Tom's Midnight Garden

by Phillipa Pierce

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How is child agency portrayed in Tom's Midnight Garden?

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The agency and freedom of children in the world of Tom's Midnight Garden is portrayed as incredibly repressed and seldom allowed to be explored. This point carries even greater truth the further back in time that you look. Both Tom and Hatty seem to live in worlds where adults are...

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either incapable or unwilling to be conscious of their wants and needs. For Tom, this relates to the case of his aunt and uncle. While they certainly mean quite well, both seem to have no recollection of what it is to be a child, and neither can quite meet the needs of Tom's curiosity. Hatty's situation is far more unfortunate, as she is living with an aunt who is outright cruel and perhaps even abusive toward her.

Both children, for wildly different reasons, treat the garden as a way to pursue their own agency and freedom. Though to a greater extent in the case of Tom, both children allow their seemingly fantastic encounters to give them a renewed sense of confidence and comfort in their uncomfortable lives. Tom begins to be far more vocal about what he wants in terms of life with his aunt and uncle. However, the freeing empathy that permeate the scenes of the garden is shown to be less effective on Hatty, who, being constrained by Victorian norms, is still quite literally forced to grow up.

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Child agency is most notable in the children’s imagination. The two children in this story are Tom and Hatty. Both feel alienated and unhappy in their current situations. Tom has the measles and is quarantined out of fear that he may infect others, and he is bored and antsy from bed rest. Hatty is a lonely orphan and in need of a friend. The two meet in a magical garden. One night Tom hears the clock strike thirteen, and he investigates. This is when he discovers that at the strike of thirteen, a secret garden appears. Hatty is waiting for him in the garden every night, and the two play. Their ability to overcome their situations through imaginative play shows great agency.

For Tom, the garden gives him refuge from the dull and oppressive lives of his aunt and uncle. He is healthy and happy when playing in the garden with Hatty. There are no adults to tell him to settle down. For Hatty, the garden is a dream of a Victorian garden that was never hers to play in. The children hold a magical power in their ability to time travel through dreams. Their innocence and joyfulness is their strength. In contradiction, the adults in the story lack such powers and are generally bland in personality.

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Child agency is portrayed both through Tom, the protagonist of the novel, and Hatty, the young orphaned girl from an earlier time who becomes his good friend.

Child agency simply means the power of child characters to influence and change their environment. Both Tom and Hatty are unhappy in the situations in which they find themselves. Tom is bored and frustrated at being quarantined for measles with his childless aunt and uncle in a 'poky flat' while Hatty is oppressed by life as a Victorian orphan in the house of a monstrously uncaring relative. However, through intense longing and the power of imagination, both the children manage to conjure up an escape from their uncongenial circumstances.

Tom's longing to be free from his dull life with his aunt and uncle is said to be so strong it seems that it would 'burst the walls and set him free indeed'. It is this overwhelming, and essentially childlike desire to to find a more appealing place and like-minded companions with whom to play that allows him to enter into the older Hatty's dreams. As the old Mrs Bartholomew - the landlady to Tom's uncle and aunt -  Hatty dreams vividly of her childhood living with her aunt and cousins and taking refuge in their beautiful old rambling garden. It is this garden, re-created in Hatty's dreaming mind, that Tom literally enters in some enchanted hour of the night. This garden is the perfect place to play for Tom, and the young Hatty, with her fervent imagination, is the ideal companion.

For both Tom and Hatty, then, the garden of Hatty's youth becomes the place of pure delight that they both dream of. In this way, both these young people are able to transform the dreary circumstances that they find themselves in. In fact, they exert such power through their dreams and longings that they are able to mesh together the past and present in the shape of this old Victorian garden that magically appears to Tom at night. This is an example of child agency.

What lends the story such poignancy, of course, is the realization that the enchanted place and time of childhood, represented by the garden, can never last. The garden itself has disappeared in the modern age. However, Hatty, as an old woman, has kept the secret delight and wonder of childhood in her heart. In the book's beautifully moving conclusion, Tom finds that even as an old widowed woman, Hatty has essentially not changed; in old Mrs. Bartholomew, Tom rediscovers his young companion of the enchanted midnight garden. 

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