Marilla Cuthbert and her brother, Matthew, decide to adopt a boy to help them take care of their land on Prince Edward Island. To their surprise, 11-year-old orphan Anne Shirley arrives to live with them. They plan to take her back to the orphanage to make things right, until they realize that her endless chatter and wild imagination are part of what makes her endearing.
Anne is a spirited young lady with red hair and a feisty personality. Anne’s initial observations and conversations with Matthew paint a picture of beauty and optimism in the world around her. She has moved from family to family. To live in a place like Green Gables is a dream to her. She will do whatever she can to convince Marilla and Matthew to keep her.
Anne captivates reclusive Matthew almost instantaneously. Marilla, on the other hand, knows that Anne will need training and discipline if she remains with them. As much as Marilla despises the idea of turning to a busybody like Mrs. Lynde for advice, she leans on Mrs. Lynde’s experience with her own 10 children. Then Marilla takes it upon herself to teach Anne how to become a respectable young lady.
One of the first hurdles Marilla faces is Anne’s lack of a spiritual foundation. Anne does not pray daily and confesses that it is easier to be bad. Marilla is repelled by vanity and has no patience for Anne’s desire for beautiful clothing or empathy for Anne’s heartbreak over her freckles and red hair. In time, Anne’s appreciation for beauty in the world softens Marilla.
When Anne invites Diana for tea and accidentally serves her alcohol instead of the special cordial that Marilla told her she could have, Diana’s mother puts a devastating end to the girls’ friendship. It seems to Anne that she is destined to have bad luck.
Anne later redeems herself when Diana’s parents are out of town and Diana’s younger sister falls gravely ill with croup. Prior to her time in Green Gables, Anne was sent to homes to help families care for their younger children. Her experience taking care of young babies with croup saves the life of Diana’s younger sister, and her parents are eternally grateful. They see Anne in a new light and offer their blessing to the girls’ friendship.
Anne’s first experience at Sunday school reveals that although she is chastised for wearing wildflowers in her hair and appearing unruly, she has an intuition that even Marilla can’t deny. Anne does her best to not ask too many questions, and she finds her pew for the service and listens the best she can to the sermon.
As school gets underway in Avonlea, Anne finds the social aspects and academic challenges to be a thrill. She doesn’t meet her academic match until a few weeks into the semester when handsome Gilbert Blythe returns from his summer visit with his cousins. He is known to tease the girls, yet his initial efforts to gain Anne’s attention cross the line. When he spotlights her braids by comparing them to carrots, Anne’s insulted heart prompts her to break a tablet over his head. This moment sets the stage for a longstanding rivalry rooted in both academic competitiveness and lessons in grace and forgiveness.
As the months roll by, Matthew and Anne forge a connection. As he watches Anne and her girlfriends interact one evening, he realizes that Anne is the leader among them. Anne’s love for beauty and detail are out of character for the homely dresses Marilla makes for her and insists she wear to avoid vanity.
Matthew decides to get her a pretty dress for Christmas and enlists the help of Mrs. Lynde to obtain one. Receiving this present is a dream come true for Anne, who now has a proper dress when invited to tea, one that can be worn to perform essays for an audience at school.
At 13, Anne and Diana had grown from their days of playing house to days of exploring the nearby fields and dramatizing stories they learned in school. One afternoon, Anne crafts a barge that would befit her character’s role of floating down a stream. It is caught in the current, and her friends have to run for help to save her.
Gilbert Blythe rescues Anne, for which she is eternally grateful. Following the rescue, he tries to make amends with Anne and asks forgiveness for his foolishness. Anne shuns his apology, and from that day forward, Gilbert and Anne ignore each other.
Anne continues to advance well in school and is well respected by her peers and her new teacher, Miss Stacy. With Matthew and Marilla’s blessing, she begins to prepare for the Queen’s College entrance exam to become a teacher. A select group of students will commit to the preparation, one of them being Gilbert Blythe. Each of the students who work with Miss Stacy successfully pass the examination and enter Queen’s the next fall.
Marilla and Matthew miss Anne terribly, yet appreciate how she is thriving and maturing as a young woman. Her top scores on the entrance exam earn her an advanced course placement, along with Gilbert Blythe. They both earn the highest awards the school has to offer. Gilbert receives the top medalist award, while Anne receives the highest mark of recognition as the winner of the Avery award, which includes a scholarship to Redmond University where she can earn a degree.
Upon her return to Green Gables for the anticipated summer break, Anne is immediately concerned about the health challenges she notices in both Matthew and Marilla. Matthew’s heart has continued to be a concern for Marilla, yet he is unable to slow down in caring for the land he loves. Marilla’s headaches have advanced to a concerning degree. Matthew is also concerned about the financial demise of the local bank that holds all of their savings.
The morning after she arrives home, she lives a day she has dreamed about for months. Anne revisits all of her favorite places at Green Gables and the people she has missed in Avonlea. To wrap up the perfect day, Anne shares a reminiscent stroll with Matthew, who reiterates his pride and love for the woman she has become. The next morning, he dies. They later learn that the notice in his hand about their bank folding prompted his heart attack.
Marilla and Anne experience deep grief as they lay Matthew to rest. The support of their community touches their hearts. Marilla soon learns that her headaches are leading to near blindness, and she must sell Green Gables to slow down her pace of living. Anne decides to decline her scholarship and stay at Green Gables to look after Marilla. She will teach in the next town over and take care of her.
Mrs. Lynde visits and expresses her satisfaction with Anne’s decision. She shares that Gilbert Blythe has turned down Avonlea’s job as a teacher and has recommended that Anne be given the position. He has accepted an offer in the next town to insure she will take it. Anne is overcome with joy and feels indebted to Gilbert. The next time Anne sees Gilbert, she asks for forgiveness, and they recognize that they can help one another continue in their studies.
Anne is surprised by the way she sees Gilbert now — she blushes as she recounts the exchange to Marilla. Anne’s sense of peace that all is right in the world inspires her to offer her gratitude to God as she faces the next stage of her life.