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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
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."
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Secret Garden!