Study Guide

The Secret Garden Analysis

  • Tone

    Dark, Hopeful

    How can The Secret Garden's language not be dark? It's about two love-starved kids who become emotionally and even physically abusive to the people around them because they feel so sorry for themselves. Sure, there's Magic and friend making and gardening and they get a lot better, but the set-up of both Mary and Colin's coming-of-age is surprisingly serious. What's more, the novel never softens its prose to avoid the harsh truths of its main characters' weaknesses. Check out this passage from Chapter 16, for example:

    Because [Mary] was the stronger of the two, she was beginning to get the better of [Colin]. The truth was that he had never had a fight with any one like himself in his life and, upon the whole, it was rather good for him, though neighter he nor Mary knew anything about that. He turned his head on his pillow and shut his eyes and a big tear was squeezed out and ran down his check. He was beginning to feel pathetic and sorry for himself—not for any one else. (16. 40)

    Colin is our hero, guys, but we still see him in the middle of a seriously bratty argument over whether or not Mary is allowed to have other friends (in this case, Dickon). And as he's falling into his jealous rage, "a big tear was squeezed out and ran down his cheek." That's classic, non-heroic emotional manipulation right there: this tear is supposed to guilt Mary into ending the fight and giving in. Of course, Mary doesn't back down, but that doesn't change the fact that we see Colin in a really unflattering light here.

    At the same time, it's precisely because we know that we are getting a blunt and straightforward portrayal of Colin's early weaknesses that we can trust his later improvement. This fight, as ugly and selfish as it appears, will be "rather good for him," the passage promises. It's because of the novel's dark descriptions of its main characters, their self-absorption, and their damaging behavior that we continue to feel hope that, by the end of The Secret Garden, they will be able genuinely to sort out all of these bad feelings—and they do. Phew.

  • Genre

    Coming-of-Age, Children's Literature, Family Drama

    Okay, so if we're being honest (which we always are), The Secret Garden is sort of a coming-of-age story in the genre of children's literature. After all, both Mary and Colin change and develop over the course of the story, but they actually become less grown-up and more childlike and happy over the course of the book. They become versions of what Frances Hodgson Burnett seems to view as real children; they don't grow into adults like the classic coming-of-age narrative would imply.

    Similarly, the term children's literature is ambiguous as applied to this novel. The Secret Garden was first published in episodes in a magazine for adults before being published as a novel for both kids and adults in 1911. While The Secret Garden is now routinely shelved in the kids' section of bookstores and libraries, it didn't used to be, which may explain the surprisingly dark and sad implications of this story of neglected and lonely children.

    The one genre that we can apply clearly and unambiguously is family drama. With the abandonment of Colin Craven by his father, and the dire neglect of Mary by her parents, there are a lot of family issues in this book that either need to be resolved (in the case of Colin and Archibald) or left behind (in the case of Mary and the deceased Lennoxes). Family drama is the primary thing that makes both Mary and Colin so unpleasant; for more specific thoughts on these domestic dramas, check out our "Characters" section.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Secret Garden sounds so mysterious—why wouldn't you want to pick this book right off the shelves and buy it? After all, why should a garden by kept secret from anyone? Don't you want to find out? So, first and foremost, The Secret Garden is a book title with just enough mystery to inspire curiosity in a potentional reader and (more importantly) a possible buyer.

    But aside from the fact that The Secret Garden just sounds neat, it also contains two major hints about the kind of tale that the novel is going to tell.

    First, secret: Much of the novel's suspense is based on how much kids like to keep secrets and generate mysteries for themselves. As Mrs. Sowerby puts it to Dickon, "there's nothin' children likes as much as play actin'" (24.16). The fact that there are so many elaborate secrets in this book doesn't add to a sense of danger, but instead it makes Mary and Colin's hard work weeding and planting in the Secret Garden seem more light-hearted and like a game.

