The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 2 : Mistress Mary Quite Contrary | Summary

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Summary

Mary stays with the Crawford family temporarily for several days. She dislikes them immensely. Two adults and five children who wear "shabby clothes" are "always quarreling and snatching toys from each other" in their "untidy bungalow." Mary is so disagreeable none of the other children will play with her. One day, she is making a play garden and Basil, one of the Crawford children, offers her a suggestion for how to arrange it. She screams at him and tells him to go away. He nicknames her "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary," after the nursery rhyme, and the name is picked up by the other children.

Basil breaks the news to Mary that she will be going to live with her uncle, Mr. Craven, a hunchback in a "great, big, desolate old house in the country" in England. He tells her Craven is "so cross" "no one goes near him." Mary sails to England, accompanied by an officer's wife who is "very much absorbed" in her own children. Craven's housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, meets Mary in London. She has an unfavorable first impression of the girl. She calls Mary "a plain little piece of goods" and finds her spoiled. They stay overnight in a hotel and travel by train to Yorkshire the next day.

During the train trip, Mrs. Medlock tells Mary what she can expect in her new home. It is a "queer place," a house that is "six hundred years old," sits "on the edge of the moor," and has "near a hundred rooms in it." Mary is somewhat intrigued as "anything new rather attracted her," but she hides her interest. Mrs. Medlock describes Mr. Craven as a self-absorbed man who "never troubles himself about no one" and who is not about to pay any attention to Mary. Mrs. Craven, Craven's wife, was "a sweet, pretty thing" who has died, which makes Craven "queerer than ever;" he never sees people and "cares about nobody." Mrs. Medlock warns Mary she "mustn't expect that there will be people to talk" to her. She says she'll have to play by herself, will be allowed only in certain rooms, and can't go wandering and poking about the house.

Analysis

Mary's transition from her life in India to her new life in England is filled with discomfort, but she feels no loss at her parents' death. She had little interaction with either parent. Her father was always busy. Mary had watched her mother only from afar and "thought her pretty." But since "she knew very little of her," she does not love or miss her. Her parents' absence affects her only because she does not know who is going to take care of her. She hopes it will be nice people who "give her her own way." While this may appear to be extremely self-serving, it is not at all unusual under the circumstances. The only human bonds Mary has formed in her life so far are with servants, who always do what she commands. She has not been nurtured nor has she received any parental love, attention, or affection. Thus, it is only natural for Mary to be concerned solely with being "taken care of" rather than being loved.

Being in a new environment at the Crawfords' unsettles Mary as she is not used to noise, other children, or lots of activity. Nor does she know how to play with other children. Mary orders Basil around as she did her servants and grows increasingly frustrated when he does not abide by her commands. She lacks an awareness of the inappropriateness of her angry words as she is not used to interacting with her peers. She dislikes Basil even before he appropriates the nursery rhyme, calling her "Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary," but seems to recognize and acknowledge her own contrariness. The nursery rhyme provides a symbolic motif for Mary herself throughout the first half of the text.

Despite her seeming indifference, however, the changes in her life affect Mary. She feels lonely staying with the Crawfords and thinks "queer thoughts which were new to her." She wonders why she does not belong to anyone—and hadn't even when her parents had been alive. She feels "suddenly sorry" for Mr. Craven when she learns his pretty wife is dead, although she just as quickly stops being sorry for him when Mrs. Medlock tells her she better not poke about the house. Being concerned about others is new to her, and so far she has only fleeting moments in which she experiences such feelings.

While Mary is changing, albeit slowly, she is heading into a situation that is, in some ways, very much like the one she experienced in India. She will not have a parental figure or guardian who spends time with her and is concerned about her. Instead, she will be cared for by servants and expected to stay out of Mr. Craven's sight.

Mary has a bit of the snob in her. She dislikes Mrs. Medlock and considers her common. When they are together in the train station, Mary walks apart from her so no one thinks she belongs to her. The only difference, which Mary has yet to fully learn, is that in her new home the servants are not subservient. Mrs. Medlock is already a good example of this trend. She is not like Mary's Ayah. She speaks her mind and has no intention of catering to Mary. She expects Mary to stay out of Craven's way, but she will not be entertaining her and placating her so that Mary does not disturb him. Instead, she expects Mary to take on that responsibility herself. She bluntly tells Mary that Craven is not going to "trouble himself about you." Mrs. Medlock is not a reassuring woman—she tells it like she sees it, even to a child. When she tells Mary she ought to be told about her new home, to prepare her, she does so without consideration for her age, circumstances, or feelings. The adults in Mary's life do not go out of their way to help her adjust to the changes in her life. While they give her the basic facts about where she will live, they ask Mary no questions about what she is thinking or feeling.

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