Study Guide

The Secret Garden Themes

  • Abandonment

    At the start of The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is nine years old. Nine! We're adding an exclamation point because, when you remember how young she is in that first chapter, it seems particularly ridiculous that no one remembers her when her parents both die and the servants flee the house due to cholera. In fact, the only reason Mary doesn't disappear entirely is because two army officers stumble upon her by accident when they visit the house after the death of the Lennoxes: "There is a child here! A child alone! In a place like this! Mercy on us, who is she!" (1.25).

    It's because Mary has spent all of her life being kept out of sight by her vain, self-absorbed mother that she turns into such a sour little kid. And of course, when we meet Colin, it's the same story all over again: His father can't deal with his grief, so he stows away his son at Misselthwaite Manor and spends as little time at home as possible. And this treatment makes Colin into a tantrum-throwing monster.

    Because these children have been more or less abandoned (at least, until the Magic starts working to bring them into the Secret Garden), they have to find their own ways to connect with the larger world. Luckily for both of them, they meet the sensible Sowerbys, who put them on the right track toward nature-loving and good fellowship. But it's this theme of child neglect that makes The Secret Garden such a dark book at its heart.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Do you think there is a difference in the way this novel treats abandonment by mothers and by fathers? According to the novel, is it somehow worse for a mother to leave her children behind than for a father to do so? What evidence can you find for or against the idea that abandonment might be related to the novel's representation of gender?
    2. Why do you think Mary appears to resent her parents so little for their abandonment of her? Who become Mary's maternal and paternal figures in the absence of her parents? Why does Mary's parental abandonment seem so much less central to the novel than Colin's?
    3. Both Mary and Colin have everything they could physically want, even when their parents are avoiding them with all of their power. Why do you think that this novel is so focused on emotional neglect rather than physical neglect? How does the novel's treatment of emotional abandonment seem to be tied to the upper class status of both Mary and Colin?

    Chew on This

    By portraying the warm, kindly Sowerby family as a foil to the Cravens and the Lennoxes, Frances Hodgson Burnett implies that families with lots of money are often more distant and less caring than families who have to stick together in the face of poverty.

    By emphasizing the maternal power of Susan Sowerby and Lilias Craven, The Secret Garden implies that Mrs. Lennox is the least redeemable of all of its major characters.

  • The Home

    The Secret Garden takes very seriously the idea that home is where the heart is: Mary lives in India for the majority of her life, but she doesn't seem to care at all when she leaves it behind. It's only as she starts to make friends and to care about the Secret Garden at Misselthwaite Manor that she finds any sense of home at all.

    Similarly, Colin Craven lives his entirely life in the house where he was born, but it doesn't truly become home to him until he can find a way to connect emotionally with the grounds and with the ghost of his mother. So clearly, in this book home goes beyond the question of shelter or basic needs and becomes a matter of where you can find emotional support and care.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Does it matter what your home looks like in The Secret Garden? That is, Mary lives in a bungalow in India, Colin in a mansion in Yorkshire, and the Sowerbys in a cottage on the moors. How do these different buildings represent (or fail to represent) home for the novel?
    2. What connections does The Secret Garden draw between the robin's nest and Mary and Colin's Secret Garden? How does the human idea of home relate to the natural concept of the bird's nest in the novel?
    3. How does the idea of home in The Secret Garden relate to the natural world surrounding the characters? In what sense might the moors or Yorkshire itself be particularly home to some of the novel's central characters?

    Chew on This

    Dickon's strong sense of home on the Yorkshire moors saves him from self-consciousness or awkwardness in all human social situations, from his own family's cottage to the aristocratic settings of Misselthwaite Manor.

    While Misselthwaite Manor is a rich place that has been in the Craven family for six hundred years, the huge emptiness of this mansion makes it harder to make a home there than the crowded, overstuffed but cozy cottage of the Sowerbys.

  • Isolation

    Okay, Frances Hodgson Burnett might be rolling over in her grave at this comparison, but we think it works: Both Mary and Colin appear to suffer from the Batman problem in The Secret Garden. That is, they have both been left alone during important periods of their childhood, so they run the risk of turning into single-minded monsters. Of course, we're not suggesting that either of them are going to put on a bat suit and start fighting crime—for one thing, Colin wouldn't be physically capable of doing so when he first appears in the novel.

