The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Chapter 4 : Martha | Summary



Mary awakens from her first night's sleep at Misselthwaite Manor to see Martha, a young housemaid, lighting the fire. After briefly watching her, she turns her eyes to her new surroundings. The walls are "covered with tapestry," which is embroidered with a forest scene peopled with hunters, horses, dogs, and "fantastically dressed people." Looking out her window, she sees a long stretch of treeless land that looks "like an endless, dull, purplish sea." Curious, she asks Martha what it is outside her window. Martha tells her it is the moor and asks, "Does tha' like it?" Mary says she hates it, and Martha tells her she will come to like it someday. Puzzled by Martha's lack of deference, since the servants she knew in India did not "talk to their masters as if they were equals," Mary tells Martha, "You are a strange servant." Martha, unconcerned, concurs and immediately clarifies their relationship. She is not Mary's servant. She is Mrs. Medlock's servant. She will "wait on [Mary] a bit," but only a bit because she "won't need much waitin' on." She will not dress Mary, as Mary's servants did in India, although she will help her with the buttons in the back. Instead, Mary will have to learn to do things for herself.

When Martha tells Mary she thought she would be black since she was coming from India, Mary calls her "a daughter of a pig," a major insult in India. Martha responds by telling her that's not the way she should be talking. Unable to control her rage and humiliation, Mary bursts out crying. Frightened, Martha comforts the weeping girl. At first taken aback by Martha's openness, Mary soon is drawn in and listens to Martha as she describes her home, and her 11 brothers and sisters. Mary becomes especially intrigued by Martha's description of her brother Dickon, who has a pony, Jump, he found on the moor. Martha urges Mary to go outside and tells her about a locked garden on the estate. It had been Mrs. Craven's garden. After she died suddenly, Mr. Craven locked it up and buried the key.

As Mary walks around outside, she meets an old man with a spade. The gardener is surly and short with Mary, and she leaves without responding to him. She is momentarily cheered when she sees a robin and hears "his cheerful, friendly little whistle." As she explores the gardens, she thinks more about the locked garden Martha mentioned. She tries to speak with the gardener again. Still surly, he initially is uninterested until she mentions seeing the robin, and he smiles and makes "a low soft whistle." The tame robin appears and lands in front of him.

The gardener explains that he's known the robin since it was a fledgling. It had flown over a garden wall and been too weak to return to its nest for several days. The gardener befriended the robin. After the robin returned to his nest, he discovered the "rest of th' brood was gone an' he was lonely an' he come back to me." After the gardener mentions the robin was lonely, Mary admits she is lonely, too. He tells her it's "no wonder tha'rt lonely" and "Tha'lt be lonelier before tha's done." Mary asks his name. He tells her it's Ben Weatherstaff and admits he's lonely too, except when the robin is with him.

Mary and Ben Weatherstaff discover they have many things in common: his only friend is the robin, and Mary has no friends. Both are sour looking and have nasty tempers. Mary is astounded by Ben Weatherstaff's "plain speaking" as she has "never heard the truth about herself in her life." Discomfited to hear these truths, Mary cheers up when the tame robin lands on a branch near her and bursts into song. Ben Weatherstaff tells Mary the robin has "made up his mind to make friends with thee." Extremely pleased, Mary befriends the tame robin. She notices that he flies away to the "garden where there is no door." He tells her the bird was born in that garden. When she tells him she wants to see the rose trees in this garden, he tells her not to be "a meddlesome wench an' poke [her] nose where it's no cause to go." He leaves without saying goodbye.


Mary discovers the nature of her relationship with the servants at Misselthwaite Manor is going to be far different from what she was accustomed to in India. Martha is not going to accede to her every whim and be at her beck and call. Mary will need to learn to do things for herself. In addition, there is nothing to do other than go for walks outside. Neither Mr. Craven nor his housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, has given any thought to her education or to providing her ways to entertain herself, so she must fall back on her own resources.

There are upsides to this new type of relationship, though. When Mary looks out her window at the moor and Martha asks her if she likes it, it is the first time anyone has asked her what she thinks or feels about something. Mary tells Martha she hates the moor and then asks her if she likes it. This is the first time Mary expresses an interest in what another person thinks, showing that interest begets interest, or that when one gives, one receives in return. When Mary learns she cannot treat Martha the way she treated her servants in India, she realizes she is far outside her comfort zone and bursts into tears. When Martha reaches out to her and comforts her, it is another first—the first time someone responds to more than Mary's physical needs and cares about what she is feeling.

Martha's talk about her family members draws a picture of family life unfamiliar to Mary. Martha portrays her mother, Mrs. Sowerby, as someone who understands children's interests and needs. She describes her brother Dickon, who has a deep connection to animals, in such a way that Mary becomes interested in him, her first real interest in "any one but herself." The family is poor and struggling but sounds warm and caring, the opposite of Mary's previous family life or her new life at the manor.

Mary is beginning to change. She is becoming more self-aware and realizes people don't like her, nor does she like them. However, she also realizes she lacks the social ease and togetherness of the Crawford children, who "were always talking and laughing." This awareness sparks a yearning in her for something different although she has not formulated it as a desire to change. She experiences an even greater change when she befriends the tame robin and has a heart-to-heart talk with Ben Weatherstaff. Mary has a crucial insight: she is lonely but no longer wants to be. She admits to the gardener that she is lonely and shows her eagerness for the robin to make friends with her. The robin, who once lived in the secret garden, was lonely too, and befriended Ben Weatherstaff as a result.

The connection to living things in nature is a sign of life and health throughout the novel. Dickon's love of animals, Ben Weatherstaff's friendship with the robin, and Mary's desire to befriend the same bird are all based in a desire to connect with something outside themselves, and things existing in nature seem more accessible than other people. Mary's desire to see the hidden garden, sparked by the fact that the robin was born and lives there, and by Ben Weatherstaff's mention of the garden's "rose-trees," becomes the driving force behind the rest of the novel and of her personal transformation.

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