Study Guide

The Secret Garden Happiness

By Frances Hodgson Burnett


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.