    And then there's the garden part. We get into this a bit more in the "Symbols" section, but we think it's pretty significant that this isn't The Secret Forest or The Secret Meadow. Frances Hodgson Burnett obviously values nature and thinks that kids should get out into it, but it's particularly important for these kids, Mary and Colin, to have something to take care of so they'll learn to be less self-absorbed. A garden needs constant upkeep and maintenance—the perfect spot for Mary and Colin to learn a thing or two about caring for something other than themselves.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Chapter 27 of The Secret Garden includes pretty much everything you wouldn't expect based on the previous twenty-six chapters. For one thing, the chapter appears mostly from Archibald Craven's point of view, even though he has been largely absent for the rest of the book. We follow him as he reads Susan Sowerby's letter and dreams of his wife, thus sending him back to Misselthwaite Manor.

    We also finally get some insight into Archibald's terrible behavior towards Colin: "He had not meant to be a bad father, but he had not felt like a father at all" (27.29). As the novel explains his dark heartbreak over his son's poor health and weird resemblance-but-not to Lilias, it builds up some degree of sympathy and understanding for the man who has spent most of Colin's life fleeing his fatherly responsibilities.

    In addition to giving us some much-needed Archibald backstory, the final chapter of the novel also continues its later theme of Magic.

    In some ways, the chapter reads less like a piece of fiction and more like the conclusion to a thesis statement on how Magic connects people spiritually. Just as Colin is announcing in the Secret Garden, "I am going to live forever and ever and ever!" (27.10), Archibald finds himself in a Swiss valley meditating over a particularly clear pool of water. As he sits calmly, he thinks to himself, "I almost feel as if—I were alive!" (27.8). The unbreakable link between father, son, and the power of nature all wake Archibald up to his need to get home to Misselthwaite Manor to meet his son properly.

    As Archibald approaches Misselthwaite Manor, the novel nicely builds up what suspense there can be when we know that there's probably going to be a happy ending. Archibald wonders if it's too lateto look after his son, while we all know that his son has been looking after himself, and once he arrives, Mrs. Medlock is so full of conflicting stories and uncertainty that it only confuses Archibald further.

    But as Archibald goes out to the long-lost garden he shared with his wife, Colin comes running straight into him. Colin has just won a race, and he is so happy and triumphant that his meeting with his father just feels like the frosting on the cake. And when Archibald sees Colin, he realizes that he is "a tall boy and a handsome one […] glowing with life" (27.61). Colin volunteers to walk through the garden and back to the house with his father, thus finally revealing to the household staff that he does actually know how to walk.

    And so all is right with the world—right?

    Yeah, we've got a happy ending here. But as we have griped elsewhere in Archibald Craven's analysis over in the "Characters" section, it seems a little weak that he gets a free pass from the novel and his son despite ten years of intense, neurotic neglect. The novel paints such a dark picture of Colin's early life that this quick conclusion of a Magic-healed Craven family feels a bit abrupt.

  • Setting

    India and the Yorkshire Moors

    One of the most striking things about The Secret Garden is that there are so many large, empty houses. Think of Mary sitting alone in the first chapter in her parents' empty bungalow, not realizing that her parents have both died and all of the servants have either died or run away. Or when Mary first explores Misselthwaite Manor's countless rooms and finds a portrait gallery and a family of seven mice but not much else.

    Even when Colin joins Mary to explore the house one rainy day in Chapter 25, it feels endlessly empty. The two of them have lots of fun looking at the portraits and playing with the strange ornaments they find, so there isn't the same impression of loneliness that haunts earlier descriptions of these empty houses. But even when Colin and Mary are happy in their huge homes, there is still this weird sense that they are more or less alone against the world.

    Obviously, it's a fun setting for a novel to put a bunch of kids into a more-or-less empty castle so that they can explore. But we also think that these huge empty rooms are supposed to remind us of a sense of scale: Colin and Mary are both small and vulnerable compared to the larger world they're trying to learn to navigate on their own. They have a much easier time figuring out what to do and where to go when they have each other, but they are still kids left more or less to their own devices.

