In the information and technological age, where face-to-face interaction is rapidly being replaced with conversations that take place entirely behind a screen, Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden is a much needed antidote to much of the isolationism felt by today’s youth.
Tom is not allowed to leave his house—a condition that is sure to resonate in the climate of social distancing today. Each night, however, as the grandfather clock in his aunt and uncle’s old house strikes thirteen, Tom is able to open a door and look into the past. He befriends a young girl named Hatty. His time spent with Hatty is lively and joyous, and the two become fast friends. However, on the last night in the house, Tom can no longer reach the past, and he seemingly loses Hatty forever. This is until he calls out her name and discovers that the old landlady, Mrs. Bartholomew, is actually Hatty.
Tom’s Midnight Garden touches on the themes of detachment that children especially can feel when they have no interaction with their peers. Tom’s happiest moments are the times he spends in the garden with Hatty, which is a form of interaction that two people can only ever have when they are together, physically and emotionally. So much communication today takes place through text messaging, dating apps, emailing, and other forms of social media, all of which are detached and impersonal. There is no strong sense of long-term attachment, leaving many people, especially young children and teenagers, feeling overwhelmed by their abundance of superficial relationships and unable to discover meaningful connections. Tom, in learning about the landlady, realizes that his friendship never really ended, but extended across time. This touches on the theme of longevity and its critical importance in maintaining meaningful relationships with people. It is a theme that would be well heeded today.
Outstanding literature is always relevant, even if the world it depicts seems to bear little relation to our own. The themes of Tom's Midnight Garden, however, arguably loom larger now than they did in 1958. Isolation and loneliness are clearly at the center of the book, as is another theme that is harder to encapsulate in a single word. It might best be described as the difficulty of seeing the world from someone else's perspective and the rewards that come from this. There is a sense in which this is an underlying theme in all fiction, which gives us at least one point of view other than our own from which to make sense of the world.
In Tom's Midnight Garden, however, the theme is made explicit when Tom and Hatty both regard the other as a ghost. It is not initially clear whether Hatty is a figment of Tom's imagination. The revelation that Mrs. Bartholomew is Hatty shows that this is not the case, but Tom has to exert his imagination in any case, not to conjure up an imaginary friend, but to understand and sympathize with a real one.
Tom's solitude has made him solipsistic. He has spent all his time cooped up in quarantine, with no company except that of his aunt and uncle and no outside space to explore. This is certainly a theme which is likely to resonate generally with children who live in cities, as well as those who have been confined to their houses and unable to mix with friends during the coronavirus pandemic.
I would argue that Tom's Midnight Garden remains extremely relevant today. Despite having been written in 1958, it deals with themes like friendship, the need for companionship, and disease forcing family members apart.
The theme of friendship is beautifully conveyed by Tom's friendship with Hatty. From the time the two first meet in the midnight garden, they become much-needed company for one another. They play an assortment of games, and thanks to Hatty's presence in his life, Tom no longer wants to go home, which he had been desperate to do prior to meeting her. No person, and especially no child, can thrive without regularly spending time with friends. This is as true today as it was in the 1950s, making this novel extremely relevant to today's reader. Once Tom has been sent to stay with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen, he has no friends, and until he finds Hatty, he is certainly not thriving.
The theme of families being separated has never been as relevant as it is in the era of COVID-19. The theme of disease is introduced early in the novel, when we are told that the reason for Tom needing to get away from home is that his brother has come down with the measles.
This story also involves a significant magical component, and stories that require the use of imagination never go out of style.
Philippa Pearce’s novel Tom’s Midnight Garden is highly relevant to the contemporary reader. Many children today are separated from their parents or siblings. Especially in 2020, the contagious illness of another family member is a reason that families are split apart. In Tom’s case, the reason was measles, which still affects children, but the current COVID-19 crisis affects countless families. Another relevant theme is the challenge of adjusting to a new environment. Tom is fortunate in having a loving aunt and uncle who take him in, but their home and way of doing things are alien to him. Tom soon learns that he is as uncomfortable in modern times as he is in their home, and that his ability to see the garden of the past makes him unusual.
The theme of making new friends is one that continues to have currency. Along with living in a different place, meeting new people is something that everyone experiences. We cannot always predict what kind of people are going to become our friends. At first Tom’s relationship with Hatty seems significant because it transcends time. In the end, he realizes that friendship with people in different generations is also valuable. Children today continue to forge valuable friendships with seniors, whose memories of their own childhoods often remain vivid.