The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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Course Hero, "The Secret Garden Study Guide," June 29, 2017, accessed September 22, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Secret-Garden/.

The Secret Garden | Motifs

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Secrets

Secrets are abundant throughout the novel. Some secrets have a negative effect: they harm people and keep them from fully living. Secrets that are necessary to help people grow and become more alive, on the other hand, have a positive effect. For example, Colin initially is kept secret from Mary because he is an invalid who is hidden away so people do not have to look at him. Although servants know of his existence, only a few are allowed to see him. This is a dark secret that makes Colin ill and limits his life. The children keep the secret of their garden for a good reason. Its secrecy gives Colin and Mary a safe space to grow, be creative, and progressively test their newfound independence before they are ready to share it with others. As Mary tells Colin in Chapter 13, "If the garden was a secret and we could get into it we could watch the things grow bigger every day, and see how many roses are alive ... Oh, don't you see how much nicer it would be if it was a secret?" Colin's "biggest secret of all" is his attempt to grow "so strong that I can walk and run like any other boy." He doesn't want anyone to know about this so he can be the one to reveal his transformed self to his father.

Sharing secrets in the novel is life-affirming and represents trust and connection between people. Mary asks Dickon if he can keep a secret before she tells him about the garden, emphasizing the secret's importance by saying, "I don't know what I should do if any one found it out. I believe I should die!" (Chapter 10). Mary tells Colin the secret of the garden only when she knows she can trust him "for sure." When Ben Weatherstaff discovers them in the garden in Chapter 21, Colin decides, "We did not want you, but now you will have to be in the secret." After Weatherstaff admits he has been tending the garden for the past 10 years, Colin tells him, "You'll know how to keep the secret." Letting Weatherstaff in on the secret proves to be fortuitous as Colin, Mary, and DIckon develop a close relationship with him.

Nests

Nests are another recurring element throughout the novel. They represent safe places for young creatures to grow. Some nests are literal, such as the robin's nest where eggs are laid and fledglings live until they have matured. Others are figurative, such as the garden, which acts as a nest in which Colin and Mary experiment, grow, and transform themselves.

The first reference to a nest is Ben Weatherstaff's description in Chapter 4 of how he met the tame robin:

He come out of th' nest in th' other garden an' when first he flew over th' wall he was too weak to fly back for a few days an' we got friendly. When he went over th' wall again th' rest of th' brood was gone an' he was lonely an' he come back to me.

This both shows how the secret garden is a nesting site and foreshadows how Weatherstaff forms a similar friendship with Mary, Colin, and Dickon. Mary later discovers a nest of mice in a cushion in one of the empty rooms in the manor. They are the only signs of life she finds. The nest represents not only their birthplace and a shelter for them while they grow, but fertility and the perpetuation of future generations.

In Chapter 11, when Dickon enters the secret garden for the first time, he tells Mary the birds will be nesting in it in the springtime because "It'd be th' safest nestin' place in England." The fact springtime is coming soon is no coincidence. Many birds and animals procreate and nest in the spring. It is the time when new life begins and grows, and Mary and Colin will grow and experience changes parallel to the plants and fledglings in the garden as spring turns into summer. In Chapter 15 Dickon describes the springtime with "wild things runnin' about makin' homes for themselves, or buildin' nests" as a time to be joyous, not contrary. He tells the nesting robin not to fear them because "us is nest-buildin' too." Springtime and nesting also represent the perpetual cycle of life. Dickon tells Mary, "It's part o' th' springtime, this nest-buildin' is ... I warrant it's been goin' on in th' same way every year since th' world was begun."

The creation of new life that occurs during nest building is also a time when parents fiercely protect their young, with Dickon explaining "a body had better not meddle. You can lose a friend in springtime easier than any other season if you're too curious." Just as humans better not meddle with a nesting bird, other humans should not meddle with Mary and Colin while they experiment and grow within the safe confines of the secret garden. Mary recognizes the secret garden's function and conveys it to Colin in Chapter 13. She describes the advantages of having a nesting place when she imagines the garden as a nest where they can exist like "missel thrushes." This will enable them to "ma[k]e it all come alive," meaning not only the garden, but also themselves.

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