Search Menu

The Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Omnipresence of magic

Colin Craven's absolute engrossment in the garden and its creatures fuses him absolutely with the stuff of life, and with the work of living—he is now certain that he is going to live to be a man, and proposes that he will be the sort of "scientist" who studies magic. Of course, the only kind of scientist who might study what Hodgson Burnett calls magic is a Christian Scientist—throughout the novel, the idea of magic is heavily inflected by the tenets of both Christian Science and New Thought. One definition of magic that the novel provides is the conception of magic as a kind of life force—it enables Colin stand, and the flowers to work out of the earth. It is also aligned with the Christian God, in that Colin says that the Doxology (a Christian hymn) offers thanks to the same thing he does when he says that he is thankful for the magic. This Christian connotation is strengthened in a number of ways, among them in Mrs. Sowerby's description of magic as a kind of creator, who is present in all things, and even creates human beings themselves—clearly associating him with the all-powerful, all- knowing, and omnipresent Christian God. Christian overtones can also be found in the scene in which Mary throws open the window so that Colin may breathe in the magical springtime air. Colin's half-joking suggestion that they may "hear golden trumpets" recalls the golden trumpets that are believed by Christians to herald the entrance into Paradise. Furthermore, Mary says that the spring air makes Dickon feel as though "he could live forever and ever and ever"; this idea clearly echoes the Christian belief that Paradise contains the promise of eternal life. Unlike conventional Christian myth, Paradise can be found on earth, in nature, as well as in heaven. This shift mirrors that made by Hodgson Burnett's system of New Thought, which held that divinity could be found in the landscape, in all natural living things. Colin again shouts that he feels that he will live forever directly before the singing of the Doxology. The children's magic circle is compared to both "a prayer-meeting" and "a sort of temple"; Colin is described as being "a sort of priest." The chanting they perform to call upon the healing properties of the magic is very similar to the healing prayers of a Christian Science medical practitioner. The idea that one need only "say things over and over and think about them until they stay in your mind forever" is also taken from the Christian Scientist emphasis upon the power and necessity of positive thinking.

The Relationship between Health and Outlook

One of the book's underlying themes is the way in which happiness begets happiness, and misery begets only more of itself. For example, the fact that Master Craven is sad ensures that he will continue to be sad, and will make those around him similarly dismal. The source of this notion can again be found in Burnett's fascination with the New Thought and Christian Science movements, which held that one must think only positive thoughts if one wants good things to happen. The fact that this idea is patently false miraculously did nothing to deter its adherents. Dickon's remark that "the springtime would be better [for Colin] than doctor's stuff" provides another instance of Christian Scientist tenets in the novel. Christian Science, as a philosophy, disapproves of medical intervention: no disease is truly corporeal (caused by the body), but is in fact the result of morbid and negative thinking. Colin must have contact with the life of the world if he is to go on living, because this contact will dispel his thoughts of death: Dickon (guided by Burnett's Christian Scientist beliefs) says that Colin "oughtn't to lie there thinking [of death and illness]... No lad could get well as thought them sorts of things." The fact that Colin's fury at Ben Weatherstaff provides him with sufficient strength to stand reinforces the notion that his previous inability to do so was entirely a product of his negative thinking. It also underlines the idea that if one only wishes to overcome one's illness, one can. Negative thoughts are the human error to be found at the root of all disease; one must therefore force out ugly thoughts with agreeable ones, for "two things cannot be in one place." This notion is responsible for both Colin and Mary's wondrous metamorphoses. Once they are thinking of the garden and nature, of Dickon and of their own blossoming friendship, they can no longer concern themselves with their own contrariness or with the fear of becoming a hunchback and dying an early death. Instead, they become normal, healthy children, full of dreams of the future. This questionable (and inarguably syrupy) goal is given inane epigraphic expression in the phrase "Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow."

