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.
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.
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?")