Study Guide

The Secret Garden Isolation

By Frances Hodgson Burnett


Mary had liked to look at her mother from a distance and she had thought her very pretty, but as she knew very little of her she could scarcely have been expected to love her or to miss her very much when she was gone. She did not miss her at all, in fact, and as she was a self-absorbed child she gave her entire thought to herself, as she had always done. (2.1)

There's a pretty direct cause-and-effect logic here: Mary's parents neglected her, so she becomes a "self-absorbed child" who doesn't miss her own mother when she dies. Parents bad = kids bad, which seems fair a lot of the time. Still, if a kid behaves really badly (as Mary does, when she abuses her Indian nanny with her violent tantrums), when does parental responsibility end and personal responsibility start? Is Mary to blame for any of the bad things she does in this book? Is Colin? Why or why not?

All [Mary] thought about the key was that if it was the key to the closed garden, and she could find out where the door was, she could perhaps open it and see what was inside the walls, and what had happened to the old rose-trees. […] Besides that, if she liked it she could go into it every day and shut the door behind her, and she could make up some play of her own and play it quite alone, because nobody would ever know where she was, but would think the door was still locked and the key buried in the earth. The thought of that pleased her very much. (8.1)

We talk a little bit about the Secret Garden's isolation as a parallel to Mary's in the "Symbols" section, so go there to read more. Here, we want to point out this weird moment when Mary decides that she would like to have a place to go where she can play alone and "nobody would ever know where she was." Now, as it is, Mary's pretty darn isolated: She hasn't met her uncle and new guardian, Archibald Craven. The only person she has to talk to is Martha, her maid.

So why does she need a play space that's even more isolated and withdrawn than, say, her own room in Misselthwaite Manor? Why does her habit of being isolated and alone make her want even more isolation and loneliness?

"Is Colin a hunchback?" Mary asked. "He didn't look like one."

"He isn't yet," said Martha. "But he began all wrong. Mother said that there was enough trouble and raging in th' house to set any child wrong. They was afraid his back was weak an' they've always been takin' care of it—keepin' him lyin' down and not lettin' him walk. Once they made him wear a brace but he fretted so he was downright ill. Then a big doctor came to see him an' made them take it off. He talked to th' other doctor quite rough—in a polite way. He said there'd been too much medicine and too much lettin' him have his own way." (14.27-28)

The early treatment that Colin receives when everyone assumes that he is unable to take care of himself says a lot about the state of medicine in Frances Hodgson Burnett's day. Colin may not be getting the formal rest cure of the late 1800s, but he is being isolated and treated like a baby according to the totally untrue idea that lack of activity will somehow make him stronger.

It's only once Colin begins to make social ties and to take responsibility for his own physical health that he begins to get over the psychological effects of his total parental neglect.

"I always hated it," [Colin] answered, "even when I was very little. Then when they took me to the seaside and I used to lie in my carriage everybody used to stare and ladies would stop and talk to my nurse and then they would begin to whisper and I knew then they were saying I shouldn't live to grow up. Then sometimes the ladies would pat my cheeks and say 'Poor child!' Once when a lady did that I screamed out loud and bit her hand. She was so frightened she ran away." (15.9)

We eventually find out that Colin's illness is more mental than physical, but even so, he's had to deal with the public discrimination that a lot of people with physical differences struggle with to this day. For the record, while biting someone is pretty awful, we're mostly on Colin's side with this one—imagine being pinched on the cheek and treated like a doll, just because you aren't walking alongside your nanny/nurse. Blerg.

"Everyone thought I was going to die," said Colin shortly. "I'm not!"

And he said it with such decision Ben Weatherstaff looked him over, up and down, down and up.

"Tha' die!" he said with dry exultation. "Nowt o' th' sort! Tha's got too much pluck in thee. When I seed thee put tha' legs on th' ground in such a hurry I knowed tha' was all right. Sit thee down on th' rug a bit young Mester an' give me thy orders." (22.25-27)

So, we're going to call Ben out for saying something super-creepy here: He tells Colin that he knows Colin won't die because he's "got too much pluck." In other words, Ben thinks that, now that Colin has come out of his shell and out of his mansion, he has too much willpower and strength to die.

