The Secret Garden | Study Guide

Frances Hodgson Burnett

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The Secret Garden | Themes



The dominant theme of The Secret Garden is healing. Both Mary Lennox and Colin Craven transform from sickly, friendless, and self-absorbed children to physically and mentally healthy ones. Archibald Craven, Colin's father, emerges from a decade-long depression over the death of his wife to heal by reconnecting with his son. All three characters must heal from the aftermath of death. Mary loses both her parents, Colin loses his mother, and Archibald, his beloved wife. She dies in a freak accident in the secret garden, which Archibald subsequently locks up and neglects.

When Mary first arrives in England she is sickly, sour, and standoffish. She lacks an interest in anything outside herself. Within days of her arrival, she begins to heal by going outside and getting fresh air. Gradually her appetite increases, and she becomes stronger. She sees new things, such as a robin and plants, that spark her interest in the world around her. Her desire to rejuvenate the garden is the key to bringing herself into a new, healthy existence. Over time, Mary forms strong bonds with Colin, Dickon, and various servants on the estate. By being willing to help herself and through the magic of nature, friendship, and her new way of thinking, she becomes mentally and physically healed.

Colin undergoes a similar transformation, although he takes a different path. When Mary first meets him, he is an invalid who lives a very limited life. He too is sickly and delicate. He has never used his legs to stand on and believes he will become hunchbacked and die young. Meeting his cousin Mary opens his eyes to a different way of life. Like Mary, he learns to think positively, gets fresh air and exercise, makes friends, and spends ample time doing things of interest to him. Lonely and proud, he is enriched by his friendship with Mary and Dickon. All these elements, plus the intangible force of Magic, combine to heal him. His father, Archibald Craven, also transforms, from a miserable, primarily absentee father consumed with grief to a loving, engaged father willing to live in the present. Their father-son relationship, once based on filial duty and estrangement, becomes a mutually beneficial relationship based on love and interest.

Healing is not limited to people but can affect settings as well. The secret garden undergoes a profound transformation, for example. A garden abandoned 10 years earlier after its creator and caretaker died changes from an overgrown, neglected garden with dead and dying plants to a well-tended, vibrant garden full of healthy plants. Misselthwaite Manor is transformed from a cavernous house with secluded rooms to a home where a family may live openly and joyously.

An essential component of this healing is connecting with other people or things outside one's self. Mary and Colin are initially difficult to get along with, which isolates them. It is through their connection with people like Martha, Dickon, Mrs. Sowerby, Ben Weatherstaff, and each other that the children can make progress, becoming stronger, self-aware, and empathetic. All the characters benefit from their connection to other living things in nature, especially plants and animals. The secret garden is the point where both varieties of connection converge, and as such, is the novel's central location for the healing process.


Magic is the collective force generated by a group of people or events that creates something larger than themselves. It can also be what is sometimes called "divine intervention," which some people attribute to an act of God. Others may attribute Magic to nature, or see it embodied in animals, plants, or weather.

Burnett uses the word Magic, which she capitalizes to emphasize its importance, as a means of expressing her belief in a power greater than oneself. While she incorporates some Christian imagery into the novel, she does not restrict her definition of Magic to religion. Magic is any force that nurtures and heals people. It is often the result of multiple forces acting together: a combination of nature, healthy activity, positive thinking, the supernatural, human connection, and self-reliance.

In The Secret Garden, many so-called magical forces act to effect the healing of Mary, Colin, and Mr. Craven, as well as the transformation of the garden itself. For example, a series of seemingly random acts leads Mary to discover the secret garden. A chance comment by Martha leads Mary to develop an interest in it. A robin looking for worms leads to her discovery of the key that opens its door. The wind blows strands of ivy to reveal the door at just the right moment. Together, these events form a chain reaction that is more than coincidental. Colin's program of health and self-improvement is one he sees as entirely dependent on Magic. For him, Magic is the power of positive thinking to effect change, and it gives him hope for his future. It also represents the very energy of life itself, "always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing." Later he says, "Being alive is the Magic" (Chapter 23).