    But the story of Batman is probably the clearest example we can imagine of what too much time alone can do to you: It can make you isolated, totally unable to integrate socially, and prickly and difficult to everyone around you. That sounds like Mary and Colin to us. Thank goodness they both find the Secret Garden and a group of friends.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Colin emphasizes the importance of the interconnection between all living things as he starts to explore the Magic. But when does Mary first start to feel something in common with the rest of the world around her? When do we first see Mary reaching out of her isolation, and what triggers her initial change?
    2. Both Mary and Colin want to keep the Secret Garden isolated form the rest of the world once they find it. Why might these kids want to stay isolated just as they are starting to reach out to other people? Why might isolation be comfortable for the two of them at this stage in their lives?
    3. What role does the setting of Misselthwaite Manor play in the novel's overall sense of isolation? Why might Frances Hodgson Burnett have decided to set this book in the Yorkshire moors rather than in the middle of London or New York City? How might it be easier for these kids to feel less isolated away from city crowds and in the countryside?

    Chew on This

    In order for the character development of The Secret Garden to work, Colin needs to meet Mary before he meets Dickon. He must fight with someone who will tell him straight out that his behavior is terrible before he can learn how to correct that behavior through Dickon's kindness and support.

    While Colin and Mary's bad behavior as children represents the damage that isolation can do to a kid's development, Archibald Craven's isolation as an adult appears to have a much more devastating and damaging effect on his personality. This implies that isolation is dangerous to children, but that it is even worse for adults.

  • Happiness

    The Secret Garden really couldn't be clearer about its moral message if the book were called Happiness = Unselfishness. Basically, the secret to happiness in this book is to think less about yourself and more about the other people (and plants) around you. Mary and Colin are unhappy when they have nothing to think about but themselves, but Dickon and Mrs. Sowerby are both deeply happy because they have to bustle around taking care of the little Sowerbys.

    While we really like this idea in general—yes, being selfish can make you unhappy and, alternately, thinking of others can make you happy—we do think it can come across as a bit pushy and overly idealized in this novel. Poor Mrs. Sowerby has twelve kids and no money; it seems a lot to expect that she should just enjoy her life all the time because she has so many other people to take care of. Surely people deserve to be selfish every once in a while.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. What do the hardest-working characters in this novel—the robin, Mrs. Sowerby, Martha, and Dickon—all have in common? Are there certain kinds of work that make the characters happier than other kinds in The Secret Garden?
    2. What specifically makes Dickon happy? How does Dickon's activity differ from anyone else's in the novel? What elements make his portrayal seem more realistic? What makes him seem less realistic and more an element of fantasy in the novel?
    3. Mary's thinking about other people tends to be very literal—she worries about Colin and becomes kinder to the Sowerbys—while Colin's thinking is much bigger and more abstract. What makes Colin happy to think about?

    Chew on This

    Colin's broad thinking about the Magic and scientific experiments contrast strongly with Mary's more domestic interest in the Secret Garden and Colin's health in the short term; Colin's ambitions and Mary's domesticity indicate a subtle gender division in The Secret Garden.

    The Secret Garden's strong emphasis on the health and happiness that Susan Sowerby and the robin and his mate get from taking care of their homes and children implies that domestic work is the best kind of work that an individual can do in this world.

  • Weakness

    Who are the most powerful characters in The Secret Garden? We're definitely not talking about Archibald Craven, who spends most of his life running away from his responsibilities as a father, and it can't be Mrs. Medlock and Dr. Craven because they are both servants who aren't exactly dedicated or good at their jobs. No, arguably, the strongest character in the book is Dickon, with post-Magic Colin coming in a close second.

    Dickon's ability to tame animals and befriend even the grumpiest of humans is like a superpower. After he starts discussing the Magic, Colin also becomes able to inspire Mary and even Ben Weatherstaff to participate in his kooky experiments.

    And if strength for these characters comes from their interest in and love of the natural world, then weakness has to be the result of its opposite. When Mary and Colin first start off, they are both physically and emotionally weak. Mary can't dress herself, and Colin can't get out of bed on his own—so while they both have plenty of money, they are totally cut off from their natural interests. It's this sense of isolation from the natural world that leaves them both deeply weak; once they begin getting outside more, they recover the strength they should have had all along.

    Questions About Weakness

    1. What are the things that The Secret Garden implies that children should be able to do? According to the novel, what is natural for healthy kids to do, which Mary and Colin have to learn over the course of the book? Are there other traits of value that you think the book doesn't emphasize enough?
    2. Are there any differences between the weak children and the weak adults in The Secret Garden? Does the definition of weakness appear to change as you age and grow up? Or does the novel seem to emphasize the same natural connection for people of all ages?
    3. In a sense, Lilias Craven is actually the strongest person in The Secret Garden because she has the power to come back from beyond the grave. What traits make Lilias particularly important to the novel? Why might Frances Hodgson Burnett include this ghostly mother figure in Colin's life?