    So if Mary hadn't found the Secret Garden, and if Colin hadn't resolved to cure himself of all of his illnesses, there would be no other supporters or helpers coming in from the outside to help them. They're on their own (with the exception of Dickon, of course), and the big, empty space of Misselthwaite Manor helps to underline this isolation.

    We also talk a lot about the various settings of The Secret Garden elsewhere in this learning guide, so please excuse us while we send you off to other sections: We talk about the garden itself in the "Symbols" section, and we talk about India and England over in "Themes." Definitely check those out if you want to know more.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    The Secret Garden is a fast-paced novel with just a few characters to follow, so it's not too difficult to read. The biggest challenge is getting through Dickon and the Sowerbys' thick Yorkshire accents, which Frances Hodgson Burnett spells out with lots of weird apostrophes and unfamiliar (to American readers, at least) slang. If you run into trouble understanding what the heck Dickon is talking about at any given time, try reading his lines aloud.

  • Writing Style

    Flowery, Descriptive

    We're sorry about the obvious pun in calling The Secret Garden's language flowery, but, well, it really is. Not only are there tons of literal flowers in the novel—forget-me-nots, roses, delphiniums, and so on—but the novel also uses a lot of exclamation points and adjectives when it wants to convey something particularly beautiful or important. Take, for example, the kids' earliest discussion of Magic in Chapter 22:

    They always called it Magic and indeed it seemed like it in the months that followed—the wonderful months—the radiant months—the amazing ones. Oh! the things which happened in that garden! If you have never had a garden you cannot understand, and if you have had a garden you will know that it would take a whole book to describe all that came to pass there. At first it seemed that the green things would never cease pushing their way through the earth, in the grass, in the beds, even in the crevices of the walls. Then the green things began to show buds and the buds began to unfurl and show color, every shade of blue, every shade of purple, every tint and hue of crimson. (22.26)

    This passage can't say red when it could say "every tint and hue of crimson." It also uses a lot of repetition ("every shade" and "the green things "), which emphasizes the huge number and varieties of plants and blossoms beginning to grow through the soil and bloom. What's more, the months can't just be "wonderful"—they also have to be "radiant" and "amazing."

    Frances Hodgson Burnett also uses plenty of short, direct words in this passage to vary the tone and to keep it from becoming too sweet and dense to tolerate. At the same time, The Secret Garden's passages of description always include multiple adjectives to describe similar things, which makes the prose seem both highly decorative and, well, flowery.

  • The Snake and the Mice

    Obviously, this book is all about nature—it's called The Secret Garden, for Pete's sake. So it should come as no surprise that even the animals mentioned briefly have a symbolic value in the book. When Mary's parents die and leave her alone without her even knowing it, she spots a snake in the house:

    But no one came, and as she lay waiting the house seemed to grow more and more silent. She heard something rustling on the matting and when she looked down she saw a little snake gliding along and watching her with eyes like jewels. She was not frightened, because he was a harmless little thing who would not hurt her and he seemed in a hurry to get out of the room. He slipped under the door as she watched him. (1.23)

    This snake isn't a sign of evil or anything like that—the bungalow isn't the Garden of Eden—but his eagerness to "get out of the room" is both realistic, since not many animals love human company, and symbolic. The snake is like a stand-in for Mary, totally alone in the world and not at all at home in the bungalow that belongs to Mary's parents.

    When Mary finds herself alone in Misselthwaite Manor, on the other hand, she finds a family of seven tiny mice nesting in one of the couch cushions. As Mary looks at the mice (six babies and one mother), she thinks:

    If there was no one else alive in the hundred rooms there were seven mice who did not look lonely at all. (6.28)

    Where the snake seems to echo Mary's general sense of being out of place and lonely in her parents' empty bungalow, the happy colony of mice appear to suggest that Mary is going to find a community, even a family, during her time at Misselthwaite Manor. Even though Yorkshire seems so rural and bare compared to what Mary is used to, there are actually a lot more possibilities for her to make friends here—Dickon, Colin, and even Ben Weatherstaff are going to save Mary from feeling lonely or out of place again.

