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Mary Lennox is a Grade-A, no-holds-barred brat. And the thing about this analysis of Mary's character is that it doesn't take a lot of reading between the lines. We're not throwing out some wild theory about who Mary Lennox is at the beginning of The Secret Garden. Nope, Frances Hodgson Burnett comes right out and tells us in the first paragraph of the novel that Mary is:
[…] as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived. (1.1)
It's a rare main character that the narrator of the book seems to dislike as much or more than we, the readers, do. But there you have it: Mary Lennox is the most selfish pig that has ever lived, according to her creator. So why are we reading about her?
We're reading about Mary to see what might make her a less tyrannical and selfish little pig. After all, that first paragraph doesn't just tell us that Mary is so terrible to her governesses that none of them stick around for longer than three months. It also tells us that Mary's mother hadn't wanted kids, and that she basically handed baby Mary over to a string of bullied servants with the instruction to "keep the child [Mary] out of sight as much as possible" (1.1). In other words, Mary wasn't born a self-centered monster; she became one through her neglected upbringing.
So The Secret Garden is at least partly the story of a lonely, selfish girl meeting friends—Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff, the robin, and even Colin Craven—and taking care of a garden. As she gets to know other people—people who haven't been paid by her mother to keep her quiet and out of sight—she becomes less of a pig and more of an actual, generous human being.
On the one hand, sure, Mary's care for the Secret Garden and especially for Colin Craven totally transforms her into a much nicer kind of character. But oddly enough, it also lessens her place in the novel overall. Mary is definitely the main character in the first thirteen chapters of The Secret Garden, before Colin makes his surprise entrance. But the second half of the book focuses primarily on Colin's efforts to learn to walk, to investigate Magic, and to reunite with his absent father.
In short, once Mary stops misbehaving, the book pretty much stops paying attention to her. Maybe she should have kept those tantrums going for a little while longer.
Before she makes it over to Yorkshire, Mary gets a nasty nickname from another English kid living in India: Mistress Mary Quite Contrary. We chat about the specific meaning of the nursery rhyme on which this name is based in our section on "Allusions." Check it out if you want to learn more about Queen "Bloody" Mary and her intensely morbid "garden." For now, we're just going to focus on what Mary Lennox's nickname says about her character.
We've already talked (a lot, we know) about Mary's contrariness—the fact that she always seems at odds with other people, and she seems to argue a lot just to get her way. But what about the Mistress part? This implies something else super-important about Mary's character: She comes from a rich family, and she's used to being able to boss her servants around. The novel implies that, if she had grown up as part of a poor family (like the Sowerbys), she would never have been able to act out the way she does at the beginning of the novel.
But Mary doesn't only come from a rich family—she comes from a rich Anglo-Indian family. That is, her parents are British people living high and mighty in colonial India. Frances Hodgson Burnett emphasizes the fact that a lot of Mary's insults have a specifically racist edge, since she is used to throwing them at her oppressed servants. For example, Mary wants to call her nanny, "Pig! Pig! Daughter of Pigs!" because "to call a native a pig is the worst insult of all" (1.6). So Mary is doubly spoiled: she thinks she can treat people however she wants because she has lots of money and because she is a white English girl in British India.
Now the novel is not at all on Mary's side in her awful behavior to her Indian servants. But the novel still demonstrates some definite prejudices about India of its own. For more on The Secret Garden and its attitudes towards India, go check out our "Themes" section.
Mary Lennox starts out the novel "the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen" (1.1), and then she ends the book "like a blush rose" (26.56). Obviously, the thing that makes the difference in Mary's appearance—awful at the start of the book and pretty at the end of it—is all of her outdoorsy exercise. As Mary puts in physical work, she looks healthier and healthier, which does her looks a world of good.
But here's the key thing: As Mary starts to get prettier, she doesn't really notice. We're told:
Mary had not had time to pay much attention to her changing face. (26.58)
So Mary isn't only better looking, she's also better overall. It's an important sign of how much she is improving as a person that, even though she's getting prettier, she also isn't obsessed with how she looks. Unlike Mary's mother, who was vain and shallow, Mary's prettiness comes second to who Mary is on the inside (at least, by the end of the book). For more on Mary's beautiful (but self-absorbed) mother, be sure to read up on Mrs. Lennox elsewhere in this section.