    Chew on This

    While both Colin and Mary arguably start out as the weakest characters in the novel, they also dominate the novel's plot line as they slowly recover their strength. There is an inverse relationship between the weakness of these characters and the amount of narrative control they have over the plot of The Secret Garden.

    The Secret Garden offers the problematic view that physical weakness is the direct result of emotional or even moral weakness, leaving the responsibility for Colin and even Archibald's illnesses strictly on their shoulders. Thus, The Secret Garden does not provide a compelling model for physical disability that cannot be cured through positive thinking

  • Man and the Natural World

    If you take a minute to think about what a garden really is, you start to see some of the implied tension in this book between humans and the natural world. That is, a garden includes plants, so it is a part of the larger natural world. Importantly, though, a garden is also specifically arranged and kept up by humans. If humans leave a garden alone, it dies off and/or returns to its natural state.

    So while a garden represents some kind of communion between humans and the world of growing plants, it also demonstrates our control over these plants and their growing patterns. And in fact, while The Secret Garden lovingly describes the spare, stark landscape of the Yorkshire moors, even that supposedly wild territory is absolutely under human control. Consider Dickon, who is constantly going in there and taming foxes and crows and ponies. Dickon is a great kid, but he is also regularly exerting human control over the natural world.

    Now, don't get us wrong, we're not saying that any of this is a bad thing: We love gardens and tamed animals. But while Frances Hodgson Burnett writes often about the pleasure that her characters feel being outside in nature, all of these outdoor landscapes—and most especially the Secret Garden, with its walls—are carefully domesticated and kept under control. It's as though, for characters to feel most at home in the natural world, they have to bring it under their control. It's hard to image how this view of nature would adapt to include huge disasters like tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. The robin likes Dickon because he seems to speak robin language. What do you think the novel means by speaking "robin" (25.2)? Is it actually a spoken thing—twittering and tweeting? Or is it more like an emotional language? Do you think that you could learn to speak robin, if you spent some time on it?
    2. Dickon's closeness to nature makes him basically the nicest character in the whole novel. But what about Ben Weatherstaff? He works outside all the darned time, but he's also as crabby and grouchy as they come. How would you compare and contrast Dickon and Ben Weatherstaff's characters? What does Ben Weatherstaff indicate about the novel's overall treatment of man and the natural world?
    3. Why is it that the first character whom Mary can admit her loneliness is the robin? Why might Mary find it easier to talk to a robin than to another human being?

    Chew on This

    The Secret Garden emphasizes the pleasures of working in a garden rather than hiking in a forest or working on a farm because it is trying to create a space of homey self-contained fun for Mary and Colin to learn how to be more classically childlike.

    The friendliness and ease of the robin as it communicates with its chosen humans contrasts positively with the vain, shallow social worlds of Mary's parents or the stiff, often hostile relationships between Mary, Colin, and their servants and nannies. The Secret Garden uses the robin to imply that human communication is less fulfilling and honest than animal communication.

  • Youth

    The whole idea that childhood is a special time to be savored as separate from adulthood is basically a Victorian invention. Oh sure, humans have always had children (obviously), but we haven't always treated them as separate and distinct from adults. But in the Victorian and Edwardian periods (so, from the 1840s up until World War I), a whole new publishing industry emerged for fairy tales and novels like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan (which came out the same year as The Secret Garden, in 1911) that specifically emphasize the wonderful, imaginative time of childhood.

    In some ways, Mary and Colin have to grow artificially into this idea of childhood as a carefree time. Martha describes Mary as "a queer, old-womanish thing" (8.36) early on, before Mary learns to jump rope and have fun like a standard nine-year-old. And Colin obviously starts out as super-serious and difficult as they come, but then evolves into the boy running races in the Secret Garden who ends the novel. This characterization implies that Frances Hodgson Burnett is aware that children often don't fit into the stereotype of the angelic, fancy-free kid—but that she strongly feels that they should, if at all possible.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What does The Secret Garden seem to imply is right and necessary for young people to do? What do Mary, Colin, and Dickon all share in common by the end of the novel? How do they differ?
    2. The Secret Garden implies that it is the role of "ordinary healthy ten-year-old creatures" (14.103) to laugh loudly together. But in fact, in some ways, it's as natural to childhood to have tantrums and to be bossy, the way Mary and Colin are at the start of the novel. What makes Mary and Colin's tantrums unnatural or requiring treatment?
    3. In some ways, Colin seems quite grown-up at the end of the book. What about him still seems childlike? Do you find any of his ideas about the Magic and about the natural world to be naive, or do his views fit in naturally with his character?

