Themes maid, tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven’s

and Symbolism in the Secret Garden

The Secret Garden written by
Frances Hodgson Burnett is a children’s story first published in 1911. The
story follows the life of a little girl called Mary Lennox, who after an
epidemic of cholera in India, which kills her parents and servants, goes to
live in Yorkshire, England with an uncle, Archibald Craven, whom she has never
met before. Mary is a spoilt, sickly, unloved child and as a result is sour and
rude to the new people in her life. She dislikes living in Misselthwaite Manor,
until Martha, the maid, tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven’s secret garden.
Mary seeks out the garden for herself and when she finds it begins bringing it
back to life with the help of her new friends – Ben Weatherstaff, a friendly Robin
and Martha’s younger brother Dickon. Mary’s attitude towards others and her
health begin to improve as she works on the garden. Mary also befriends her
cousin, Colin, whom she did not know was living in the Manor because he is kept
out of sight. Colin is just as sour and rude as Mary was at the start of the
story because of his unspecified spinal problem which has kept him bed bound.
Mary visits Colin and distracts him with stories about the secret garden after
she finally confesses that she has found it, and tales of Dickon and his
animals. Eventually, Colin’s desire to see the secret garden is unbearable, and
he is put in a wheelchair so that Mary can take him there. As time passes,
Colin spends more and more time in the secret garden and gains strength, just
like Mary did. He is believed to be a cripple but as his health improves he
starts walking around the secret garden and helping the other children bring it
back to life. The children plan to keep Colin’s recovery a secret from his
father because they wish to surprise him when he returns home from abroad. But
when Mr. Craven has a strange dream in which his late wife calls him back to
the Manor, the secret is revealed. Mr. Craven returns home to discover the
secret garden in full bloom and Colin healthy and running around with the other

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In this essay I shall be
exploring some of the major themes in the Secret Garden such as gender,
abandonment, and change. But also, how the author has used symbolism as one way
of representing these themes throughout the story.

Symbolism is a literary device
which gives objects a different meaning than their initially intended meaning
or purpose. Often writers use symbolism to represent grander ideas or themes
such as gender and loneliness.

The themes of abandonment and
loneliness in the Secret Garden are first symbolised by a snake, which appears
just after Mary’s parents die as a result of the cholera epidemic in India and
she is left the only survivor. “But no one came, and as she lay waiting
the house seemed to grow more and more silent. She heard something rustling on
the matting and when she looked down she saw a little snake gliding along and
watching her with eyes like jewels. She was not frightened, because he was a
harmless little thing who would not hurt her and he seemed in a hurry to get
out of the room. He slipped under the door as she watched him.” (Burnett,
2007, p.5) Usually the presence of a snake in a story is symbolic of evil, for
example in the Bible a snake is a symbol of chaos from the underworld, however
in the Secret Garden the snake is more of a representation of Mary’s feeling of
abandonment and loneliness at this point in the story. Mary is entirely alone
in the world now and her house in India no longer feels like a home. Her presence
in the house, much like the snakes feels wrong. The snake’s eagerness to leave
the room reflects Mary’s feeling of loneliness, her own desire to leave and
also shows how everyone who was previously in her life has suddenly left her,
much like how the snake hurriedly exits the room leaving her alone, once again.

The secret garden itself is
also a symbolic representation of Mary’s feelings of loneliness and
abandonment. Throughout the story, Mary is hidden away and often forgotten
about, just like the secret garden. After Mary is discovered in the house after
her parents die she is described as “the child no one ever saw”
(Burnett, 2007, p.6) who everyone had “actually…forgotten” (Burnett,
2007, p.6) Even after she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, Mary is forgotten
about by her new guardian. After six months of living in the Manor, Mr.
Craven’s first words to her are “I forgot you. How could I remember you? I
intended to send you a governess or a nurse, or someone of that sort, but I
forgot.” (Burnett, 2007, p.119) Much like the secret garden which is
forgotten about, Mary is too.

Another symbolic
representation in the story that can be linked to the theme of loneliness is
the family of mice. When Mary finds herself once again feeling alone in
Misselthwaite Manor, she discovers a family of seven little mice living in one
of the cushions. As she looks at the mice, she thinks: “if there was no
one alive in the hundred rooms there were seven mice who did not look lonely at
all.” (Burnett, 2007. P.59) Whereas the snake reflected the theme of
loneliness because it represents Mary’s overall feeling of being alone and out
of place in her parent’s house in India, the mice reflect this theme because
they suggest that Mary will come to feel less alone in the Manor. The little
family of mice are symbolic of her and the friends she is going to make. The
mice could be representations of the characters Dickon, Colin and even Ben
Weatherstaff who throughout the story help Mary feel less alone and out of
place at the Manor.

