The Secret Garden summary and themes

 The Secret Garden summary and theme

When Mary Lennox was born to English parents in India, her vain and beautiful mother handed her over to a nurse, or “Ayah,” with instructions to keep the infant out of her way. Mary grew up both spoiled and neglected because she always got her own way, but getting her own way made her so unpleasant that no one wanted to be around her. When a cholera epidemic kills her parents and many of the servants, the rest of the servants run away, leaving Mary alone in the house. When she is found, she is sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven.

Her uncle’s enormous country home, Misselthwaite Manor, is situated on the Yorkshire Moors in the north of England. Mary arrives near the end of winter when everything is cold and dreary, and she hates it. Her uncle is not at home, and Mary is told that he is not interested in seeing her and that he has a hunchback.

Her first morning at Misselthwaite Manor, Mary is awakened by a cheerful country girl, Martha Sowerby, who has been sent to wait on her. Martha tells her about the walled garden on the manor grounds that used to belong to the lady of the house, Lilias Craven. After she died from an accident in the garden, Archibald locked the garden door, buried the key, and forbade anyone to go in.

Mary becomes curious and searches for the garden. She befriends the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, who introduces her to the robin who makes his nest in the garden. The robin leads Mary first to the key, then to the door hidden behind the ivy on a stone wall. Using the key, Mary opens the door and enters the secret garden. She finds it overgrown with roses, and the flowerbeds are choked with weeds and dead grass. Mary discovers green shoots poking out of the soil and clears away the grass and weeds to give them room to grow. That evening, she asks Martha whether she thinks it would be all right for Mary to have some garden tools and a bit of earth of her own. Martha tells Mary about her brother Dickon, who tames wild animals and knows everything about plants and growing things. She promises to send Dickon to fetch Mary a set of garden tools and some flowers that will be easy to grow. Mary trusts Dickon immediately and shows him the secret garden. He tells her what all the plants are and shows her how to plant the seeds.

That night, Mary hears someone crying. Going to investigate, she finds a boy her own age, her cousin Colin, who has been told all his life that he is sickly and weak and will probably die. They quickly become friends. Colin is as spoiled and disagreeable as Mary ever was, but she scolds and bullies him out of his tantrums. She visits him daily with stories about Dickon and the garden until he decides he wants to see it for himself. Mary and Dickon take him there in his wheelchair.

They are discovered by Ben, who is at first angry to find they have invaded Lilias’s beloved garden. He was devoted to her before her death, and she had asked him to tend the garden; he has done so ever since, climbing over the wall to prune the roses and keep them alive. Surprised to see Colin, he blurts out that he thought the young master was unable to walk and had a twisted back and legs. Colin is outraged and pushes himself to his feet, standing upright for the first time in his life to show that he is as straight as anyone. He orders the present company to keep their secret, and afterward, Ben helps the three children restore the garden. Meanwhile, Colin works to restore his strength and health, hoping his father will love him if he is healthy.

Colin’s father has been traveling, avoiding the manor, the memory of his wife’s death, and the sight of his frail son, whom he fears will die. As the children restore the garden, he begins to feel an urge to return home, and one night, he dreams his wife is calling him back to her garden. He returns to Misselthwaite and, following his wife’s voice, finds the garden door unlocked and enters to find his son strong and healthy. The garden has healed them all.

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Ten-year-old Mary is thin and sickly-looking with lank, light-colored hair. Since infancy, Mary has been treated like a doll by servants who did everything for her and gave her whatever she wanted to keep her quiet. As a result, Mary never learned how to manage her feelings except by making other people unhappy until they give her what she wants. Mary dislikes other people, thinking they are disagreeable, but she has no idea that she is also disagreeable. This shows that Mary doesn’t know how to think about herself apart from what she feels and wants in the moment. When everyone is sick and she has no one to care for her, Mary tries, symbolically, to manage her feelings by making little gardens out of dirt and fallen flowers, but she doesn’t understand how to make things grow, so her gardens come to nothing. Her efforts show that, on some level, Mary knows what she has to do to take care of herself, but she needs someone to show her how.

Considering the neglect in her upbringing, Mary has every reason to be an angry and unhappy child. By not conforming to the romantic ideal of the perfect little girl in other stories, Mary shows her uniqueness. Because she begins as a unique person, it will be possible for her to grow and change through her experiences in the garden, unlike the girls in other stories, who are already perfect.

Mary, however, is more than a child in the story. She is an embodiment of the Earth Mother goddess giving birth to herself.


