The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Spoiled and Orphaned in India

Mary is a young girl living in India. Her father, Mr. Lennox, is busy with work. Her mother, Mrs. Lennox, never wanted a child and enjoys parties and socializing. Servants care for Mary and indulge her in order to keep her from disturbing her mother. Thus, Mary has become a self-centered, spoiled child. After her parents die in a cholera epidemic, Mary stays with the Crawford family. Basil, one of the Crawford children, nicknames her Mistress Mary Quite Contrary. He also informs her she is going to live with her uncle in England, a horrid man with a hunchback.

England and Misselthwaite Manor

Mary travels to England accompanied by an officer's wife. In London, she is met by Mrs. Medlock, Mr. Craven's servant. They take the train to her final destination, Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. The manor is isolated from other houses and sits on the edge of a moor, an open expanse of countryside. It is huge and has many rooms, but when Mary arrives late at night, there are few people about. Mr. Pitcher, another servant, greets them and instructs Mrs. Medlock to take Mary to the two rooms where she will live.

The next day, Mary wakes and sees a young woman making a fire. She talks with Martha, the housemaid, and learns the servants at Misslethwaite Manor are different than those in India. They will not cater to Mary. Instead, she is expected to do most things, such as getting dressed, by herself. Martha tells Mary a little about her new home and mentions a locked garden, which had been Mrs. Craven's. Mr. Craven locked the garden after his wife died suddenly, buried its key, and left it untended.

Since there is nothing else to do, Mary goes outside. She meets Ben Weatherstaff, an elderly gardener, on her walk. He has a tame robin, which he introduces to Mary. Weatherstaff says the robin is lonely, and Mary admits she is too. Weatherstaff confides that he also is lonely. Their growing rapport is broken when Mary asks about the roses in the garden and he tells her not to poke her nose in places it doesn't belong.

Every day Mary goes outside after breakfast. At first she dislikes the wind and exercise, but after a while she perks up and begins to enjoy it. She takes an interest in her surroundings. One day the robin appears, and they play with each other. When he flies off, she realizes he lives in the locked garden. She looks for the garden's door. That night, she asks Martha why Mr. Craven hates the garden. Mary learns Mrs. Craven died there, and Mr. Craven was so upset he locked the garden and demanded no one ever speak of it. During their talk, Mary hears the sound of a child crying. She asks Martha who it is, but Martha says it is the wind or a maid with a painful toothache.

The next day it rains, and Mary stays inside. Martha keeps her company and tells her about her family. One of 12 children living in a small cottage across the moor, Martha has a brother, Dickon, who is friends with animals. He has a tamed fox cub and a crow named Soot. With nothing else to do, Mary decides to explore the huge manor house. She walks around its many rooms and ends up spending several hours in one, playing with a bunch of ivory elephants from India. She discovers a nest of mice in an old sofa. As she is returning to her room, she again hears the sounds of a child crying. She encounters Mrs. Medlock and asks her about the crying. Mrs. Medlock denies hearing anything and tells her to get back to her own rooms.

The Locked Garden

After a few days it stops raining, and Mary goes back outside. The spring rain has transformed the moor and it looks beautiful. Mary walks around the grounds and gardens and runs into Ben Weatherstaff. He tells her about the spring growth and flowers that will soon appear. After she asks him where the robin lives, his friendliness disappears, and he tells her to ask the robin. Mary walks away and reflects on how her life is changing. She is beginning to like others, such as the tame robin and Martha, and even people she has not met, such as Dickon and Mrs. Sowerby, Martha's mother. As she reflects, the robin appears. He chirps and flies about and she follows him. When he hops about in the dirt, she notices a hole where a dog had tried to dig up a mole. She finds a key buried there, and she wonders whether it is the key to the locked garden.

The next morning, Martha brings Mary a gift from her mother—a jumping rope so Mary will have something to do that will build her strength. Martha shows Mary how to use it, and Mary goes outside to practice. She sees the tame robin and asks him to show her where the garden door is. A gust of wind blows the ivy away from the garden wall and reveals the door. Mary uses the key to open the door and enters the garden.