The Relationship between Landscape and Well-Being

One of the most important ways that the novel illustrates this theme is by creating an opposition between India and England. The novel subtly attributes Mary's childhood sickness to her time in India: "Her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another." India, clearly, is no place for an English child (though the novel seems to suggest that the fault for this lies with India, rather than with the British invasion of that country). India is consistently presented as a place which breeds illness and unbeauty, as well as a kind of living death: so long as Mary lived there, she was "always too hot and languid" to do anything at all. Her time on the moor begins to effect a change in Mary: she slowly begins to grow stronger and healthier, and her imagination, which had lain dormant during her time in India, is quickened by her exploration of the manor grounds and her search for the secret garden. Her contact with English gardens, English boys, and English moors cures her of her Indian malaise. Similarly, Master Craven's constitutional sickness is further borne out by his constant travel "in foreign places." In the economy of the novel, all life and joy are contained on Missel Moor, and thus to travel is a sign of illness. To leave the moor is to condemn oneself to suffering. Travel, the narrator announces severely, indicates that Master Craven has "forgotten and deserted his home and his duties." The natural landscape is consistently depicted as conspiring with and mirroring its human inhabitants: it is the "wuthering" (howling) of the wind that awakens Mary and alerts her to Colin's crying; the robin redbreast and a timely gust of wind reveal the key and door to the secret garden to her. The natural landscape is subject to personification (the lending of human attributes to a nonhuman creature or inanimate thing) throughout the novel. The secret garden resurrects Colin and Mary, and they resurrect it in turn.

The Necessity of Human Companionship

Susan Sowerby's comment that children who are unwanted never thrive is another permutation of the Christian Scientist idea that no disease is truly corporeal (caused by the body), but is in fact the result of morbid and negative thinking. Since both Colin and Mary were not loved, and both had childhoods surrounded by a great deal of anxiety and negative thinking, it is almost as though their parents wished that they would fall ill. Furthermore, Colin and Mary are so bitter and selfish because they are lonely and utterly without friendship: they require the company of other children to check their selfish impulses and inspire their innate kindness. The instant they begin to attach themselves to each other, to Dickon, and the natural world, they become kinder and more sympathetic.



One can say that The Secret Garden is organized around the idea of secrets. Mary is a secret from her parents' associates; Colin is kept a secret by both his father and himself. Misselthwaite is full of hundreds of locked rooms which no one may enter; its servants are forbidden to speak of its history or of its current inhabitants. Colin keeps the portrait of his mother a secret from his servants, and, later, the secret of his newfound health from all but Mary, Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff, and Susan Sowerby. The secret of the garden itself is the most significant. One by one, each of the book's secrets are disclosed: disclosure is presented as an absolute good, for, in the economy of the novel, the content of a thing does not matter—only whether one thinks of it positively or negatively does. Thus the secret of Mistress Craven's death can be disclosed, provided one maintains that she isn't really dead at all; Colin and Mary can come to light, provided that they have become kind and healthy; the garden, too, may be unlocked, so long as it, too, is resurrected.

Parallel Lives of Colin, Mary, and the Secret Garden

A number of striking similarities between Mary and Colin are immediately apparent: they are both ten years old; they have both passed sickly, neglected childhoods; both are unbelievably spoiled; and both have been looked after by retinues of servants who have been ordered to obey their every whim. Both children have parents that have denied their existence and hidden them away like secrets. No one ever sees Colin or Mary: the English soldiers who discover Mary in her parents' bungalow declare that they never knew that "that pretty woman" had had a child at all. Upon first seeing Colin, Mary exclaims, almost identically, "I never knew [Master Craven] had a child!" The garden has been closed for ten years; up to the moment that Colin and Mary each enter the garden, they too are closed off—they have loved no one, and have been utterly unloved. Because it has been so long since anyone has tended the garden, it is impossible to determine whether its flowers are dead or alive. Similarly, both Mary and Colin have had no one to care for them since their birth, and their skin has become either waxen or stony as a result. Both of these words ("waxen" and "stony") connote lifelessness. The awakening of the secret garden both parallels and is the cause of Colin and Mary's own rebirth.