Martha’s younger brother Dickon is a boy of 12 with a funny face. He has round blue eyes, a wide mouth, and a smile that seems to cover his whole face. He loves nature and wild things. He understands them and speaks their languages. He tames and nurses wild creatures, and his sister Martha says he can “whisper things out o’ th’ ground” (51). Dickon recognizes Mary as an injured wild thing who needs to be guarded like a missel thrush with a nest.

At Mary’s first sight of Dickon, he is playing a pipe in the garden, surrounded by listening animals, an image meant to show him as the embodiment of the Greek nature god, Pan. In Greek mythology, Pan is a god of fields, shepherds, and forests. He has the horns and legs of a goat, and he is usually shown playing a set of pipes called a Syrinx made from seven or nine river reeds bound together.

Dickon also represents the sprite Puck. His upturned nose, curly, rust-red hair, and broad smile describe a “puckish” face. Puck was sometimes shown with the legs of a goat, so he is considered an alternate–and a little more tame–version of Pan. Puck had several names, one of which was “Robin Goodfellow,” which links him to the robin that shows Mary the way into the garden. Dickon’s name is another connection with Puck. Dickon is a variation of Richard, and Richard is sometimes shortened to Robin.

The author intends for Dickon to be seen as a nature spirit, the personification of the masculine counterpart to Mother Nature, which gives him a unique perspective on the natural world and allows him to help both Mary and Colin to heal.


Colin is thin and pale with a sharp, delicate face and very large dark eyes. He and Mary are cousins of the same age and both orphans. Neither has ever had the loving attention of a parent. Where Mary is shown as ungirlishly assertive and disagreeable, Colin is shown to be weak and unmanly. He has been told all his life that he is sick and will probably not live to adulthood, making him morbid (obsessed with death and disease) and hysterical (a term generally used to describe overly emotional females). Colin represents death. He lives in a dark room with no windows. He is weak and frail and believes he will never live to grow up. Mary resurrects Colin from the underworld by taking him out of his room and into the garden.

When Mary refuses to let Colin dominate her with his tantrums, he must use more mature and appropriate ways to get along with her. She shows him there are acceptable ways and times to be a young Rajah, as she calls him. At other times, she forces him to apply his mind and curiosity to get what he wants. Once Mary has focused him in a more mature direction, he takes an interest in science—or magic—believing them to be the same.

“Craven” means cowardly, but although Colin is afraid of death, he is not a coward like his father. When Mary convinces him that he is not sick and not going to die, he embraces life and the future with determination and strength of will.


Round, rosy, and good-natured, Martha is too frank and outspoken to have been hired in a normal household, but Mrs. Medlock knows and respects Martha’s mother. Martha is the perfect person to watch over Mary; she has 11 younger brothers and sisters, so she is too experienced and too good-natured to be put off by Mary’s disagreeableness. Martha is the first person who has ever told Mary there was anything wrong with her manners.

Mary and Martha in The Secret Garden parallel the sisters in the biblical story of Mary and Martha. (Luke 10:38–42) In the biblical story, when Jesus and his companions stayed at Mary and Martha’s home, Martha shows her love by serving and caring for her guests. Mary shows her love by sitting at the teacher’s feet and learning from him. Martha becomes cross with Mary for not caring for their guests (and leaving all the work to her). Jesus scolds Martha and explains that people show love differently and have different roles to play.

In The Secret Garden, Martha is a servant, caring for other people. She is paid to work at the Manor, but even at home, she takes great delight in helping her mother and caring for her little brothers and sisters. She becomes an adoptive older sister to Mary, taking care of her as she would any of her young siblings. Mary Lennox serves a different role. She doesn’t serve other people; her job is to learn about and understand nature and the garden, which in this case represents divinity. Neither girl is right or wrong. They both find happiness and fulfillment in roles that suit their personalities.


The very first thing Mary hears about her uncle is that he is “a hunchback,” but when Mary meets him, she sees that there is nothing unusual about his appearance except that his shoulders seem a little crooked. Mostly, he is just thin and pale and sad. He still grieves the loss of his wife Lilias after 10 years.

“Craven” means cowardly, and Archibald acts like a coward by always traveling and avoiding Misselthwaite Manor. It takes courage to stay and deal with the pain of loss, and Archibald is not courageous. By staying away from home, he is also running away from his son, fearing the pain he will feel if Colin dies and hating the living reminder of his loss. By running away, he selfishly abandons a little boy to a life of loneliness and fear.

Archibald wants Mary to be happy, and he wants to do what is best for her. He is wise enough to take Mrs. Sowerby’s advice about what will help Mary the most—being allowed to run and play by herself for a while. Overall, he is a good person; he is merely weak. When he wakes from his long grieving, he grows stronger and will be a good father to Colin now that Mary has restored the garden and awakened his wife’s spirit.