Another theme that is often
represented using symbolism in the Secret Garden is change/transformation.
Although the snake can represent abandonment, it can also be symbolic of how
Mary as a character will change throughout the story to become a friendlier, more
loving, less sickly child. One well-known fact about snakes is that in the
process often referred to as sloughing, they shed their skin in order to grow
and to remove dirt and germs that may be attached to their old skin
(Wonderopolis, 2018). This can be considered a transformative process. Like
Mary in the story, who grows as a person and loses her sourness to become a
kinder child.

Mary’s relationship with the
Robin also represents the changes she will make further along in the story, as
it is because of this friendship with the Robin that we first see Mary’s
personality change: “Mistress Mary forgot that she had even been contrary
in her life when he (the Robin) allowed her to draw closer and closer to him
and bend down and talk and try to make something like robin sounds.”
(Burnett, 2007, p.67) It can be argued that because Mary becomes friends with
the Robin it starts her journey to becoming a better person and making real
friendships with actual people. Mary’s friendship with the Robin is a symbolic
foreshadowing of the friendships she will make with characters like Dickon and
Colin later in the story.

The changing seasons
throughout the story can also be seen to represent Mary’s change in character.
In India, the weather is so hot that it can be considered unpleasant and when
Mary lives in India she is an unpleasant child. When Mary arrives at
Misselthwaite Manor it is winter and the weather is cold, during this period
Mary is cold towards the other characters and continues to order them around. There
is also not much life in winter, as most plants die or lose their leaves during
this season – this can be seen as a reflection of Mary’s sickliness when she
first arrives. However, when spring comes and the plants start to bloom, Mary’s
personality starts to change and she starts to reveal her more favourable
characteristics. “She begins her gardening in the spring, and as the
crocuses and daffodils push up through the warming earth, her body begins to
bloom and her manners to soften. Summer sees a complete regeneration of…
Mary” (Penguin, 2018)

The garden is also linked to
the theme of change and transformation. Physically because as the children work
on the garden it is transformed from a wild, untamed garden into a beautiful
garden. But the garden is also a symbolic representation of change and
transformation. In the garden, Mary and Colin are transformed into kinder,
stronger and healthier children. When Colin burst out of the secret garden into
his father’s arms at the end of the story, this has been likened to a kind of
rebirth. “The feet ran faster and faster – they were nearing the garden
door – there was a quick strong young breathing and wild outbreak of laughing
shouts which could not be contained – and the door in the wall was flung wide
open, the sheet of ivy swinging back, and a boy burst through it at full speed
and without seeing the outsider dashed almost into his arms.” (Burnett,
2007, p.298) In the passage the garden is like the mother and Colin is being
cast out of her and into the presence of his father much like a child would
leave his mother’s womb at birth.

Another key theme in the
Secret Garden is gender. Writing in the 1900s Burnett, despite the actions of
the Suffragettes, lived in a time period where women still had very few rights
and the role of women was still very traditional. If women were married, they
were expected to stay at home to look after the children and take care of the
house. While men were expected to work and earn a living. If single, women
still were not expected to work much, but if they did it was often in the
service industry as maids, teacher or waitresses. This traditional view on a
women’s role and attitudes towards women is reflected in Burnett’s writing. In
the Secret Garden, Burnett uses symbolism to present these stereotypical gender
roles throughout the story as some of the characters and settings can be
attributed certain gender specific traits. Burnett also tackles the theme of
gender by challenging and reaffirming how men and women were expected to behave
during this time period in this story.

One of the main symbolic
representations of gender in the Secret Garden is the garden. The garden is
often and repeatedly described using imagery that suggests the female body, for
example, “hidden lock” and “tendrils of ivy.” As well as
this the garden is seen as the realm of the late Mrs. Craven, which instantly
implies that it is a more feminine space. The garden, as discussed previously,
is womb-like. It is the setting for Colin’s rebirth into the world as a
stronger, healthier boy. As well as this it is a fertile place where children
and plants alike grow. According to Foster and Simon “the garden is
fertile, simultaneously enclosed and free, and the female value system that
operates within the womb-like seclusion of the garden can be seen as analogous
to the power of the mother” (Foster and Simons, 1995, p.187) In the story
Burnett frequently writes about how the flowers in the garden bloom and grow,
while simultaneously highlighting the similarities between humans and plants.
The plants in the garden are similar to humans because they start off weak and
fragile, much like Mary at the start of the book who is described as having
“a little thin face and a little thin body” and “always being
ill” (Burnett, 2007, p.1) and with the help of others, particularly a
motherly figure to nurture them, become healthy and strong (Jilkova, 2006). By
highlighting the similarities between plants and humans Burnett is showing that
like the flowers which had bloomed in the garden, the children will also
blossom under the care of a motherly figure (Boethius, 1997)

Another setting that is
symbolic of gender is Misselthwaite Manor, which can be viewed as a symbol of
masculine power. (Parsons, 2002) The Manor is the realm of Mr. Craven and
Colin, when his father is away. Mr. Craven is a mysterious, sad man, who closes
himself off to the world and Misselthwaite Manor reflects these traits:
“there’s near a hundred rooms in it, though most of them’s shut up and
locked.” (Burnett, 2007, p.15)

Burnett’s writing does not
provide a straightforward depiction of gender roles in the 1900s as some
characters stray away from the stereotypical and other characters encompass
both female and male traits.