    Chew on This

    Although Dickon helps to encourage Mary and Colin to respond to the world around them with the bright curiosity of children, his own extreme maturity makes his age in the novel (twelve years old) seem much less important to his character than Mary and Colin's ten-year-old status.

    While Colin grows into a mature and charismatic leader over the course of The Secret Garden, his ongoing effort to make everything fit into the framework of Magic sometimes comes across as comedy. By presenting his views ironically at times, the novel reminds us that Colin is still a child learning to navigate the world around him.

  • Contrasting Regions: India and England

    Mary Lennox is an Anglo-Indian child, which means that her parents are both English but she was born in colonial India. This implies a whole set of hierarchical relations that are as rigid as any of the English class lines that keep Mary and Martha apart at the start of The Secret Garden.

    By the time Mary makes it over to Yorkshire in Chapter 3, we know how she expects to treat "native" (that is, Indian) servants. Apparently, she has gotten used to beating and kicking her Indian nannies (called "Ayahs") without any kind of punishment at all. And the book clearly does not approve of Mary's behavior; her sourness is no excuse for abuse.

    At the same time, the novel's portrayal of India contains a lot of subtle prejudice. The idea that these Indian servants would just sit and take Mary's nonsense (unlike good old English Martha Sowerby) because they "were obsequious and servile and did not presume to talk to their masters as if they were their equals" (4.11) is a huge stereotype. Basically, Frances Hodgson Burnett is saying that these Indian servants were huge suck-ups who would never dream of disciplining Mary, while "we" English people would never stand for such treatment.

    Not only is this premise totally racist, it overlooks the strong history of Indian resistance to British rule from the 1857 Rebellion of the Indian army onward. Mahatma Gandhi was already working for Indian liberation by the time The Secret Garden was published in 1911, for Pete's sake, and he was about as far from "servile" as it's possible to get.

    Not only does The Secret Garden stereotype English people, but it also uses a lot of incorrect clichés about the Indian climate. As Mary adapts to England, she finds the weather itself to be fresher and healthier. She draws a contrast to India, where "she had always felt hot and too languid to care much about anything" (5.22).

    The idea that India itself helped to make Mary sick at the start of the novel is based on a lot of English assumptions about the tropics as a place of fevers and sickness. So again, offensive stereotypes are used to draw a contrast between where Mary starts (a hot climate with "servile" nannies) and where she winds up (a cool climate with friendly, straightforward servants).

    As the novel continues, Mary continues to refer to the cultures of India that she saw as a child. She describes Dickon as an animal charmer and Colin as a "Rajah," a kind of young king. But these images are also deeply generic and say nothing of genuine depth about India or the people who live there. Mary's Indian references gives the novel an exotic touch according to the Euro-centric tastes of Frances Hodgson Burnett's contemporary readers, but none of those elements age well in today's political climate.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: India and England

    1. When does Mary most commonly use Indian words and descriptions? How do these descriptions contrast with the English countryside that becomes the setting of the novel for the majority of the book?
    2. We say that The Secret Garden's representation of India is stereotyped. How about the novel's representation of England? Are there sections of the book that try to make Yorkshire seem exotic or foreign to the reader?
    3. Mary's pale complexion and thin hair are all supposed to be the result of her early life in an Indian climate. What about Colin's exposure to the Yorkshire climate—why has Misselthwaite Manor's setting in Yorkshire not done him more good before now? Do you think that Mary might have found India more healthful if she had had a more active family life to introduce her to the country around her?

    Chew on This

    While The Secret Garden shows a lot of prejudice against India and Indians, Mary's lullaby to Colin in Hindi and the stories that she tells him, which she learned from her nannies, suggests that she had a more supportive upbringing while she was living there than Colin has had surrounded by doctors and nurses in Misselthwaite Manor.

    India takes on a negative connotation and Yorkshire a positive one in The Secret Garden. Nonetheless, Yorkshire's positive traits—a strong sense of community and local culture, the beauties of the moor, and the happiness of even the poorest of its residents—are as clichéd and stereotyped as the novel's portrayal of India's bad side.