  • The Robin

    The robin who first appears to Mary and who turns out to be a close friend of Ben Weatherstaff and Dickon is like a gatekeeper to the garden. As long as he likes you, it's a pretty sure sign that you're a good person. Indeed, without this friendly robin, Mary would not have found the key to the garden: He leads her to it at the end of Chapter 7 by pecking and scratching at a hole where the key is half-buried under dirt.

    Aside from the fact that the robin has a close personal relationship with the garden, he is also the first character with whom Mary has a real personal relationship. Oh, she meets Ben Weatherstaff and Martha first, but the robin is, in a way, more important. When Mary sees the robin chirping at her as she's skipping through the garden with her jumprope, her whole personality changes:

    Mistress Mary forgot that she had ever been contrary in her life when he allowed her to draw closer and closer to him, and bend down and talk and try to make something like robin sounds. (7.52)

    The robin's easy, unchallenging interest in Mary seems to undo all of her Mistress Mary stiffness and distance so that she can attempt to communicate with the robin in his own language. And once Mary shows that she can become real friends with another creature, the key to the Secret Garden appears to her, so the robin becomes the first step on Mary's road to a real social life and an active relationship with the natural world.

    Still, while Mary and Dickon are real friends with the robin, the novel never forgets that the robin is a bird and not a human. Occasionally, the narrative slips into the robin's perspective, revealing that he likes the humans' gardening because "all sorts of delightful things to eat are turned up with the soil" (9.20). And when he begins nesting at the start of Chapter 25, the robin reflects on the importance of his Eggs.

    But though the robin isn't human (obviously), his ability to make friends across species underlines the novel's larger message that humans are as much a part of the natural world as any other species. We may not be exactly the same as robins, but we still share a lot in common that can bond us together in common harmony.

  • The Garden

    Gardens definitely have a strong symbolic tradition in Western cultures going back, of course, to the Biblical Garden of Eden. Like the Garden of Eden, the Secret Garden is a contained piece of earth originally meant for two people—Archibald and Lilias—to celebrate their love. Unlike the Garden of Eden, though, the Secret Garden is a refuge from the larger, harder world. Archibald and Lilias share this garden as their own, personal, private, manageable haven—perhaps partly so that they can escape from the demands of the day-to-day real world.

    Once Lilias dies tragically in the garden, Archibald seals it off under the mistaken impression that she is gone from him forever. But later, Mrs. Sowerby assures Colin: "Thy own mother's in this 'ere garden, I do believe. She couldna' keep out of it" (26.79). So the garden is also a spiritual place of connection to Colin's long-dead mother; once Colin spends more time in the garden, he is able to look at his mother's portrait again and Archibald has his fateful dream of Lilias calling him back to Misselthwaite Manor.

    So the garden appears to be the home of the ghost of Lilias, and it was also created as a refuge from the rest of the world. It has one more major symbolic function, though, which is fairly explicit in the book: When Mary first finds it in a complete state of neglect, she starts to bring it back to life. And as Mary works to renew the garden, she finds herself getting better and better. And as the garden improves, the neglected heart of the Craven family begins to regrow as well, so that Colin, and at last even Archibald, starts to come alive again.

    In short, there is definitely a connection here between the act of planting and nurturing a garden and the process of making yourself a better, happier person.

    We have a last question, though: If gardening is so good for you, then why doesn't Mary's early effort to create a garden in the first chapter work at least a little bit to improve her mood? Check it out:

    [Mary] pretended that she was making a flower-bed, and she stuck big scarlet hibiscus blossoms into little heaps of earth, all the time growing more and more angry and muttering to herself the things she would say and the names she would call Saidie when she returned. (1.5)

    We think the difference between Mary's fake hibiscus garden and the real Secret Garden is one of attitude: Mary is spending all of her time thinking of horrible names she will call her poor nanny Saidie when she next sees her (though, as it turns out, she'll never see Saidie again). She's also not planting real flowers or wondering about how these hibiscus blooms will do in the earth with no roots or water.

