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.)