Canadian laws did not believe in non-heterosexuality among women.) This death penalty was eventually revoked in 1869, as part of the regularization of the criminal law of the new dominion created just two years before, but it seems that part of the motivation for this revocation was to create a criminal law that could be more readily used by the state. The late 19th century, Copley notes, saw numerous criminal prosecutions of men accused of sodomy, waged in the context of a social reformism that saw homosexuality as a marker of social degeneration that needed to be fought against.

The Drummer’s Revenge makes no specific mention of Prince Edward Island, and the particularities of its laws. As far as I am aware, no one talked about this issue. It’s worth reading Wendy Owen and J.M. Bumstead’s 1991 article for Acadiensis, “Divorce in a Small Province: A History of Divorce on Prince Edward Island from 1833”. That article, noting the substantially less controversial issue of divorce, notes that Island politicians and electorates simply preferred not to engage with the reality of marital breakdown, as part of a program of conservative repression of any variation. I would be safe to say that a largely rural province, lacking cities of any size and with a society dominated by religious communalism, could never have been hospitable, could never have been any kind of a refuge for non-heterosexuals at any time in the 19th century. Indeed, as The Guardian noted in a 2014 article, this repression remains a living force in parts of the Island in the 21st century.

Keeping a queer reading in mind, is there any surprise that Matthew Cuthbert was so exceptionally withdrawn? If at any time he let anything slip–if ever he gave reason for another person to think that he was inclined in a particular way–then he would have faced losing everything. Without any connections to the wider world, any particular skill or educational background or anything that could have taken him away from the community of his birth, his only option would have been to bunker down and try to live the least suspicious life he could.

The Anne of Green Gables Wikia states that Matthew died in June of 1881. Oscar Wilde, on his tour of North America, would only come to visit Charlottetown in 1882. Literally and metaphorically, Matthew was too early.

Matthew Cuthbert does die at the end of Anne of Green Gables, his character arguably fitting what TV Tropes calls the Bury Your Gays trope.

As sad as his life may have been, as terrifying as it might be to imagine for someone born in far less repressed times, I don’t think that his arc is ultimately an unfulfilled one. In Anne of Green Gables, Matthew’s life comes to a final fruition in the person of Anne, rescued by Matthew’s initiative from a life of drudgery.

“Matthew Cuthbert, you don’t mean to say you think we ought to keep her!”

Marilla’s astonishment could not have been greater if Matthew had expressed a predilection for standing on his head.

“Well, now, no, I suppose not—not exactly,” stammered Matthew, uncomfortably driven into a corner for his precise meaning. “I suppose—we could hardly be expected to keep her.”

“I should say not. What good would she be to us?”

“We might be some good to her,” said Matthew suddenly and unexpectedly.

That moral principle–the idea that we might be good for someone else, even good for people we met only a day before–is the central ethic of Anne of Green Gables. I do not think it is by accident that it is Matthew who voices this. He was good to someone else who, in turn, was good to him: love can win all, even in the least likely places, if only we choose to let it.

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Written by Randy McDonald

September 6, 2016 at 1:16 am

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