The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 17 : A Tantrum | Summary



Mary wakes in the middle of the night to the sounds of Colin having a tantrum. She cannot bear the sounds, and she now understands why everyone gives Colin his way when he acts up. She debates going to his room but decides against it. Colin had ordered her out of his room, and she fears the sight of her might make his tantrum worse. The nurse, though, comes in her room and convinces her that she needs to help.

Mary races to Colin's room and orders him to stop screaming. She tells him everyone hates him, and she hopes he screams himself to death. Then she threatens to scream louder than he is. Colin is stunned. No one has ever spoken to him this way. It startles him so much his scream stops in mid-breath. He gasps that he can't stop screaming because he felt a lump on his back and is going to die. Mary tells him he is hysterical and whatever he felt is a "hysterical lump." She then examines his back and declares it free of all lumps. She says he has backbone lumps, but they can be seen only because he is so thin. She explains she also has backbone lumps, but they are disappearing as she gains weight.

The nurse is stunned by Colin's belief that he is going to die. She says she would have told him he did not have lumps on his back if she had known he was afraid. Colin asks her to confirm he has no lumps and she does. He then weeps with relief and asks the nurse if she thinks he might live to grow up. The nurse repeats the London doctor's advice: Colin probably will live if he gets fresh air, does what he is told, and does not give way to his temper. Worn out from his tantrum, Colin reaches for Mary's hand and tells her he will go out in the garden with her. The nurse leaves after Mary reassures her she will help Colin fall asleep. Colin tells her he thinks he might live if he could just get into the garden. He asks her to describe what she imagines it looks like and falls asleep as she tells him about it.


This chapter continues to build on the progress the children made during their argument in the Chapter 16. Although she is becoming less self-absorbed, Mary is intolerant of Colin's tantrum. She, too, has been spoiled for most of her life and expects others to conform to her desires. She throws a tantrum right back at Colin. It is the first time anyone has stood up to him this way. It so shocks him that he is forced to reconsider assumptions he had believed his whole life. Mary proves, and the nurse confirms, that he has no lump on his back. It is the first time anyone has disputed the fear that dominates his existence. He is immensely relieved and considers the possibility of growing up. With this hope comes a new interest: he wants to go outside and see the secret garden.

Burnett believes anger is a healthy emotion as evidenced by the nurse's approval of Mary stamping her feet and expressing her anger to Colin. This conflicts with the Victorian custom of repressing feelings and keeping them to oneself, as Colin has kept his fear to himself. His expression of his fear is seen as curative: it releases the negative feelings that have held him back and made him an invalid. For Mary, expressing anger allows her to prod Colin and help him overcome an obstacle. She "gives him something new to think of," a strategy that has been useful for her as she restores the secret garden.

Burnett uses imagery of weather to compare human emotions to nature. Her description of Colin's "long-drawn broken breaths" as the "dying down of his storm of sobbing" reflects her belief that human emotions are as natural as the storms that occur in nature. Burnett also believes one's mental health can cause physical illness, which is consistent with the tenets of New Thought. Colin's fears created his illness. Keeping those fears to himself and being isolated from other people allowed them to fester, worsening his physical and mental well-being.

Mary's insistence on his facing the truth makes Colin understand his situation on a deeper, more honest level ("he actually felt as if she might be speaking the truth"). In this way, Mary is like Mrs. Sowerby, Martha and Dickon's mother, who brings people to their senses, or makes them see the truth about themselves. Martha recalls how her mother got her to reconsider her habit of criticizing others by asking her if she truly liked herself. Mrs. Sowerby also has a positive effect on Mr. Craven. Her words spark him to send Mary gifts and encourage her gardening. Mary is now doing something similar for Colin by making him see the truth about how he has caused his problem himself. She is providing him with the nurturing he needs in order to grow. Burnett also draws parallels between the garden and the lives of Colin and Mary. The garden was abandoned for 10 years, like both of them. Despite being neglected, all three possess enough life within that can be nurtured, and they can heal and become more fully alive.

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