    Mary doesn't have either the positive state of mind or the know-how to take care of anything at this stage of the novel, so no wonder she's just getting "more and more angry" as she plays with her hibiscus flowers. We don't want to get too Zen about this, but Frances Hodgson Burnett seems to insist that you have to have the right attitude toward living things to garden properly, and Mary definitely doesn't have the right attitude in this first chapter.

    As a small side note, all of The Secret Garden's beautiful descriptions of the positive spiritual influence of working in a garden are based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's real-life experience in her garden at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, England. She wrote The Secret Garden there in 1910, and you can still visit the estate or, weirdly, rent an apartment there.

  • The Magic

    Here's what we can say about the Magic that Colin Craven uses to account for both his and the Secret Garden's return to health: It's possibly the ghost of Lilias Craven, it's possibly God or what Mrs. Sowerby calls the "Good Big Thing" (26.63), and it's definitely the Force. Like the Force, the Magic draws together all living things; unlike the Force, sadly, the Magic doesn't give you any special advantage in lightsaber fighting.

    When Colin first stands up, he thinks the Magic that is healing his legs is coming from Dickon, but Dickon tells him:

    "Tha's doin' Magic thysel' […] It's same Magic as made these 'ere work out o' th' earth," and he touched with his thick boot a clump of crocuses in the grass. (22.10-12 )

    See? Like we said: It's the Force, a.k.a. the good energy in the universe, that helps Colin stand and that brings plants out of the ground from seeds. And not only does it have these positive physical effects (healing neglected kids and producing green and growing things), but it also has a spiritual dimension as well. Dickon tells Mary privately that Mrs. Sowerby believes that the Magic in the garden is a maternal power coming from the lingering spirit of Lilias Craven:

    "Mrs. Craven was a very lovely young lady," [Dickon] had gone on rather hesitatingly. "An' mother she thinks maybe she's about Misselthwaite many a time lookin' after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when they're took out o' th' world. They have to come back, tha' sees. Happen she's been in the garden an' happen it was her set us to work, an' told us to bring him here." (21.31)

    So the Magic is a combination of two central ideas in this novel: The importance of positive energy and thinking to a person's overall health, and the redeeming and healing power of motherly love. Lilias Craven, like Mrs. Sowerby, is a natural mother, so she has to keep watching over Colin even from beyond the grave. (We guess that Mrs. Lennox is just a failure all round.) With the help of his mother's ghostly spiritual power and the general happiness and good health of the Secret Garden, both Mary and Colin start thriving on Magic.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third-Person Omniscient Narrator

    The narrator of The Secret Garden isn't a person, in the sense that it doesn't have a name or a definite point of view. But it does have really strong feelings on what's going on in the novel. Not only does the narrator often tell us directly about the characters—not only what they look like, but also who they are emotionally and morally—but it also clearly lays out its own message for the novel. Consider this excerpt from the first paragraph of the final chapter:

    One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electfic batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live. (27.1)

    This is a very strong statement for a narrator with no body, no name, and no explicit personality to make. Essentially, the narrator is laying out the final take-away for The Secret Garden right here: Allow yourself to dwell on sad or bad thoughts, and you'll become as unsociable and accidentally cruel as Archibald Craven. Focus on good thoughts, though, and you'll be filled with "sunlight," like Dickon or Mrs. Sowerby.

    The narrator definitely speaks in the third person and is also certainly omniscient (since we get points of view from multiple characters, including Mary, Dickon, the robin, and Archibald himself). At the same time, though, the narrator has its own message that it wants to get across, which it tells us directly as a way to frame and explain the events of The Secret Garden as a whole.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      A Young Hero or Heroine Falls Under the Shadow of the Dark Power

      The classic Rebirth storyline would be something like Disney's original Sleeping Beauty, where the evil fairy Maleficent sends our heroine Aurora into a sleep like death until Prince Charming can give her a smooch and wake her up. An updated version of this story would, of course, be Maleficent, where Angelina Jolie loses her wings to a faithless dude and has to spend the rest of the movie learning how to love her sort-of-fairy-god-daughter Aurora and be happy again.