A magical series of events makes it possible for Mary to get inside the garden, but they alone are insufficient to affect her healing or Colin's. Mary initiates the healing process when she chooses to have an interest in something outside herself and decides to make the garden her project. This gives her something of her own that motivates her, but she still needs nurturing from external sources, a sense of human connection. Nature and her physical activity, or work in the garden, provide some of that nurturing. The fresh air and exercise stimulate her appetite and lead her to become physically and mentally stronger and healthier. However, forces behind the scenes also play a role. Dickon is shaped by his mother's wisdom and nurturing, by the love of his family, and by his ability to communicate with animals. These influences are transferred to Mary through Dickon. They work in conjunction with one another to transform her over the course of the novel. As Mary becomes less self-absorbed and healthier emotionally, she is able to nurture herself and nurture others, such as Colin. Additional emotional support comes from Martha, Dickon's sister, and especially from Mrs. Sowerby, their mother, who intervenes on Mary's behalf with her uncle, Mr. Craven, and helps her in other, numerous ways.

Colin embraces Magic wholeheartedly as a form of self-improvement. For him, Magic is based in the wonders of nature, and is thus the foundation of a program he follows to make himself "a real boy." This includes chanting about the power of Magic, among other things. Like Mary, he becomes physically healthier, which leads to stronger emotional health: he develops into someone who is more self-aware, mature, and empathetic to others. But the Magic is not a cure-all for Colin. He, too, needs a supportive network of people who care about him, like Dickon. In order to make the transformation work, he also needs help to look truthfully at his own behavior. Sometimes this involves tough love. In Chapter 17, for example, Mary and Colin have a huge argument in which she points out some unpleasant truths to him about himself—he is rude, self-indulgent, and focused on his illness. She forces Colin to become more conscious of how he contributes to his own problem, which helps him overcome it.

Positive Thinking

Burnett is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. The narrator explains it in simple terms as "when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into [one's] mind ... remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one" because "two things cannot be in one place." Cultivating positive thinking by ridding oneself of negative thoughts is demonstrated in Chapter 9 when Mary weeds the garden. During one of her first attempts, Mary notices that the green points pushing through the earth "did not seem to have room enough to grow." She clears them of the surrounding weeds and grass so they can "breathe." The weeds and grass represent negative thoughts, or the baggage that weighs people down. Once they are removed, positive thoughts can come.

In Chapter 23, Colin explains how to start the process of positive thinking by saying, "perhaps the beginning is just to say nice things are going to happen until you make them happen." He experiments by repeating the affirmation "Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!" every day. He recognizes the need for repetition, saying, "You learn things by saying them over and over and thinking about them until they stay in your mind forever." The narrator remarks on how self-fulfilling prophecy works in conjunction with positive thinking, saying of Colin, "He had made himself believe that he was going to get well, which was really more than half the battle, if he had been aware of it."

In Chapter 27, the narrator describes how recent findings in the field of psychology are just as significant as scientific inventions because "just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries," and negative thoughts are as harmful as poison or "letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body." The narrator describes how Mary's "disagreeable thoughts," such as those "about her dislikes and sour opinions of people," made her a "bored and wretched child." Her character improves significantly when these negative thoughts are replaced by those of "robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his 'creatures.'"

Similarly, Colin is initially obsessed with negative thoughts. When he wonders if he is going to die or develop a hunchback, these thoughts make him a "hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac." After he meets Mary, Mary persuades him to take an interest in other things and to stop thinking so negatively. In Chapter 14, she tells Colin, "Don't let us talk about dying ... Let us talk about living." She describes Dickon as a life-affirming person who always talks "about living things" and never "about dead things or things that are ill." In Chapter 21, Dickon reinforces the concept of positive thinking, telling Colin, who wonders whether he can walk on his weak legs, "when tha' stops bein' afraid tha'lt stand on 'em." Mary defines the process of positive thinking in Chapter 23 as "learn[ing] things by saying them over and over and thinking about them until they stay in your mind forever." Positive thinking affects the body as well as the mind, and vice versa. In Chapter 27, the narrator describes how positive thinking improves Colin's physical health because "when new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones, life began to come back to him, his blood ran healthily through his veins and strength poured into him like a flood."

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