The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 1 : There Is No One Left | Summary



Mary is a girl, around nine years old, living in India. She is a sickly, "disagreeable-looking," child whose parents have nothing to do with her. Her father, Mr. Lennox, is busy with his job in the English government. Her mother, Mrs. Lennox, is "a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people" and "had not wanted a little girl at all." From the moment she is born, Mary is raised by an Indian servant, her Ayah, or nanny, who has been instructed by her mother to "keep [her] out of sight as much as possible." In order to not disturb Mary's mother, Ayah and the other servants "gave [Mary] her own way in everything."

When Mary wakes up one day, an Indian servant she does not recognize is standing at her bedside. Mary demands her Ayah. When the servant says Ayah cannot come, Mary has a tantrum and kicks and beats her. Left alone, Mary wanders into the garden and plays by herself. Then she sees her mother talking with a young man and overhears the man say, "You ought to have gone to the hills two weeks ago." When the sound of wailing breaks out, the man informs her mother, "Some one has died."

Mary realizes a cholera epidemic has reached their compound, and the servants have been dying in their huts. She senses her Ayah has just died, too. Three more servants die that day and others "run away in terror." No one comes to check on Mary. The next day, Mary hides in her nursery and is "forgotten by everyone." "She alternately crie[s] and sle[eps]," while around her "strange things happened of which she knew nothing." At one point she creeps into the living room and drinks some wine left in a glass. The wine makes her "intensely drowsy," and she returns to her nursery and sleeps soundly. When she awakens, the house is perfectly still. She hears no sounds, and still no one comes for her. Then two men, likely British army officers, enter the bungalow. They discover Mary in the nursery. She angrily demands to know why nobody has come for her. Barney, one of the men, tells her, "there is nobody left to come." He says that her parents have died and any servants who have not died have fled. Mary is orphaned, but she lacks sadness over her personal losses.


Because of the way Mary is raised, she is a spoiled, "tyrannical and selfish" child. She expects others to concede to her demands and considers it appropriate to physically assault the servants when they do not do what she wants. As a result, she does not like people and they do not like her. Mary is able to get rid of people, such as her governesses, by treating them terribly. Mary's lack of sadness for the death of her Ayah or her parents shows her selfishness and lack of empathy. Mary is so self-absorbed she only wonders "who would take care of her now." She considers Ayah's death advantageous because her replacement might know some new stories to tell her.

Although Mary does not seek affection from others, she is angry that she has been forgotten after the cholera outbreak. She considers people who have cholera selfish because they think of "nothing but themselves." This is an example of dramatic irony, as readers understand what Mary has yet to grasp about herself: she never thinks of anyone but herself. Mary's state of mind is linked to her upbringing, in which her mother, who "had not wanted a little girl at all," hands her off to servants with instructions to "keep the child out of sight as much as possible." Mrs. Lennox prefers to go to parties. Mary's father is too "busy and ill himself" to bother with his daughter. Mary's own lack of empathy clearly stems from an initial lack of human contact and warmth from her own parents. While most upper-class British children of this era were raised primarily by servants (nurses, nannies, governesses), they typically had daily visits with their parents, much more than Mary apparently has.

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