      And what do these stories have in common? The dark power—be it the evil fairy or the faithless fellow—comes into the main characters's life to mess things up after she has had a relatively happy childhood.

      The Secret Garden is unusual in that it is definitely about rebirth. Mary and Colin both have to learn to be healthy, happy kids after a lifetime of anxious, angry neglect. And of course, the two of them (with the help of Dickon) literally bring the Secret Garden back to life, since they give those plants the first serious care and attention they've gotten in about ten years.

      On the other hand, we don't see either Mary or Colin fall under the "Shadow of the Dark Power," as Christopher Booker puts it. They start out the novel—and their lives—under the shadows of neglect, resentment, and parental death. So the novel is about the physical rebirth of the Secret Garden (which was once beautiful), but it's also about the first-time birth of Mary and Colin into happy lives that they have never had before.

      For a While, All May Seem to go Reasonably Well. The Threat May Even Seem to Have Receded.

      We start out the novel focusing on Mary Lennox and her struggles to adapt following her parents' deaths and her move to Yorkshire. By the time Mary introduces Dickon to the Secret Garden in Chapter 10, she is already well on her way to becoming both an active gardener and a nice, likable person. It seems like all is well with Mary (after a bumpy few days adjusting to the fact that she can't slap Martha Sowerby the way she used to slap her nannies), so by the time The Secret Garden is a third of the way through, Mary's rebirth is already well underway.

      But Eventually, It Approaches Again in Full Force Until the Hero or Heroine is Seen Imprisoned in a State of Living Death.

      The main complication in The Secret Garden's equation between outdoor activity and personal rebirth is the introduction of Colin Craven in Chapter 13. Sure, Mary is a lot better—but even at her worst, she was never as bad as this selfish, anxious brat. How is Colin going to escape all of his bad habits and all of his fears for the future to start thinking about others for a change?

      Rather than reversing Mary's rebirth, then The Secret Garden introduces another hero about halfway through, who suffers even more intensely from the spoiled selfishness that made Mary's life such a misery back in India. Colin becomes the hero "imprisoned in a state of living death," for which the only cure is, of course, lots and lots of gardening.

      This Continues for a Long Time. When It Seems That the Dark Power Has Completely Triumphed …

      When we started out this section talking about the ways in which The Secret Garden is not a traditional story of rebirth, we compared it to Disney's Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent. Here's another example of the ways in which The Secret Garden is not like all of those other rebirth stories.

      In this section of the rebirth plot line, when Christopher Booker talks about a "State of Living Death" that continues "for a long time," he is basically describing the princess Aurora's magical coma in Sleeping Beauty.However, there is no death-like sleep or active dark power in The Secret Garden. All of that darkness and evil takes place before the novel begins, in the neglectful relationships that make Colin and Mary so bitter and difficult when they first start to make friends.

      So instead of falling into a long, death-like sleep from which Colin has to wake up, Frances Hodgson Burnett emphasizes the opposite difficulty of how hard and slow it can be to wake up to a new, more joyful life after you've spent ten years locked away from the rest of the world. It's this process of rebirth that "continues for a long time" in The Secret Garden.

      Finally Comes the Miraculous Redemption.

      All of this time, since we have been focusing on Mary and Colin's emotional needs, we haven't really talked about the other majorly wounded character in The Secret Garden: Archibald Craven, Colin's dad.

      We know that Archibald fell madly in love with Colin's mother, Lilias, and that he was so heartbroken by her death that his doctors worried he might lose his mind. We also know that Archibald has a deformed back, and that his fear that Colin might have the same condition makes it hard for him to look at his son. There must be some serious (and seriously sad) self-loathing going on here in order for Archibald to find it hard to love his son for fear that he might inherit his physical difficulties.

      Poor Colin has to carry the weight of a lot of Archibald's anxieties: He knows that Archibald is ashamed of Colin's (potentially) deformed back and that Archibald resents him for Lilias's death. By gardening in the Secret Garden (which Lilias loved so much), Colin makes peace with his mother's memory. And by getting outside and exercising, Colin also discovers that there is nothing physically wrong with him after all.