Motherhood is also symbolised
by male characters in the story. Ben Weatherstaff acts as a sort of mother to
the Robin and the neglected roses in the secret garden. And Dickon is a
motherly figure towards his animals. He has a unique talent for making the seeds
in the garden grow and throughout the story Mary tells tales of how he has
saved and nurtured animals like the fox, crow and lamb. According to Silver,
“Burnett associates Dickon with pregnancy and birth, further underscoring
the novel’s argument that motherhood is not an essentially female activity but
a human one” (Silver, 1997, p.196)

Although Mary’s mother is a
minor character in the story, who dies very early on, she can be seen to reject
some of the feminine stereotypes of the period in which the Secret Garden was
written. It can be argued that Mary’s mother is symbolic of a feminist ideal
that was beginning to emerge in the late nineteenth century – New Women. The
term New Woman/Women is used to describe a lady whose affluence grants her more
freedom in social spheres than less affluence women would have. In the Secret
Garden, it is clear that Mary’s parents are wealthy as her father holds a
position with the government and her mother “cared only to go to parties
and amuse herself.” (Burnett, 2007, p.1) Mary’s mother challenges
traditional roles of women because unlike other mothers during this time period
she does not remain at home to care for Mary but instead hires an Ayah and
attends numerous parties.

However, it could be argued
that Mary’ mother is not an example of a New Woman because she does not strive
for the complete equality of women, especially in the workplace, but rather is
happy to continue her life of luxury. 
Feminists may still be opposed to this character as a symbol of feminism
because although Mary’s mother is shown to be more independent, it does not
show her to be financially independent because she is still reliant of her
husband’s income for her independence (Ryan, 2017).

Another example of a character
who rejects the stereotypical gender roles of the 1900s is Mary. At the start
of the story, Mary’s characteristics are more masculine than feminine. In
India, Mary’s favourite thing to do was “making heaps of earth”
(Burnett, 2007, p.3) this could be considered a strange pass time for a young
girl in the 1990s and could be perceived as more of a masculine thing to do.

Mary’s uses of language and
speech are also more masculine at the start of the story. She is blunt and
often rude to the people around her, in India she was used to giving
instructions and being more authoritative: “Why did you come?… I will
not let you stay.” (Burnett, 2007, p.2) However, Mary’s use of language
changes throughout the story; she uses it in a more feminine way when telling
Colin stories about the garden and Dickon. 

Colin can also be considered
more effeminate when he is first introduced to the story, as mentioned before,
during the 1900s it was expected that a women’s place was the home, however, in
the Secret Garden it is Colin, rather than Mary who is confined inside his
home. Colin rarely ventures out of his room because he believes he will become
ill and die if he does. Throughout the first half of the story Colin is
constantly having tantrums and becoming “sulky and … hysterical”
(Burnett, 2007, p.195) because he believes he is going to die from his
unspecified spinal problem. During the time period that the Secret Garden was
written hysteria was a disease that was usually associated with women which
reinforces that Colin has some feminine traits.

However, although Colin and
Mary do both reject some of the gender stereotypes, many feminists are still
dissatisfied with the representations of gender in the Secret Garden,
especially in the final chapters as the characters once again go back to enforcing
gender roles.

Mrs. Sowerby reflects many
stereotypical female traits and is very much seen in a traditional women’s role
throughout the story. She cooks and cleans and cares for her twelve children at
home. But she also provides Mary and Colin with extra food in the secret garden
so that they can continue to grow and get healthier. Interestingly, in some
readings of the Secret Garden, Mrs. Sowerby is seen to symbolise a Madonna-like
figure: “with the ivy behind her, the sunlight drifting through the trees
and dappling her long blue cloak, and her nice fresh face smiling across the
greenery she was rather like a softly coloured illustration in one of Colin’s
books” (Burnett, 2007, p.278) This reinforces that she is a motherly
figure as a Madonna is a representation of Mary, Jesus’ mother (Doniger, 1999)

