The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 21 : Ben Weatherstaff | Summary



Colin feels an immense sense of unity with nature when he first experiences springtime in the garden. The day's beauty and sense of perfection is so profound Dickon remarks he has never seen such a "graidely" afternoon. Dickon and Mary work in the garden and bring things to show Colin. After a bit, Dickon wheels Colin around so he can see more. Colin notices an old dead tree and asks how its big branch broke. He is unaware that this is the tree that caused his mother's death. Before either Mary or Dickon can say anything, the tame robin flies by and distracts Colin. Mary thinks "Magic" caused the robin to appear at "just at the right moment when Colin asked that dangerous question" about the branch. Both she and Dickon agree they must never tell Colin what actually happened to Mrs. Craven. Dickon tells Mary that his mother, Mrs. Sowerby, thinks Mrs. Craven maybe is "about Misselthwaite many a time lookin' after Mester Colin." She believes Colin's mother is still in the garden and told them to bring him there.

When they get hungry, Colin has Mary and Dickon ask the servants to bring afternoon tea to a spot outside the secret garden. The children then bring it into the garden and enjoy a delightful meal. They lounge around as the sun begins to go down, and Colin announces his intent to "see the summer ... and see everything grow here. I'm going to grow here myself." After Dickon tells him he'll be up and walking before long, Colin asks if that is possible. He admits there is nothing wrong with his legs, just that they are thin and weak. Dickon tells him that when he stops being afraid, he will be able to stand on them.

The children grow quiet, and even the animals appear to slumber, when suddenly Colin asks, "Who is that man?" Ben Weatherstaff is "glaring at them over the wall from the top of a ladder." Extremely angry to see intruders in the garden, Ben Weatherstaff shakes his fist and yells at Mary. She defends herself by explaining that the robin showed her the way into the garden. Colin asks Dickon to wheel him over to the gardener. Ben Weatherstaff's jaw drops, and Colin asks if he knows who he is. The gardener confirms that he does as "tha' mother's eyes [are] starin' at me out o' tha face." He calls Colin a "poor cripple." Colin indignantly insists he is not. To prove it, he stands up with Dickon's assistance. Ben Weatherstaff is so overcome with emotion he bursts into tears. Colin, as master of the servants when Mr. Craven is away, orders Ben Weatherstaff to keep their secret about the garden. He then tells him to get off the ladder and meet him inside the garden.


The beauty of the springtime and the garden is so intense that the day transcends into one of those rare moments in life that seem otherworldly, even ecstatic. Burnett mixes Christian imagery, nature worship, fairy tales, and the supernatural in the description of the scene. Colin attributes the day's perfection to "pure heavenly goodness." The concept of a power greater than oneself is demonstrated with the imagery of the universe and eternity: a majestic sun that has risen for "thousands of years" and "millions of stars" watching in a dark blue sky. The blue sky, "looking down like wonderful eyes," is symbolic of a benevolent God watching over Earth.

Not only is a force greater than themselves present in the garden, but Dickon states his mother's belief that the spirit of Mrs. Craven is also present. This reflects Burnett's Christian belief that the soul survives physical death and finds eternal life, as well as her personal belief that the souls, or spirits, of the dead are ever present among the living. Mrs. Craven's spiritual presence in the garden is evidence of her nurturing her son and helping him grow. The sense of supernatural forces at play is also heightened when the tame robin appears at just the right moment to divert Colin's attention away from the painful topic of his mother's death. Finally, the scene is also equated with a fairy tale as the garden is compared to "the country of a magic king and queen" full of "mysterious riches."

Both Mary and Dickon have immense empathy for Colin and know how difficult it would be for him to learn the details of his mother's death. While Dickon has always possessed empathy, it is doubtful Mary would have attempted to shield Colin from these facts just a few weeks earlier. Showing her in a united front with Dickon reveals just how much she has changed. She is beginning to resemble Dickon, who is deeply intuitive and empathetic to the extent that he can communicate with animals.

Colin's transformation is off to a great start. He very much desires to grow and become healthy, not just to see another season, but to live forever. His contrariness, like Mary's, compels him to prove he can stand when Weatherstaff doubts him, not simply to assert his superiority, but to prove an important point about what he is capable of. This proves just how powerful positive thinking is—it influences his will and affects his body. Dickon's statement that Colin would stand when he stops being afraid also expresses the power of positive thinking, that one can do anything when one sets one's mind to it.

Ben Weatherstaff also undergoes a change in this chapter. His appearance at the ladder suggests he has his own secret: he has been caring for the garden. Future chapters reveal this to be true. He evidently is still fond of the former mistress of the garden, Mrs. Craven, and is reminded of her when he sees her son, who has her eyes. His tears are an expression of joy comingled with grief: joy for the son of someone he cared for greatly and grief at her absence.

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