      When Archibald comes home to find his son running around on his own like any other healthy kid, and playing in the Secret Garden that Lilias loved so much, it's like all of Archibald's anxieties disappear at once. Colin brings back Archibald's memories of Lilias in a positive way and Colin doesn't have the physical difficulties that have made Archibald's life so difficult. So the last chapter, Chapter 27, is a moment of rebirth for Archibald as well: He comes to terms with his wife's death and his son's life all at once.

      (Okay, we'll be honest: We think it's pretty terrible of Archibald that he can only love Colin once he realizes that Colin doesn't have any physical disabilities after all. We get into this topic in more detail in the "What's Up With the Ending?" and "Characters" sections if you want to check out more thoughts on this topic.)

    • Plot Analysis


      You Can't Spell Tantrum Without Mary (Well, Except for the Y)

      At the start of The Secret Garden, we get the feeling that ten year-old Mary Lennox would cut us if we looked at her wrong. She kicks and bites and screams when she doesn't get her way, so (of course) she always gets her way.

      But we also find out very early on why Mary is a monster: Her parents (who are both English people living in colonial India) don't seem to care about her at all. She gets everything she wants from her terrified, bullied nannies, but neither the discipline nor the love that she needs. When they suddenly die of cholera, though, the stage is set for their deaths to give her a bunch of opportunities to improve her character and even her physical health.

      Rising Action

      Mary Lennox Really Needs to Get Out More

      Over the course of Chapters 2 and 3, Mary travels from India (the place where she has lived for her entire life) to Yorkshire (a wild, rural county in northern England). You would expect this big transition to make her pretty miserable, and you would be right—for about a chapter. But as Mary starts to make friends with the maid, Martha Sowerby, and her animal-charmer brother Dickon, Mary soon discovers that the world is full of a lot more natural beauty and interest than she ever guessed.

      Basically, all Mary ever needed to become a better person was something to care about that wasn't herself. And she finds this sense of purpose in the walled-up Secret Garden on the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor. As she digs and plants and works with Dickon to bring this neglected garden back to life, she learns to care about the world around her and becomes a much nicer kid as a result.


      Against All Odds, Mary Finds an Even Bigger Brat Than She Is

      Over the course of the first 13 chapters, Mary Lennox has gone from a little monster to a nice girl whose biggest hobby is hanging out in the garden and taking care of plants. What's made the difference? Lots of time outside and friends like Dickon. So The Secret Garden is clearly trying to make a point: Lonely people (especially kids) without much to do become miserable, selfish bullies. When Mary finds something to care about, she chills out a lot and stops throwing so many tantrums.

      But all you science students out there probably know that one example doesn't prove a point—you need to repeat an experiment to prove your conclusions. Mary's cure covers the first half of the book. Colin Craven, the boy Mary finds hidden away in Misselthwaite Manor in Chapter 13, provides the second half of The Secret Garden's plot line.

      Colin has basically been left alone in Misselthwaite Manor for his entire life. His mother died tragically when he was born, and his dad, Archibald, can't stand looking at Colin because he reminds him too much of his dead wife. Colin also believes that he's going to die young and that his spine is developing incorrectly. Colin's boredom and self-pity make him a real jerk. Now that Mary knows he's sharing Misselthwaite Manor with her, will the Secret Garden work its magic a second time? Yes, obviously—in the next plot section of the novel.

      Falling Action

      Every Day, In Every Way, Colin's Getting Better and Better

      In a lot of ways, Colin's recovery is a repetition of Mary's: He learns to care about the world outside of himself through making friends and working in the Secret Garden. But Colin starts out in an even tougher position than Mary did since he knows his father can't stand to look at him and he also believes that he can't walk and won't survive to adulthood.

      As Colin grows to love the Secret Garden, he believes more and more that he can walk and that people have been wrong about his illness all along. Still, Colin wants to keep his health and happiness a secret until he's ready for the Dramatic Reveal to his distant dad. The only people who know about Colin's amazing recovery as it's happening are his immediate circle of friends, Mary, Dickon, and Ben Weatherstaff.


