The story begins in colonial India, where Mary Lennox lives with her mother and father. When Mary's parents die, the scene shifts to Misselthwaite manor, the Yorkshire home of Mary's reclusive uncle, with whom she has been sent to live. At Misselthwaite, Mary discovers a garden that her uncle has kept locked up and abandoned for ten years, ever since his wife suffered a fatal injury there. The garden has run wild and is choked with dead or dying weeds and grasses. Mary decides to make the garden her secret place and begins to try to revive it.
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Although The Secret Garden has many of the characteristics of a fairy tale, its most elemental symbol is rooted not in fantasy but in nature. The abandoned garden's rebirth parallels the rebirth of Mary and Colin. Like them, it has been left to die of neglect, yet it still has the seeds—albeit hidden and buried—that will allow it to flower and grow if only someone will nurture it. As the garden grows, so too do the children who work there. Once the garden is revived, the children come to recognize its tremendous strength and power. Although they label this power "magic," they recognize that magic works "best when you work yourself." They sing hymns and chant incantations in the joyous knowledge that they, too, share in and help perpetuate the miracle of life.
Symbolically, Burnett draws on an old pastoral literary tradition that transforms the garden into a substitute, benign mother. The garden nurtures the children by offering them a safe, secluded spot in which to learn how to care for themselves and others. Indeed, the children spend approximately nine months—spring, summer, and fall—hidden behind the protective walls of the garden before they emerge triumphant.
But she was inside the wonderful garden and she could come through the door under the ivy any time and she felt as if she had found a world all her own.
The Secret Garden's tightly unified plot is controlled by the changing seasons, allowing the rebirth of...
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Some readers may be disturbed by Burnett's sentimentalizing of poverty and the class system, but her portrayal does not lack sensitivity. As Mary and Colin grow healthier, they learn what it means to be physically hungry and unable to satisfy their needs. For the first time, they understand how difficult it must be for Dickon's mother, Mrs. Sowerby, to feed her twelve children. When she sends them milk and freshly baked bread, they feel genuine gratitude, but they also recognize the cost to all of the Sowerbys. No longer are the two children oblivious to the needs of those less fortunate than themselves, and they find a way to help the Sowerbys in return.
The novel demonstrates that everyone needs love and understanding, but it stresses that these must be given in order to be received. The lessons the children learn—to care for others, to work to make others happy, and to understand the pain of others' lives—make The Secret Garden a sensitive and strong novel.
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Topics for Discussion
1. When Mary leams that her nurse and both of her parents have died in the epidemic, she worries solely about who will take care of her. Why does she not display any expression of grief?
2. Why does Mary show no curiosity about her move to England, her uncle, or even about her future?
3. Mary's new life at Misselthwaite forces her to look at her behavior for the first time. What role does Dickon's sister, Martha, play in Mary's self-examination?
4. Mary recognizes herself in the old gardener, Ben, and in the robin. What do they have in common? Why is Ben so reluctant to speak with Mary?
5. Why is Mary so curious about the secret garden? What does it represent to her?
6. Mary has always shunned other children; why, then, does she want to meet Dickon? What, other than her interest in restoring the garden, enables her to become friends with him?
7. When Mary and Colin first meet, both are startled, and both think that the other is a ghost. Why do they think this? In what ways have the two actually been like ghosts?
8. At first, Colin is a spoiled, obnoxious boy. What draws Mary to him? Why does she tell him about the garden? Why does she help him? How is she able to convince him that his fears of dying are exaggerated?
9. Why do Colin, Dickon, Mary, and Ben go to great lengths to keep the restoration of the garden a secret?
10. Colin declares that his and Mary's...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Frances Hodgson Burnett liked happy endings so much that she called herself "Mrs. Romantick." She believed that it was possible to transform reality by thinking positively. How does positive or negative thinking affect the lives of Mary, Colin, Dickon, and Mr. Craven?
2. How does the garden function as a metaphor for the way Mary and Colin are at the start of the novel? Trace the ways this metaphor is realized or fleshed out in the course of the novel. In what ways does the garden's transformation into a mother figure that protects, nurtures, and teaches, alter this metaphor?
3. Some critics believe that the novel's shift from Mary to Colin makes it ultimately Colin's story. Others claim that the story is really that of Mary's triumphant transformation of herself and of Colin. Whose story is The Secret Garden? Why?
4. At the time The Secret Garden was written, children were rarely presented in a negative way. More typical of the time is Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, whose central character is a sweet, ideal child. Compare both works, paying particular attention to which characters grow the most and how they do so. Which of the central characters is most satisfying: Mary, Colin, Little Lord? Why?
5. Although Dickon is an important character, he remains one-dimensional: he does not change dramatically during the story. What is his role in the novel? Why is it necessary that he remain a...
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The Secret Garden was made into a film by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1949. The screenplay was written by Robert Ardrey and Fred Wilcox directed. The film starred Margaret O'Brien as Mary, Dean Stockwell as Colin, and Brian Roger as Dickon. This film does not capture the subtleties of the novel, and it emphasizes sentimentality. A better adaptation is the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-television movie from Rosemont Productions. Filmed at Highclere Castle, Newbury, England, it stars Gennie James as Mary, Barret Oliver as Dickon, and Jadrien Steele as Colin. Blanche Hanalis wrote the screenplay, and Alan Grint directed this adaptation.
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For Further Reference
Bixler, Phyllis. Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A thorough study of Burnett's adult and children's novels which pays particular attention to her depiction of female characters.
Burnett, Constance Buel. Happily Ever After: A Portrait of Frances Hodgson Burnett. New York: Vanguard, 1969. Based largely on Burnett's autobiographical The One I Know the Best of All (1893), this work is an entertaining, positive examination of Burnett's life that appeals primarily to young people.
Gohlke, Madelon S. "Rereading The Secret Garden." College English 41 (April 1980): 894-902. While comparing her reading of The Secret Garden as an adult and as a sickly child, Gohlke...
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