Anne of Green Gables and a German Jewish Peddler

My daughter and I are reading Anne of Green Gables, written by L. M. Montgomery and published in 1908. Below is one of the scenes in which Anne decides to dye her red hair.

“The peddler that was here this afternoon. I bought the dye from him.”

“Anne Shirley, how often have I told you never to let one of those Italians in the house! I don’t believe in encouraging them to come around at all.”

“Oh, I didn’t let him in the house. I remembered what you told me, and I went out, carefully shut the door, and looked at his things on the step. Besides, he wasn’t an Italian—he was a German Jew. He had a big box full of very interesting things and he told me he was working hard to make enough money to bring his wife and children out from Germany. He spoke so feelingly about them that it touched my heart. I wanted to buy something from him to help him in such a worthy object. Then all at once I saw a bottle of hair dye. The peddler said it was warranted to dye any hair a beautiful raven black and wouldn’t wash off. In a trice I saw myself with beautiful raven-black hair…”

What do you think? I won’t tell you what I read in the book “Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic,” a recent biography by Irene Gammel. I’d like to hear your reaction to this passage.

18 thoughts on “Anne of Green Gables and a German Jewish Peddler

  • I don’t have anything to say about the scene, but it’ll be interesting to read other people’s reactions.

    But I did want to ask you if your daughter understands what you’re reading? Years ago, I read it with my daughter, and I found myself explaining a significant portion of what we had read. (Since then, she’s gone back and read the entire series herself. She now loves it as much as I do.)

    • She seems to understand a lot.

      I remember reading Jane Eyre as a young teen and only being able to relate to the early part of the book, when she is in the orphanage. Later, in my early twenties, I reread the whole book in two days and related much more to the parts with Mr. Rochester.

      We don’t have to understand it all on the first read…we rarely do, right?

  • Ooh, I”m a huge Anne fan, so I’m going to get Gammel’s book….

    I think it’s relatively indicative of Anne’s personality – to welcome all different kinds of people and learn about them.

    • The German Jewish peddler sold her bad goods. The dye turned her hair green, and she had to cut it. Yet Anne *still* gave him the benefit of the doubt (dan lekaf zechut). As did my daughter, who said maybe Anne applied it wrong, she applied the whole bottle instead of just a bit.

      I think you will enjoy Gammel’s book.

      • Possibly the peddler had never encountered anyone with red hair and didn’t know it would turn her hair green! It was likely “indigo” which is kind of like henna – it will turn brown hair black. And the lighter your hair, the more layers you need to apply of it, and you need to probably add red henna to balance the colours – indigo over blonde will turn it green!

  • It’s funny. I loved the Anne series as a child and I don’t remember any mention of Jews in it, either. And Anne would reach out to all people, wouldn’t she? I’m curious as to what happened here, afterward.

    My daughter is reading Grimm’s fairy tales. She read one story and was horrified about how anti-semitic it was. And so was I. Hmmm. I think I feel a post coming on. Or maybe not.

  • This made me think of when my daughter was ill for a long time and had home instruction. She had a wonderful english tutor and this woman opened up a whole world of literature that she wouldn’t have gotten in school.. or at least the one on one attention. My daughter used to write stories and poetry, but hasn’t since high school…I wish she would again….

  • interesting. my daughter is currently reading the series – i’m curious if she noticed it.

    i never read the books.

    but from the above passage, what strikes me is that the ‘italian’ is bad, someone we wouldnt trust or open the door to, but that the ‘german jew’ is thought to be ok, initially, even if he did sell her some bad merchandise. she’s sort of justifying it because of his need for money.

    • I’m not sure Marilla would see “German Jew” as OK; I think this is Anne saying (like Phyllis noted), “look what I learned about him.” And if he turned her hair green, maybe a more proper reaction would have been anger. One wonders, though, if this one Jew sells bad merchandise to someone else in the province, that someone else then concludes all Jews are bad.

      Thanks so much for commenting, Chanie!

  • I agree with you. These were provincial people. To this day there are only about 50 Jews on the island and yet skin heads have acted out. The statement about the German Jew sounded like blame was attributable for defective hair dye because the seller was Jewish. Plain old Anti-Semitism. I wouldn’t recommend this book for Jewish children or those whose parents want them to be unbigoted.

    • Roz, instead of not recommending or reading the book, why not use this classic, beloved book as an opportunity for a discussion? Thanks for commenting on this old post.

  • There’s just not enough information in the text to tell if the writer is being racist or not. Apparently, in some Montgomery books there is racism about Italians, there are constant disparaging allusions to French Canadians, and in one case to Native Americans in the short story called ‘Tannis of the Flats.’

    Do you remember that Marilla says something like, ”Anne Shirley, I told you not to let those Italians in the house!”

    Anne protests that he wasn’t Italian but a German Jew, and she didn’t let him in the house. She looked at his stuff on the step.

    Maybe, Montgomery is just showing us humorously how literal minded Anne is.

    There’s loads of anti-German propaganda in ‘Rilla of Ingleside’, set during WW1. Anne recounts the hair dye story. Susan says ”You didn’t know what a German was then.” It’s the German identity that rouses hackles.

    BTW how times have changed! It would be no disaster today for a teenage girl to dye her hair green.


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