Themes and Meanings
Rudyard Kipling employs two autobiographical elements as the basis of “The Gardener.” He grew up in England while his parents lived in India, and his only son was killed in World War I. A third inspiration is the story told in John 20:14-15 in which Mary Magdalene fails to recognize the resurrected Jesus, supposing him to be a gardener. Kipling makes the connection to this biblical story clear by writing a companion piece about it, “The Burden,” a poem from which “The Gardener” takes its epigraph.
Helen’s failure to recognize the gardener at Hagenzeele as the Christ is less important as a supernatural or religious occurrence than a fitting conclusion to Kipling’s ironic presentation of identity, responsibility, and guilt. This irony appears in the story’s opening sentence: “Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child.” However, if the gardener is not speaking metaphorically, and Helen is Michael’s mother, she has not done her duty at all. By assuming the role of self-sacrificing, noble aunt devoted to her brother’s illegitimate offspring, she has made a lie of both their lives.
Michael gets revenge on his “aunt” by dying, but she does not suffer as much as she might. Her greatest sin is her coldness. Her emotional distance from Michael, from life in general, allows her to avoid the pain that others feel when they lose someone. On the way to Hagenzeele, Helen finds repugnant the emotionalism of a woman from Lancashire who is desperate to find her son’s grave. Kipling underscores Helen’s insensitivity by having the woman faint on her unfeeling breast. Mrs. Scarsworth asks whether Helen thinks that the dead know anything after death and is told, “I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing.” Helen can control her grief by keeping it as abstract as possible.
She begins to recognize the truth about herself, however, when Mrs. Scarsworth confesses about her lover: “He was everything to me...
(The entire section is 537 words.)