      Father and Son Get Over Themselves

      We have been getting lots of hints that The Secret Garden is going to end with Archibald and Colin's reunion. As early as Chapter 23, Colin starts planning what exactly he is going to say to his father when he finally shows off his new physical health. And when Dickon's mother, Mrs. Sowerby, first meets Colin in Chapter 26, she promises that his father will come home soon to see the strong boy Colin has become.

      Given all of these major hints, we aren't exactly surprised that Archibald Craven, long absent from Misselthwaite Manor, finally comes back in Chapter 27, the last chapter of The Secret Garden. He arrives home because (1) he's had a dream in which his dead wife, Lilias, has told him to return to their garden, and (2) he received a letter from Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon's mother, saying that he'll see something of value to him if he comes back home.

      Archibald finds his son walking in the garden, looking not only healthy but also exactly like his mother. And Archibald is so happy: The fact that his son is whole again comes as a complete but also pleasant surprise. Colin takes his father on a tour of the Secret Garden, and all's right with the Craven family again.

      (Of course, it's a little weird that Archibald only wants to act as a father to Colin when Colin is totally healthy and entirely independent. But for more thoughts on some of the implications of this happy ending, check out our section on "What's Up With the Ending?")

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act One

      In Chapters 1 through 12, Mary Lennox learns to be a decent person with the help of a lovable country boy named Dickon Sowerby and about a kajillion climbing roses.

      When you start reading The Secret Garden, you may have a tough time believing that ten year-old Mary Lennox is the heroine of the novel: She's sour, mean to her servants, and totally self-absorbed. But we spend the first act of the novel coming to see that Mary isn't so bad after all. It's just that she has spent most of her early life being bored and lonely.

      Once she moves into her uncle's giant and mostly empty house in rural Yorkshire, she finds something to do (taking care of the Secret Garden) and someone to talk to (Martha and Dickon Sowerby and Ben Weatherstaff). As Mary learns to think about things other than herself, she becomes a much more likable person.

      Act Two

      In Chapter 13, we add a new spoiled brat added to the mix: Colin Craven. We really see how much Mary has improved when we can compare her to her self-centered, bullying cousin.

      The fact that it takes Mary eleven chapters to find a kid who lives in the same house with her proves two things: (1) Colin Craven is really isolated from the world around him, and (2) Misselthwaite Manor must be huge. (Side note: If you think it's strange that Mary only finds Colin after she's been living in Misselthwaite Manor for several months, check this out.)

      Since Colin's mother passed away when he was born and his nurses basically give him anything he wants so that he'll stay calm and quiet, he has no one to talk to who treats him like an equal. Mary becomes something like a mother and a sister to Colin, singing lullabies to him but also fighting with him when he is being an unreasonable brat.

      With the help of Mary's tough love, Dickon's kindness, and the Secret Garden's natural beauty, Colin's negative patterns of thinking about himself and other people start to change. He becomes a much nicer guy when he stops thinking only about himself and his own worries. Go figure.

      Act Three

      Mary and Colin have both grown into happy, active kids. When Archibald Craven comes home and reunites with his son, they form a happy family at last.

      As Colin slowly teaches himself to walk, he decides he doesn't want to tell his father that he's in the middle of healing himself physically. He wants to surprise Archibald with his walking in the hopes that his new strength will make his father happy at last. And, amazingly, this secrecy works: In Chapter 27, Archibald returns to Misselthwaite Manor. He's worried that Colin may actually have gotten more bratty and evil now that he's getting older. But when he goes out to the Secret Garden, Archibald finds Colin totally transformed into an active, healthy kid.

      Colin shows Archibald around the Secret Garden and the two of them start to build a new family relationship.

    • Allusions

      • "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," a nursery rhyme referring to Queen Mary and her penchant for having people killed (2.6)
      • "Riquet à la Houppe" (also known in English as "Ricky of the Tuft"), a fairy story by Charles Perrault (2.50)