Mrs. Medlock is the housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor—a stout woman with red cheeks and black eyes. She doesn’t like Mary very much, thinking she is plain and disagreeable looking. Like everyone in the neighborhood of Misselthwaite Manor, she likes and respects Susan Sowerby. Mrs. Medlock thinks of herself as the sort of person who takes no nonsense from children, but Colin, with his tantrums, has her completely in his power.


Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener, has a surly, weather-beaten face, but when he smiles, he looks much nicer. For his grumpy disposition, he gets along well with Dickon, the robin, and Mary. He can appreciate Mary because he recognizes something of himself in her: “We’re neither of us good-lookin’ and we’re both of us as sour as we look. We’ve got the same nasty tempers, both of us, I’ll warrant” (25). Her encounters with him give Mary guidance and a sense of who she is and who she might become.

Many stories have a wise old man character like Ben, whose role in the story is to provide guidance or to impart wisdom to the protagonist. Ben tells Mary things she doesn’t know about herself, for example, that she is plain and bad-tempered like him. He also explains the robin to her and tells her how to know whether a rosebush is alive or dead.

In fairytales, the wise old man may be a wizard like Merlin. In the ordinary world, he may be more like a hermit or other holy man. Ben is like a hermit in that he has few friends and prefers the company of birds and flowers. He enjoys solitude, and if he sees Mary coming, he often tries to avoid her simply because he prefers his own company.

The author names the character “Weatherstaff” because, as a gardener, his work is closely connected to the weather, and old men are often depicted leaning on a staff for support. Wizards are associated with staffs, which are also tools of power. Ben cannot be said to have power over the weather but being a gardener does give him the power to coax life out of the earth. Ben doesn’t carry a staff, but he often leans on his shovel or hoe as another old man might lean on a staff.


Mrs. Sowerby plays the role of the Wise Woman who dispenses advice, assistance, and healing to the community. The author’s description of her as a “mother creature” suggests that she is not just an individual but also the embodiment of the very nature of mother-ness. When she finally appears in the story in person, she wears a blue cloak. In art, the color blue represents the divine because it is the color of the sky, which is associated with heaven. Because of this, the Virgin Mary—the Christian embodiment of motherhood—is usually depicted wearing the color blue.

With 12 children, she has great insight into children and their needs. She recognizes that Mary needs exercise and play to mature. She understands that Colin and Mary need to butt heads to learn that neither owns the whole world. She cultivates her daughter Martha’s love of productive work while allowing Dickon to be useful in his unique way by studying and understanding the world.

The Wise Woman sometimes acts as a fairy godmother by giving advice and magical gifts that enable children to overcome challenges. Mrs. Sowerby acts like a fairy godmother to Mary by telling Mrs. Medlock and Mr. Craven what to do in Mary’s best interest and sending her the skipping rope—which is for Mary a magical gift that helps her grow strong and healthy.


The robin of the story is based on a real bird that Francis Hodgson Burnett loved when she was a child. Robins traditionally symbolize spring and rebirth. The robin in The Secret Garden also represents the spirit of nature through its association with Robin Goodfellow (Puck). Mary’s robin acts as a guide, first bringing her to the key and, later, when it decides she is ready, to the door that lets her into the garden.

Mary’s bird is a European robin, which is not closely related to the American robin. They look quite different and have different personalities and habits. The European robin lives nearer to the ground and more often comes into contact with people, which makes it a friendlier and more personable bird.


The name Lilias is Latin, meaning “Lily.” The lily can represent many things, but the most common meanings associated with the lily are femininity, rebirth, death, and grief. At the story's beginning, Lily represents death, grief, and femininity. She represents grief because her death broke her husband’s heart and left her son abandoned. She represents death because she has died and because, through her portrait, she stands guard over her son, who is trapped in the underworld

She also represents femininity because she is a woman, and the garden where her spirit resides is itself a symbol of the feminine. By the end of the story, she becomes the symbol of rebirth. First, her son is reborn when Mary brings him out of his dark room into the garden’s light. Then her husband’s heart is reborn when the garden is restored, and he comes home to find his son is well and strong.



The Secret Garden is often seen as a story about girls’ and boys’ gender roles, which are beliefs about the activities, behavior, and feelings that boys or girls should have. Most stories for girls at the time the book was written idolized good, kind, and loving girls who sacrificed themselves to care for other people, such as  Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggins and Pollyanna by Ellen H Porter. In both those stories, orphaned or unwanted girls were sent to live with disagreeable relatives, but Rebecca and Pollyanna were both so good and kind and happy that they transformed the unhappy people around them. On the other hand, Mary is angry, assertive, selfish, and insensitive to other people’s feelings. She has never learned to sit quietly and read or knit or sew, which are the kinds of things girls were expected to enjoy.

