The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 15 : Nest Building | Summary



It rains for a week so Mary cannot go outside. She spends several hours a day with Colin, talking and reading. She develops a goal: to have Colin go outside and get fresh air so he will stop thinking about dying. First, though, she has to decide if he can be trusted to keep the garden a secret. Second, she has to determine if he would mind Dickon looking at him. She asks Colin about it. Colin says he would not mind one boy, Dickon, looking at him because Dickon is an animal charmer and Colin himself is a "boy animal."

One morning Mary wakes up very early. The rain has stopped, and she marvels at the moor's beauty. She goes outside before anyone else is up and enters the garden. Dickon, along with Captain, his fox cub, and Soot, his crow, is already there. Mary tells Dickon how happy she is, and then she kisses the crocuses. She tells Dickon that "you never kiss a person in that way," but "flowers are different." Puzzled, Dickon says he has kissed his mother, Mrs. Sowerby, that way many a time.

When the tame robin flies into the garden, Dickon cautions Mary to be still so they do not startle it. Dickon tells Mary the robin was hunting for a mate. Now he is building a nest and does not want to be disturbed. Mary asks him what he knows about Colin. Dickon is relieved that he does not need to keep his knowledge of Colin a secret from Mary. They discuss how Colin stays inside and thinks he is going to die. Dickon shares his mother's insight that the "worst thing on earth for a child" is to wish he weren't born because "them as is not wanted scarce ever thrives." They decide that getting Colin outside and in the garden would stop him from "watchin' for lumps to grow on his back" because he'd be watching things grow in the outside world instead. Dickon says he could push Colin's carriage. Mary and Dickon watch the robin as he ponders where to put a twig in the nest. Dickon tells the robin wherever he puts it will be fine. Then he tells Mary they are like wild things themselves: "Us is nest-buildin' too."


The chapter's title, "Nest Building," refers to both the robin's and the children's nest building. The garden has become a nest for Mary to feel secure in and to grow. Dickon is like the robin in that he is creating a safe place for Mary where she is sheltered and not exposed to intruders. Mary is now sufficiently healed that she wants to invite Colin into the garden so it can be a nest for him, too. Within the secure walls of the garden, he can get fresh air without anyone other than Dickon and Mary seeing him. And like a young fledgling, he can grow at his own rate and take flight when he is ready. The nest building is also symbolic of the cycle of life. Birds usually build nests and lay eggs in the springtime, a time of new growth and life. It is no coincidence that Mary discovers the garden at this time of year. Her transformation and Colin's will parallel the garden's cycle of life around them.

The garden is also a place that invites the use of the senses, which is another aid to wisdom, connection to nature, and personal growth. Dickon and Mary actually fall to their knees and sniff the earth in the garden. Mary's kissing the plants shows she is becoming more loving and demonstrative. It also echoes how Mrs. Craven kissed the roses as if they were children. The flowers stir in Mary an emotion akin to love, and she expresses it by kissing them. She says that kissing flowers is different from kissing people. Colin reveals that he kisses his mother, Mrs. Sowerby, in the same way, strengthening the comparison of Mary's kiss to a maternal, or nurturing, one.

Both Mary and Dickon believe positive thinking will help Colin become healthier. Mrs. Sowerby's wisdom reveals her belief that dwelling on feeling unwanted is a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes a person unhealthy—a theory paralleled and borne out by Mary's own transformation as she realizes that other people like her. The children believe their plan to expose Colin to fresh air and the garden and to get him engaged in watching things grow is superior to Dr. Craven's advice. This reflects the importance Burnett places on worldly wisdom rather than book learning; in other words, she considered the knowledge of simple country folk like Mrs. Sowerby superior to traditional medicine and practice when it comes to child-rearing and healing mental and physical ailments.

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