Colin’s speech in the Secret
Garden would indicate that he does possess some masculine traits. In the story,
Colin used speech to give orders to other characters, this reflects his
authority and stature in the household, reaffirming his position as man of the
house when his father is away (Parsons, 2002) Throughout the story, there are
several examples of when Colin’s use of speech reflects his masculinity.
Firstly, when Martha is worried she will lose her job at the Manor because it
was under her watch that Mary discovered Colin, he tells her “What I want
is your duty… I’ll take care of you. Now go away.” (Burnett, 2007, p.146)
And later in the story, Colin used speech to take possession of the secret
garden: “It’s my garden now.” (Burnett, 2007, p.232) Critics of the
Secret Garden have referred Colin’s taking possession of the garden as
“aggressive male appropriation” and “true imperialistic
style” (Gunther, 1994, p166)

The final chapters of the story
also reaffirm the dominance of males in the 1900s because there is a shift in
character focus. Whereas at the start of the story Mary is the protagonist and
the story focuses on her grow, at the end, the focus has been shifted to Colin
and his father. The ending of the Secret Garden is as follows: “Across the
lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite… And by his side, with his head up in the
air and his eyes full of laughter, walked as strongly and steadily as any boy
in Yorkshire – Master Colin!” (Burnett, 2007, p.302) Although the story
begins with Mary, there is no mention of her in the final paragraph of the
story, which according to Elizabeth Lennox Keyser “seems to be affirming
male supremacy” and making “a defense of patriarchal authority”
(Keyser, 1983)

The Secret Garden has also been
adapted several times into a TV series and two films. The TV series was fairly
successful and aired on BBC in 1975 (McGown, 2013) and also contains several examples
of symbolism. The first example of symbolism that can be identified in the TV
series is the use of colour, particularly the colour of the clothing worn by the
characters. When Mary’s Ayah flees the house in India to escape the cholera
disease she is wearing a yellow dress and later in the film when Colin is first
taken to the secret garden he is wrapped in a yellow blanket. The colour yellow
is associated with being cowardly, it is a common insult to call somebody a ‘yellow-belly’
(, 2018). During the scenes that are set in India, Mary often surrounded
in the colour white, she wears white clothing and a white canopy hangs over her
bed. This could be a symbolic representation of her youth and innocence. Another
example of symbolism in the TV series is seen when Mary is placing with a set
of animal cards. As the cards that each character is given symbolises their
inner personality. Mary gets the lion because this symbolises her bravery,
Martha gets the vow because she is submissive, and John is seen as defenceless like
the chicken card that he gets.  There is
also a lot of symbolism for Mary’s change in personality which can be seen in the
TV series. For example, there are a lot of open windows throughout the series
that could be symbolic of her openness to change now that she is living in
Misselthwaite Manor and in the scene when she discovers the secret garden she
removes her glove to hold the key which is representative of her readiness to
become a new person (Magdalena, 2011).



Boethius, Ulf. (1997) Us in
near bein’ wild things ourselves: Procreation and Sexuality in The Secret
Garden. Children’s Literature Review, 122, p.188-195

Burnett, Frances Hodgson.
(2007) The Secret Garden. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0-19-272767 First
published 1911

Doniger, Wendy. (1999)
Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopaedia of World Religions ISBN: 0-87779-044-2

Foster, Shirley, and Simons,
Judy. (1995) Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden, in What Katy Read:
Feminist Re-Readings of ‘Classic’ Stories for Girls, Iowa City: University of
Iowa Press, p.172-191.

Gunther, Adrian. (1994) The
Secret Garden revisited, Children’s Literature in Education, 25, p.159–168

Jilkova, Klara. (2006) Garden
in Children’s Literature: Its presentation, role and symbolism in The Secret
Garden and Tom’s Midnight Garden. Charles University: Prague

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox.
(1983) Quite Contrary: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Children’s
Literature, 11, p.1-13.

Magdalena, Melanie E. (2011)
The Secret Garden, a symbolism analysis. Online Available at:
Accessed 7 Jan. 2018

McGown, Alistair. (2013) Secret
Garden, The (1975) Screenonline. British Film Institute Online Available at:
Accessed 7 Jan. 2018

Parsons, Linda. (2002)
‘Otherways’ into the Garden: Re-Visioning the Feminine in The Secret Garden.
Children’s Literature in Education, 33(4), p.247-267
(2018). The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – Reading Guide Online
Available at:
Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

Ryan, J. (2017) Gender Roles
in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) Sidetracked Online
Available at:
Accessed 7 Jan. 2018

Silver, Anna Krugovoy. (1997)
“Domesticating Bronte’s moors: motherhood in The Secret Garden,” The
Lion and the Unicorn, 21, p. 193–203. (2018)
Yellow-bellied – Dictionary Definition. Online Available at:
Accessed 7 Jan. 2018

Wonderopolis. (2018) Why Do
Snakes Shed Their Skin? Online Available
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Jan. 2018