When the story was written, one of the common stereotypes or beliefs about women was that women—especially upper-class women—were frail and frequently ill. However, all the women in The Secret Garden are physically and emotionally strong. Most of the men, on the other hand, are weak and sickly. For example, all the reader knows about Mary’s father is that he was sickly. Colin’s father is described as a “hunchback,” and Colin is believed by himself and everyone around him to be too feeble to grow up. Mary and Colin show the different ways in which the author disapproves of female stereotypes; Colin’s weakness and frailty are unattractive and unmanly, while Mary—though she is not a very pleasant person to begin with—is much stronger and more interesting than the ideal little girls in other stories.

Mary begins to teach Colin how to be more traditionally masculine. First, she shouts at him for becoming hysterical over his imagined illness. She refuses to submit to his threats and manipulation. By standing up to Colin, Mary teaches him when and how to assert himself. He can’t get what he wants from her by screaming, crying, or threatening, so he must learn to control himself. Colin starts to take on a more active personality by literally standing on his own two feet. By having Mary be the one to teach Colin to be more “masculine,” Burnett suggests that traits seen as “feminine” or “masculine” are really just traits that everyone needs to have.

Dickon shows the balance between the traits considered “feminine” and “masculine.” He is physically strong, emotionally independent, and confident in himself—traits considered masculine. However, he is also gentle and nurturing. He surrounds himself with baby animals that he feeds and raises like his own children. Although those are traits associated with women, they don’t make Dickon seem any less masculine. Mary and Colin show that the traits that make up a well-balanced and happy person are the same for both boys and girls.


The theme of motherhood is central to the story and can be seen in three examples: Mary’s mother, Dickon's mother, and Lilias Craven. These three mothers are different, and each has a critical effect on their child’s development.


The first mother in the story is Mary’s vain young mother, who has no interest in a child. Because neither of Mary’s parents wants anything to do with her, Mary is an orphan even before they die. Because she has no one to love or see her for who she is, Mary grows up without a sense of herself except as a doll to be dressed by servants.

Colin’s mother is absent but watches over him in spirit in the garden and the portrait in his bedroom. Unlike Mary’s mother, she loved her child even though she never had the chance to be with him in life. He discovers her through her garden, which represents the feminine. When he comes there, he feels connected to her.

Dickon’s mother, Mrs. Sowerby, is an Earth Mother. With 12 children, she knows everything there is to know about raising them. She is deeply respected for her wisdom by everyone, from the gardener and the housekeeper to Mr. Craven. She is also a fairy godmother figure to Mary. She sends Mary the important gift of a skipping rope, which is the girl’s first introduction to learning how to play alone. Even before Mrs. Sowerby makes her appearance in the last few chapters, the other characters frequently mention seeing or speaking to her, and each time, Mrs. Sowerby has given them information or advice which is to Mary’s benefit, such as advising Mr. Craven that Mary shouldn’t have a governess right away and that for now, it is more important that she play and teach herself.

Each of these women shows the importance of mothers in children’s lives. A child needs parental support and guidance to grow into their own person.


There are several secrets in The Secret Garden, and each plays an important role in the story. The first is the garden itself. It has been secreted away, and no one is allowed inside. Colin’s existence is also a secret kept from Mary. Mary keeps her discovery of the garden secret from everyone but Colin and Dickon, and the children conspire to keep Colin’s recovery to health a secret from everyone until it can be revealed to his father.

Mary uncovers the first two secrets by diligently seeking until she finds first the garden, then Colin. After that, the story's focus turns to keeping secrets. With Dickon's help, Mary and Colin use their secret life in the garden to feel closer to each other. This is important because neither Mary nor Colin ever felt close to any of the adults in their world. When people know that they share a common secret with others, it strengthens their bond with each other. Sharing secrets also allows Mary and Colin to develop trust-based relationships since they each know that the other will not reveal their secrets outside their group.

Secrets can also be lonely if they are not shared. Before Mary introduces Dickon to the garden, her secret gives her joy, but it also makes her anxious and fearful that her garden will be discovered and taken away from her. Once she has Dickon and Colin to feel close to, the garden becomes less important. Even if it is taken away, she will still have a connection to it through her friends.

Eventually, a secret may serve its purpose and no longer be necessary. Once Mary has defined herself as a person independent from anyone else, and once Colin has healed himself, they have grown strong enough that they don’t need the secret to protect them. They are ready to let it go and share it with the entire world. Ultimately, secrets are a powerful tool that can influence a society's direction and development.


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