The garden is a tangle of plants growing every which way. She christens it the secret garden and decides to make it a secret place of her own. She wonders if the plants are dead and walks around to examine them for signs of life. She spends several hours in the garden, clearing weeds and grass away from emerging shoots so they can grow. When she goes inside for her midday meal, she tells Martha she wants a spade so she can make a little garden. Martha mentions she saw some gardening tools at a local shop and her brother, Dickon, could pick them up and deliver them to her. Mary writes a letter asking him to purchase them and gives the letter to Martha to send. Later that day, Mary asks Martha if the scullery maid still has a toothache because she has heard the crying again. Martha warns her not to go walking about the corridors to find the noise as it would anger Mr. Craven.

Mary skips rope outside and works in the garden during the next week. She grows healthier and stronger. Her relationship with Ben Weatherstaff grows too, and they talk about the roses and spring plants. One day, she sees a boy sitting under a tree and playing a wooden pipe. He is surrounded by animals, including a pheasant, rabbits, and a squirrel. It is Dickon. He introduces himself to Mary and gives her the gardening tools and some seeds. Initially very shy as she had never liked a boy before, Mary soon feels quite comfortable with Dickon, and they talk about the seeds. She then reveals that she has been inside the locked garden, and she takes Dickon into it.

Dickon marvels at the garden's unique beauty and its plants. Mary implores him to tell her if any of the plants are still alive. He shows her how to distinguish live plants from dead ones. They walk about the garden, examine its plants, and lightly tend to them. Dickon agrees to come almost every day and help Mary bring the garden back to life. He also agrees to keep it a secret.

Mr. Craven meets with Mary before he goes out of town for an extended absence. He tells her he had forgotten her and asks how she is doing. He says he had meant to get her a governess, and Mary asks him to please not do so. He asks what she wants, and she says she wants to play outdoors. He agrees, saying Mrs. Sowerby had recommended that very thing. Mary asks if she can have "a bit of earth." Craven agrees and tells her she reminds him of someone else who loved gardening. He encourages her to use her gardening to make her "bit of earth ... come alive."

Meeting Colin

That night Mary wakes to the sound of rain and hears the crying sound again. Determined to find its source, she leaves her room and walks down the corridors following the sound to a room. She pushes open a door and sees Colin, an ill-looking young boy, in his bed. Both are surprised at the presence of another child in the house. Colin tells Mary he is not locked in the room, but he is ill and does not leave it because he does not like people looking at him. He explains he may have a hunchback and will not live long. He says his father does not like to look at him and may almost hate him. Mary mentions the garden, and Colin asks, "What garden?" Mary tells him some limited information about it without giving away her secret. Mary then sings him to sleep with a Hindustani lullaby and returns to her room.

The next day, Mary tells Martha she has met Colin and plans to visit him every day. Martha tells her how Colin's mother died shortly after he was born. His father was so filled with grief a doctor considered putting him in an asylum. Mary visits Colin every day for the next week as it is raining and she cannot go outside. She tells him more about the garden but still doesn't tell him the whole truth. Early one morning on the day the rain stops, Mary rushes out to her garden. Dickon is waiting for her, and they delight in seeing the way the garden has changed. When Mary returns to the house, Martha tells her Colin is waiting for her. Instead of seeing him, Mary goes back to the garden and spends the rest of the day with Dickon, tending the garden. As she returns to the house, she thinks about all the exciting things she wants to tell Colin. She goes to his room. He is angry with her for spending time with Dickon rather than him, and says he is going to order Dickon not to come. They fight and say terrible things to each other.

When Mary goes to her room, she finds a box of gifts sent by Mr. Craven. The fact that he had thought of her warms her heart. As she mulls over her fight with Colin, she realizes that he probably acted from fear. Her feelings soften, and she decides to go see him the next day. She awakens in the middle of the night to the sounds of Colin having a tantrum. The nurse comes to her room and begs her to do something. Mary rushes to Colin's room and orders him to stop his tantrum. She tells him he is hysterical. She examines his back to prove it has no lumps. Convinced, Colin weeps with relief, and Mary stays with him until he falls asleep.