The Garden of Eden

Eden, also called Paradise, was the garden in which the first humans created by God (Adam and Eve) lived until the time of the Fall. The "Fall" refers to the moment that God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for tasting of the Tree of Knowledge. The secret garden is connected with Eden through Martha's story of the divine times had there by Master Craven and his wife before her quite literal "fall"—before, that is, she fell out of the rose-tree to her death. It is also similar to Eden insofar as it represents a Paradise of innocence and ideality for Mary and Dickon. As in Eden, they enjoy a uniquely close relationship with God (who occasionally is referred to as magic, and as "the Big Good Thing") when they are within its walls. Their work in the garden is compared to the work of "nest-building," which of course has certain marital implications—it is as though they too have become Adam and Eve. Furthermore, their seclusion in the secret garden conjures up that enjoyed by Master and Mistress Craven. This echo is strengthened by the fact that Mary bends down and kisses the newly opened crocuses, just as Mistress Craven kissed her roses. The Eden-like quality of their time alone together in the garden is only strengthened by the presence of Dickon's docile "creatures," which recall the animals created by the Christian God to keep the first people company. Dickon inspires "rapture" in Mary, which implies both ecstasy and "a mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to the knowledge of divine things" (Merriam-Webster). Dickon's intimate connection with heavenly nature brings Mary nearer to divinity herself.


The Robin Redbreast

When Mary first sees the robin redbreast, the reader is struck by a number of similarities between them: like her, he began life as an orphan; like her, he finds a haven in the secret garden; like her, he began to seek out friendship once he lost his family and came to realize he was lonely. The friendliness of the little bird both helps Mary to recognize that she is lonely and to assuage that loneliness. This is significant in that Mary first befriends a wild creature, a distinctive part of the English countryside; the robin is explicitly described as being "not at all like birds in India." She thus makes her first connection with a part of the moor, not a part of the manor. The robin is a representative of wise and gentle nature—part of Chapter XXV is told from his point of view, as though to prove that animals really do have minds of their own. It is he who first shows Mary the key to the secret garden, thereby suggesting that nature itself is colluding with her wish to get inside. Later, the robin's building of a nest with his mate is compared to Mary's nest- building with Dickon in the secret garden.


The roses are Mistress Craven's personal symbol; they are mentioned whenever she is mentioned. The bower from which she fell to her death was covered with roses; when Mary first discovers the garden, it is still flooded with rose-trees and rosebushes, though none are in bloom. Dickon reassures her that they are not dead, and remarks, "There will be fountains of roses here in the spring." This foreshadows the way in which the resurrection of the garden will bring the spirit of Mistress Craven back within its walls—she exists wherever roses are in bloom. The tree from which Colin's mother fell to her death can itself be said to undergo a kind of resurrection: though it is the only thing in the garden which is wholly dead, it is soon "covered with new roses," so that the dead wood is no longer visible. The new roses symbolize both the children and the spirit of Colin's mother herself, which has come back to the garden to watch over her son.

The Portrait of Mistress Craven

Colin keeps a portrait of his mother concealed behind a "rose-colored" curtain. The curtain continues the association of the Mistress Craven with roses, and also further aligns her with the secret garden; she, too, has been "shut away" for the past ten years. As in the case of the secret garden, it is love of Mistress Craven that partially inspires the concealment. As Colin says, "She is mine and I do not want everyone to see her." He is, however, somewhat ambivalent about the portrait: he dislikes that she is laughing while he is so ill and unhappy. He almost hates her for dying, for he believes that he would not have been sick, and his father would not have despised him, if only she had lived. Colin's decision to uncover the portrait at the end of the novel can be linked to both his own and his mother's "rebirth": once he has regained his health, he feels that her laughter approves of him. It is now also, in some sense, a portrait of himself: he is her "ghost made into a boy."

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz

Take a quiz on this section
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz



What two characters have many similarities?
Mary and Colin
Colin and Dickon
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz

More Help

Previous Next
The Secret Garden(you do not need the spark notes for this book)

by KingSize4, May 02, 2013

This book is very easy to understand so you do not need the spark notes.


15 out of 85 people found this helpful

Review available here

by RandomlyAbstract, June 28, 2013

Hey! I just wrote a review for this novel because I really enjoyed reading it! You can find the review here:

Let me know what you think.


3 out of 6 people found this helpful

spark notes secret garden

by tryepic4, September 05, 2013

I love the secret garden!!!!!!!!!
I love sparknotes!!!!!!!!!!!!!


11 out of 21 people found this helpful

See all 8 readers' notes   →