Saturday, March 15, 2014

Pollyanna

Pretty cover that I like, as the
ebook I read didn't have a cover...
Pollyanna / Eleanor H. Porter
New York: L.C. Page, c1913
285 p.

I read this classic novel as an ebook (thanks again, OpenLibrary), and I found it quite a delight, actually! Of course, as everyone does, I knew about the story and Pollyanna's optimistic "Glad Game", through the use of Pollyanna's very name as a synonym for someone who is naively optimistic or cheerful. But upon reading the actual novel, I think that she has been maligned by this association.

Pollyanna is indeed cheerful, always looking for the good in any situation. However, she does this in recognition of the difficulties involved, not by pretending all is well. She's basically reframing any difficult moment, deciding to change perspective and see any positive elements that can be found. This seems to me to be very modern, a philosophy that is reflected in many, many current self-help books and even modern therapeutic practice. What you expect to find, you will find, whether that is negativity or beneficence. Pollyanna's "Glad Game" reminds me of some catchphrases I've heard a lot lately -- "fake it til you make it", "act like you want to feel", "what you focus on grows", and so on. It makes some sense as a way to face the problems in life, certainly a more useful coping strategy than doom and gloom and catastrophizing all the time.

So I did enjoy the read, and found it didn't date itself too badly. The basic storyline is that Pollyanna Whittier, newly orphaned, is returning East to live with her strict Aunt Polly. Pollyanna lost her mother when she was young, and has now lost her minister father as well. Fortunately for her, she has a resilient nature, and added to that, a habit of looking for the good in everything -- it was her father who originated the Glad Game, one Christmas when Pollyanna had been hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, and got a pair of crutches instead. They decided that the good in that situation was that Pollyanna didn't need the crutches.

Pollyanna's relentless optimism begins to affect the people she encounters in her new home of Beldingsville, Vermont. She befriends housekeepers, sickly invalids, orphan boys, rich recluses, and even softens Aunt Polly's heart. She attempts to understand and improve people's outlooks; but she is not trying to be Lady Bountiful -- she acts this way because she is sincerely interested, and because it's in her nature to do so. I think that this is what saves the book from syrupy melodrama. Pollyanna isn't some golden child, unlikely and saccharine, she is simply an outward-looking people person.

The story comes to a head when Pollyanna has an accident and is invalided herself. She loses her ability to play the Glad Game, with housekeeper Nancy reporting that she's saying "it's easy to tell lifelong invalids how ter be glad, but 'tain't the same thing when you're the lifelong invalid yerself an' have ter try ter do it."

At this, the townspeople rally, and come to tell Aunt Polly how Pollyanna has changed their lives for the better through her positive outlook. It's a bit treacly overall, but it is rescued by the fact that Pollyanna herself recognizes how hard it is to be Glad in the midst of personal tragedy. I think it shows that the Glad Game has to be a conscious choice, and that it's not always easy, a message that still resonates today.

The setting and the main characters are quite developed, making this more than a moral fable. I can't speak to any of the multitudes of sequels (though I have my doubts about those) but this original tale is fairly entertaining, and yes, even uplifting in some ways. While much of the story is definitely of its time, the message is surprisingly modern, and it does hold up. Pollyanna is not entirely the obnoxiously optimistic idiot for whom her name has unfortunately become a synonym.


10 comments:

  1. I've had this on the TBR stacks for a while. I watched a TV version some time ago, which was set in England, so I was surprised to find this is set in the US. It's also on my century of books list, and you've inspired me to move it up.

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    1. I noticed that a film version set in the UK had been made -- how odd! It's funny that a few of these older books that I"ve been reading for this project are set in Vermont. Must have been a popular location at the turn of the century! Hope you do read this and find it entertaining, too.

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  2. I was surprised, on a recent re-read, how less annoying she was than I had remembered from when I read her as a child. I really enjoyed it and found it quite poignant as well.

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    1. Glad to hear that others have had the same experience with this book -- there is definitely some realistic emotion in this story.

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  3. Oh good review. I think Pollyanna gets bad press because of her overly-optimistic attitude but what's wrong with that? Years since I read this:}

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    1. Indeed -- why not try to be positive in the face of imperfect circumstances? Despairing won't help. I really enjoyed this one, obviously :)

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  4. I'm not sure I'd want to read sequels, but I thought as a one-off Pollyanna had great charm. I re-read What Katy Did a while ago - adored it when I was a child, but I didn't find it quite as enduring as I'd expected. I enjoyed Pollyanna more.

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    1. I also loved What Katy Did as a young girl, and I was thinking about it while I was reading this one -- it's strange how many young girls in books of this era had accidents that made them invalids ...Katy, Emily Starr, Pollyanna -- any others?

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  5. You can change your life by changing your thoughts, by looking for the good in situations and people, instead of (automatically) being critical. Because of your review, I am, at the very least, "cautiously optimistic" about Pollyanna.

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    1. Exactly -- weird how Pollyanna reflects so much of what's being said these days!

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Thanks for stopping by ~ I hope you will leave your comments and reflections to let me know what you think!