The next day, Mary visits Colin briefly before she goes to the garden. There, she meets Dickon and tells him about Colin. Mary wants Dickon to meet Colin in his room and take Colin out to the garden. Dickon agrees and Mary rushes back to tell Colin their plan. Now she knows she can trust Colin for sure and admits she has been able to enter the secret garden for several weeks. The next day, spring arrives. Mary rushes to Colin's room, flings open the windows, and exhorts Colin to breathe in the fresh air. He does and feels as if he could live forever. Dickon and his creatures arrive in Colin's room for a wonderful visit.

It rains for a week so Colin and Mary cannot go outside. Instead, they plan Colin's visit to the secret garden. Colin tells Dr. Craven that he is going outside. Colin forbids the servants or gardeners to be in the area of the secret garden so he, Mary, and Dickon can have privacy and keep their secret. One day, Mary and Colin explore the manor and play in its rooms. On the first day the rain stops, Dickon and Mary take Colin to the garden. He is amazed when he first enters it and repeatedly cries out that he will get well. Dickon wheels him around the garden, and he and Mary show Colin the plants.

Late that afternoon, they are relaxing when Colin spots Ben Weatherstaff peering over the garden wall. Weatherstaff yells at Mary for being in the garden. Colin intervenes and asks Weatherstaff if he knows who he is. Weatherstaff affirms he does, that he is the cripple. Colin furiously claims he is not a cripple and, to prove it, stands with Dickon's assistance. Weatherstaff enters the garden and agrees to keep their secret. Colin then walks around the garden, with Mary's and Dickon's assistance. The children are convinced the garden has "Magic," and that it is helping Dickon stand and walk. Colin commemorates the day by planting a rose bush.

Meetings in the Garden

Over the next few months, Colin, Mary, and Dickon meet in the garden every day it is not raining. They tend to the plants. They talk, play, run around, and do exercises. Colin gets stronger and healthier. His goal is to walk and run as any other boy and surprise his father with this transformation when he returns. Mrs. Sowerby sends them food secretly through Dickon. One day, Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon and Martha's mother, arrives in the garden. Colin and Dickon are delighted to meet her, and everyone shows her around the garden. She tells Colin his mother is in the garden, that she could not stay away.

While all this is happening, Mr. Craven is traveling around Europe. Still wracked with grief, he does not enjoy any of the beautiful places he visits until, one day, he sees a plant and it sparks something within him. He realizes it is beautiful and remembers how he once enjoyed nature. He whispers to himself that he feels as if he is alive. Unknown to him, he whispers this at the same hour in which Colin had cried out he is going to live forever and ever. Mr. Craven notices beauty around him more and more often. He is slowly coming alive. One night he falls asleep outside and has a dream. His wife, Mrs. Craven, appears in the dream and calls out to him. He asks where she is, and she tells him she is in the garden. The next morning, he receives a letter from Mrs. Sowerby telling him she thinks he should come home, that his wife would want him to.

Mr. Craven returns home. When he arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, Mrs. Medlock gives him a status update on Colin's health, saying he might be better or he might be worse. Then she informs him Colin is in the garden. Mr. Craven goes outside and slowly walks to the garden. As he stands outside it, he hears the sounds inside of the children moving and laughing. Suddenly, the garden door opens and Colin rushes out and runs smack into him. A stunned Mr. Craven holds Colin and looks at him. Colin announces himself and tells his father he is going to live forever and ever. Mr. Craven asks Colin to show him the garden. After they are finished, they walk across the lawn together to enter the manor house. Ben Weatherstaff and the stunned servants watch the pair as they approach.

The Secret Garden Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Mary travels from India to England after her parents die.

Rising Action

2 Mary heals with exercise, fresh air, and activity.

3 Mary enters the secret garden.

4 Mary meets Dickon and his animals.

5 Mary makes bringing the garden back to life her project.

6 Mary discovers Colin, an invalid, hidden in the house.

7 Mary and Colin become friends.

8 Ben Weatherstaff discovers the children in the garden.


9 Colin decides he must stand on his own two feet.

Falling Action

10 Colin works in the garden and becomes healthy and strong.

11 Mary and Colin meet Dickon's mother, Mrs. Sowerby.


12 Mr. Craven and Colin reconcile as father and son.

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