The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 11 : The Nest of the Missel Thrush | Summary



Dickon walks around the garden in wonder. He shows Mary how to tell which roses are alive. They also cut away dead wood to see if the trees are living. Dickon instructs Mary on how to use the gardening tools and tells her about the various plants. He notices how the ground has been cleared around several green shoots. Mary describes how she wanted to give the shoots room to breathe even though she did not know how to garden, and Dickon praises her work and her instincts. Mary asks him to come again to help out in the garden, and he agrees to return every day. They decide to keep the garden somewhat wild rather than making it "look like a gardener's garden."

Mary remembers the verse Basil had sung to her. She tells Dickon how Basil nicknamed her Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary and the children taunted her. After she defends herself and says she wasn't as contrary as they were, Dickon says no one has a need to be contrary when "there's flowers an' such." Mary tells him he is the fifth person she likes. While Mary is amazed she likes five people because she never thought she'd like anyone, Dickon is surprised that the number is so low. Using "Yorkshire because that was his language," Mary asks Dickon if he likes her. After he tells her he does, she notes "that's two for me."


The chapter's title, "The Nest of the Missel Thrush," draws a parallel between Mary, the secret garden, and a common bird found in Yorkshire. A missel thrush is a very vocal bird that can be tamed, but it resists being caged as it loves the open air and its freedom. Mary is similar to the missel thrush in that she is learning to love the fresh air and becoming more independent. She, too, craves her freedom and views the secret garden as a place of her own where she can be free to nurture plants without interference from adults. The garden is her nest, a place where she receives nurturing from nature itself until she is healed and ready to "leave the nest." The garden also is a safe place for Mary's budding ability to interact with others, especially Dickon, the first person who says he likes her. It is from him she will learn what friendship means and how to be a friend.

The imagery of the dead-looking wood with green inside is a reference to the baggage that ties people down and keeps them from realizing their potential or fully engaging in life. In Mary's case, the absence of parental involvement and the way she was raised in India made her a sickly, self-centered child with no interests. Dickon shows Mary how even a seemingly lifeless plant can be brought to life as long as it has some green within it. The green represents the life-affirming force that sustains all living things. Mary recalls the nursery rhyme, this time on her own terms, asking Dickon about "flowers that look like bells," and expressing pleasure when she learns "there's lilies o' th' valley here already."

Mary considers Dickon an almost otherworldly person, or fairy. He is far different from what Mary is used to. Yet she trusts him with the secret of the garden and with her emotions. He, in turn, tells her he will treat her as carefully as if she were a missel thrush who had shown him her nest. Since birds are most vulnerable during their nesting season, this shows Dickon's recognition of Mary's vulnerability and her need for protection and safety as she, like a fledgling, leaves the security of her nest for the world beyond it.

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