Not clear on the creep factor? This implies physical illness is somehow a sign of personal weakness. Sure, Colin's illness is mental rather than physical. But the general idea that "pluck" will save you from dying is a pretty awful one, because it places the responsibility for living and dying solely on the sick person's shoulders. As The Fault In Our Stars teaches us, you can die tragically no matter how awesome you are. We're glad Colin gets better, but we're still creeped out by the implications of Ben's link between physical and personal weakness.

Even Mary had found out that one of Colin's chief peculiarities was that he did not know in the least what a rude little brute he was with his way of ordering people about. He had lived on a sort of desert island all his life and as he had been the king of it he had made his own manners and had had no one to compare himself with. (23.6)

Colin has been so isolated growing up that he doesn't even recognize that his behavior is bad. Not only is this a sign of his neglectful father's treatment, but it's also proof of a problem of the English class system at the time. Colin isn't just a brat; he's also a super-rich brat left in the care of servants who treat him like "the king" because he's the son of their employer. So he's both a victim of child neglect and a terrible, spoiled bully. It's a doozy.

"You are so like [your mother] now," said Mary, "that sometimes I think perhaps you are her ghost made into a boy."

That idea seemed to impress Colin. He thought it over and then answered her slowly.

"If I were her ghost—my father would be fond of me."

"Do you want him to be fond of you?" inquired Mary.

"I used to hate it because he was not fond of me. If he grew fond of me I think I should tell him about the Magic. It might make him more cheerful." (25.39-43)

At first Mr. Craven rejects Colin because he worries that Colin is going to have a deformed spine like Mr. Craven's, but in this passage, Colin thinks Mr. Craven might give him another chance because Colin now looks much more like Mr. Craven's beloved deceased wife. Basically, it seems like Mr. Craven doesn't think of Colin as a separate person. He seems to consider Colin either as an outgrowth of something he hates about himself—his twisted back—or as something he misses too much to deal with—his dead wife.

"If she says that, it must be a nice song," Colin answered. "I've never been in a church myself. I was always too ill. Sing it, Dickon. I want to hear it."

Dickon was quite simple and unaffected about it. He understood what Colin felt better than Colin did himself. He understood by a sort of instinct so natural that he did not know it was understanding. He pulled off his cap and looked round still smiling.

"Tha' must take off tha' cap," he said to Colin, "an' so mun tha', Ben—an' tha' mun stand up, tha' knows." (26.29-31)

In this passage, Dickon introduces Colin to the idea that the Magic he keeps talking about is actually another word for Christian faith. As we get to the end of the book, we can see that The Secret Garden sets up a kind of equation for us, where good feelings are part of nature, and nature is part of God. Since Dickon is the character closest to nature in the book, he's also the one who feels religious faith almost by instinct.

One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric 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)

Okay, what do you guys think of this philosophy? The narrator tells us two things at the beginning of The Secret Garden's last chapter: (1) Thinking positive thoughts is physically good for you, and (2) thinking negative thoughts can be as bad as a "scarlet fever germ."

While we may agree that positive thinking is a powerful thing, that part about avoiding negative thoughts puts a lot of pressure on a person's normal emotional responses. And if you refuse to acknowledge or even think about things that are paining you or hurting people around you, then how do you work to change those things?

What do you think? Are there some negative thoughts that might be helpful to your overall health? Or do you agree with Burnett that we need to "accentuate the positive [and] eliminate the negative," to borrow the words of music legend Johnny Mercer?

"What is it?" [Archibald Craven] said, almost in a whisper, and he passed his hand over his forehead. "I almost feel as if—I were alive!"

I do not know enough about the wonderfulness of undiscovered things to be able to explain how this had happened to him. Neither does any one else yet. He did not understand at all himself—but he remembered this strange hour months afterward when he was at Misselthwaite again and he found out quite by accident that on this very day Colin had cried out as he went into the secret garden:

"I am going to live forever and ever and ever!" (27.8-11)

Even though Colin and Mr. Craven are separated by thousands of miles while Colin is healing in the Secret Garden, Mr. Craven still somehow feels something of Colin's joy in his dreams. This spiritual connection between father and son implies that there is some hope for Mr. Craven to rebuild his family, even though he's been neglectful for about ninety-nine percent of the novel.