The novel begins by introducing the reader to Mary — although it would perhaps be more accurate to say it begins by introducing us to her faults. She is described as ugly, ill-tempered, and viciously demanding; in short, she is "as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived." At the same time, however, the reader is given to understand that the source of Mary's hatefulness is not precisely in her: the blame lies with her parents—particularly her mother. Disappointed by her daughter's ugliness and sickliness, Mary's mother cruelly refuses to see her, instead leaving her in the care of a retinue of Indian servants who care nothing at all for the child. The servants must, however, obey her every whim, in this can be found the source of her imperiousness. Mary's only pleasure, even at this early point in the novel, is play-gardening: she sits beneath a tree and idly places cut flowers in mounds of sound. After the death of her parents in the cholera epidemic, she engages in the same activity at the house of the clergyman and his family. Throughout the first part of the novel, Mary remains standoffish and rude; however, the omniscient narrator consistently makes it clear that Mary is only so awful because of the wretched circumstances of her early childhood. The reader has access to the loneliness and displacement that Mary herself is not able to express, but feels deeply. The instant her circumstances improve—that is, the instant that she arrives at Misselthwaite—Mary too begins to improve. She becomes active and interested in the world around her (in India, she was always "too hot and languid to care about anything.") The reader thereby recognizes that there is nothing innately cruel about Mistress Mary: she is a victim of her own isolation. Mary develops real affection for her maidservant, Martha Sowerby, and for the robin redbreast that lives in the secret garden. She falls thoroughly in love with Dickon, and befriends Colin and Ben Weatherstaff; in short, she becomes utterly engrossed in the world around her. The English landscape and her work in the secret garden have a miraculously restorative effect upon her: by novel's end, Mary is no longer bitter and friendless, but is instead an ordinary playful ten-year-old girl surrounded by her intimates.
So long as Mistress Mary's mind was full of disagreeable thoughts...she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child...When her mind gradually filled itself with robins...with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his "creatures," there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts...[and so she became well and happy].
In the world of The Secret Garden (heavily influenced as it is by Christian Science and New Thought), one need only fill one's mind with positive thoughts to change one's fortunes. Divine nature, in the form of Dickon and the secret garden, makes this possible for both Mary and Colin.
Colin is Master Craven's ten-year-old son. He was born in the same year in which Mary was born and the secret garden locked shut. Colin's father cannot bear to see him, as Colin reminds him of his late wife; the boy, because of his strange gray eyes, greatly resembles her, and was born only shortly before she died. Archibald Craven is ashamed of how sickly Colin is, and has forbidden the servants to speak of him. Everyone fears that he will become a hunchback and die before he reaches adulthood. Colin himself hates to be looked at, because he despises the pity and morbid fascination he inspires. He refuses to leave the manor house, and spends all his time shut up in his grand gloomy room. Like Mary, he has become fantastically tyrannical, since all his servants have been instructed to obey all of his commands without question. Mary's meeting with Colin is extremely good for him, because she is bold enough (and unsympathetic enough) to contradict him when he says that he is going to become a hunchback and die an early death. It is essential he have his negative thoughts contradicted, so that positive ones may be put in their place; this is one of the central tenets of both New Thought and Christian Science. Underlying this idea is the belief that nothing truly ails Colin's body—his disease is entirely a product of his mind. The repeated description of Colin as a "hysteric" indicates that Hodgson Burnett's preoccupation with psychosomatic illness may have another source. In 1896, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the neurologist Joseph Breuer published the Studies on Hysteria; the book was soon translated into a number of languages and gained in popularity all over the world. For Freud and Breuer, hysteria referred to a psychological disorder in which an idea or fantasy that had been repressed (made unconscious) by the mind found alternative expression in the body. While it might appear that the hysteric had an organic illness (that is, a disease of the body), Freud and Breuer maintained that its real source was in the hysteric's unconscious. For Freud, the hysteric's repressed fantasy was always sexual in nature; furthermore, he contended that the overwhelming majority of hysterics were women. Calling Colin an "hysteric" therefore feminizes him—he is weak, and frightened, and bedridden (all things a boy, presumably, should never be). Colin is positioned as Dickon's opposite: Dickon is extremely strong, masculine, and vigorous—he is of the moor, while Colin is often compared with the feminized Indian Rajah (who is described as having limp hands and being "covered with jewels").
So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness ...he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones...strength poured into him like a flood.
His contact with Mary and Dickon, as well as his work in the secret garden, masculinizes and redeems Colin—he becomes "as strong and as straight as any boy in Yorkshire." It also reunited him with his father, who immediately embraces his son when he finds that he is healthy.
Dickon Sowerby is, in some sense, the spirit of Missel Moor. His eyes are described as looking like "pieces of moorland sky," and he smells of "heather and grass and leaves...as if he were made of them." When the reader first encounters him, he is sitting beneath a tree charming animals with the music of his wooden pipe. This immediately conjures the image of panpipes, and serves to associate Dickon with the god Pan. He therefore is presented as having an uncannily close relationship with the wilderness and with wild things. He tells Mary that "Sometimes I think perhaps I'm a bird, or a fox, or a squirrel... and I don't know it." Mary compares Dickon's pipe playing with the way "natives charm snakes in India." Throughout the novel, Mary and Colin perceive Dickon as thrillingly strange and exotic: like the Indian natives, he speaks a different language (his Yorkshire dialect). Also like the Indians, he is visually marked as different from Mary and Colin—his difference is one of class, however, rather than of race. Mary comments several times upon Dickon's patched clothes and rough hair, as well as on the coarse simplicity of his food. This class difference is an extremely provocative one for Mary: she is instantly drawn to Dickon, and her revelation of the garden to him is full of implicit eroticism. It's as though she were displaying herself to him, on the one hand; on the other, it is underwritten by the extremely charged notion of "letting him inside." Mary describes him as "beautiful," and as "a Yorkshire angel": Dickon is, in some measure, above mere class distinctions, because he is the representative of divine nature. He, as much as the secret garden, is the agent of both Colin and Mary's transformations. He himself, being already ideal, does not change at all.
This book is very easy to understand so you do not need the spark notes.
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Hey! I just wrote a review for this novel because I really enjoyed reading it! You can find the review here:
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