Study Guide

The Secret Garden Man and the Natural World

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

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.