“I do wish she had lived long enough for me to remember calling her mother. I think it would be so sweet to say mother.” This is said by Anne Shirley, the heroine of L.M. Montgomery’s Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables, as she explains to spinster Marilla Cuthbert how she became an orphan. She was sent to live with siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert on Prince Edward Island by mistake. They wanted to adopt a boy to help with their farm; instead, they ended up with a very chatty and imaginative redheaded girl.
In “Chapter 3: The Pollywog” of Stranger Things 2, Eleven begins her journey of self-discovery. As she first ventures out of the cabin where she lives in hiding, she sees a mother pushing her daughter on a swing set. This prompts a flashback, where Eleven recalls one specific bittersweet memory with her quasi-father figure, Hawkins Chief of Police, Jim Hopper. She’s lying in bed, illuminated by the soft glow of a reading lamp, while Hopper sits beside her bed reading aloud the above passage from Anne of Green Gables. To viewers, this moment is touching because, unbeknownst to Eleven, Hopper read this same book aloud to his daughter while she was in the hospital.
As soon as Hopper says the word “mother,” Eleven interrupts eagerly with the question, “Do I have a mother?” Hopper, unprepared for this line of questioning, responds with, “Yeah, of course you have a mother. You couldn’t really be born without one.” Naturally, Eleven timidly responds by asking where she is. Hopper, trying to be as gentle as possible, says, “She’s not around anymore.” Eleven begins to realize that “gone” most likely means dead. As she wipes away her tears, Hopper, after a pause, continues reading. As the scene fades out, he recites the line, “You see, nobody wanted me,” where he looks directly at Eleven, as if realizing for the first time that this young girl he is protecting is not unlike the girl from the story he is reading to her.
The Duffer Brothers, the show’s creators, could have picked any book for Hopper to read to Eleven, but they deliberately chose Anne of Green Gables. Those who picked up on the obscure reference might have wondered how a story set in rural Canada fits within a sci-fi thriller made of 1980s pastiche. But in terms of character development, Anne and Eleven have a lot in common. They’re both orphans (or essentially an orphan, in Eleven’s case), adopted by people who were not necessarily prepared to be parents. They’re both outcasts, disrupting the flow of their otherwise peaceful rural communities. Most importantly, both crave acceptance and belonging.
While Anne may not have telekinetic super powers, she does have talents that set her apart from the other Avonlea children. She’s incredibly smart, vying with Gilbert Blythe for the top of the class, and she often lets her active imagination get the best of her. But in the end, Anne is accepted by the small Avonlea community for being her quirky and eccentric self.
Eleven may not be able to win over Hawkins as easily as Anne wins over Avonlea, but much of her development as a character in this series stems from her desire to find out who she is and where she comes from. The scene with Hopper foreshadows Eleven’s future departure from Hawkins in search of her mother. Like Anne, Eleven has a romanticized ideal of what her mother should be, which turns out to be far from the reality. Eleven wants a family, and she wants to be wanted for who she is, rather than her supernatural abilities. But Eleven doesn’t seem to have an identity apart from her powers.
As frustrating as it is for the viewer, it’s necessary for Eleven to go out on her own and reinvent herself. The hotly debated episode, “Chapter Seven: The Lost Sister,” sees Eleven harnessing her powers and confronting both who she is and who she wants to be. She discovers that she has a “sister,” and joins a gang of punk misfits. For the first time, Eleven feels as though she has a family, albeit an unconventional one. Prior to her journey, she tried to create small families wherever she went – first by calling Dr. Brenner “Papa,” then with Mike and his friends, and again with Hopper.
Her sister Kali, or “Eight,” tries to get Eleven to use her anger to make her powers stronger. Even with Eleven’s best interests at heart, Eight is an unforgiving mentor. Eleven soon realizes that familial bonds are not enough to justify doing bad things, like tracking down and murdering all the remaining Hawkins laboratory men. Eight is not the first to try and take advantage of Eleven’s powers. In fact, prior to her journey, nearly everyone used her power for themselves – Mike and the gang included. She was an object, a weapon, a resource.
Without this episode, Eleven would never have learned how to use her powers for herself. She craved acceptance so much that she thought that she had to use her powers for others to accept her. We see this in the first season with Mike and his friends, where she only earns the respect of Dustin and Lucas after attacking the school bullies. With Eight around, Eleven is no longer the only one with special powers, forcing her to find an identity outside of them.
This search for identity makes her incredibly vulnerable. Many of the emotional changes we see in Eleven in this episode are reflected in slight physical ones. She gets a makeover where she rocks slicked back hair, jeans and a black blazer, and dark, heavy eye makeup. The changes may be small, but they are the foundation of Eleven’s new identity. She reinvents herself and adopts the name Jane – the name her mother gave her.
Eight pushes Eleven to her breaking point, and when she is unable to kill the Hawkins laboratory man who tortured her mother, she knows that she cannot build a family or home out of rage and revenge. Her biggest transformation happens the moment she makes the decision to leave Eight and the others to return to Hawkins. Eight tries to persuade Eleven to join them by saying, “There’s nothing for you back there. They cannot save you, Jane!” Eleven replies, “No. But, I can save them,” and sets off on her journey home.
The idea of home is also central to the development of Anne and Eleven as characters. Those who read the Anne series will know that no matter where her adventures take her, Anne always returns to Avonlea in the end. When Matthew dies, and Marilla is left alone, Anne knows that her place is in Avonlea with Marilla; she sacrifices her college scholarship to stay with her. This is perhaps another clue that indicates that Eleven will return to Hawkins, but with a renewed sense of self and purpose. For Eleven, the idea of Hawkins as her home is not simple. Hawkins, specifically the laboratory, represents a place where she experienced serious emotional and physical trauma. But the relationships she built, the little families she created for herself, are the reason Hawkins will always be her home, and so she is compelled to return to them and save them – not because she must, but because she wants to.
Eleven left Hawkins as a “pretty,” lonely, and confused young girl, but she returns home a “bitchin,’” powerful badass who saves the world.