While searching for Michael’s grave in a “merciless sea of black crosses” in the graveyard at Hagenzeele, Helen meets a man she assumes to be the gardener, tending to the war graves. The gardener, who represents Christ, offers to show Helen “where her son lies.” The fact that this man helps Helen in her moment of need, and that he immediately knows Michael is her son even though she has carefully introduced herself as the boy’s aunt, point to the compassion Christ shows to humanity. Furthering the story’s biblical underpinnings, Helen is associated with the figure of Mary Magdalene because she is a woman who has lived a sinful life (according to the conventions of the time) by having sex out of wedlock, but who has been redeemed through her “honorable” decision to raise Michael as her nephew. The closing message of forgiveness and compassion in “The Gardener” suggests that British society’s rigid restrictions on behavior are impossible to live up to, and that transgressions should be forgiven. Rather than holding people to such high standards, and judging them when they fail, the ending of “The Gardener” seems to suggest that it is kinder, and more Christian, to forgive people and allow them to be honest, rather than to ignore them when they run into difficulties.
In Kipling’s story, the gardener is strongly associated with the restoration of order and with new life, thus linking him with the figure of Christ. In preparing to visit Michael’s grave, Helen has been told “how easy and how little it interfered with life to go and see one’s grave” (meaning the war grave of a relative who has been killed). However, when she arrives at the graveyard, it is far from easy. She can “distinguish no order or arrangement” among the graves and becomes lost and confused until she meets a man who is “evidently the gardener.” The fact that the gardener helps Helen makes sense of the chaos within the graveyard, leading her to the place she is looking for, is suggestive of Christ’s ability to provide clarity in life and represents the biblical idea that God created the world out of chaos. The contrast between the “merciless” mass of graves and the “infinite compassion” with which the gardener looks at Helen represents the climax of the story. The fact that the man is a “gardener,” and that Helen sees him “bending over the young plants,” is representative of the Christian message of resurrection, redemption, and new life, even after the terrible losses of World War I, which the graveyard consequently represents. The images of “young plants” and “fresh-sown grass” also reflect the cycles of nature and the seasons, as life and death follow on from each other, with life renewing in the spring after winter.
The fact that the gardener instantly understands Helen’s secret suggests that nothing is hidden from Christ. The gardener, standing in for Christ, is associated with “mercy” and relief in the story, as the reader knows that Helen has been carrying this secret “burden” alone for a long time. Kipling opens “The Gardener” with an excerpt from his poem “The Burden,” which appears in full at the end of the story. The poem references the story of Christ’s Resurrection, through its repetition of the line “rolled the stone away.” This refers to the tomb in which Jesus’s body was laid after the Crucifixion—a tomb that was found empty, with the stone rolled away from the entrance, after his Resurrection. The poem also associates the heavy “stone” with the heavy “burden” of suffering and grief, which the poem suggests God can relieve just as he “rolled the stone away” from Christ’s tomb. The poem is emblematic of the events in “The Gardener” as Helen is relieved of the burden of her secret through her interaction with the gardener.
Just as the gardener stands in for Christ, Helen is associated with the figure of Mary Magdalene throughout the story, both in her dealings with conventional society and in her interaction with the gardener. By giving birth to an illegitimate son, Helen would have been given the status of a fallen woman—a woman who had transgressed the conventions of British society. The fact that she “nobly” chooses to raise Michael, and the esteem this wins her among the community, gestures to Mary Magdalene’s redemption and return to respectability in her transformation from a prostitute to one of Jesus’s disciples. Helen’s transgression does not affect only herself but also Michael, who is born illegitimate and, therefore, considered socially inferior. Helen is redeemed through her love for Michael, whom she is devoted to even though their relationship is looked down upon by society, just as Mary Magdalene is redeemed by her genuine devotion to Jesus.
Helen has compromised herself morally, by lying, because of her love for Michael. When the gardener addresses her secret, he recognizes this and acknowledges, for the first time, her sacrifice and her love for her son rather than the shame of the boy’s existence. Helen’s real redemption comes not from society calling her “noble,” but in her interaction with the gardener at the end of the story. While she has been tolerated by her community, the gardener immediately knows her secret and, in his display of “compassion,” is able to relieve her of the burden of her secret and the shame that she has felt as a result of society’s unforgiving moral code. Helen’s interaction with the gardener also mirrors Mary Magdalene’s interaction with Jesus after his Resurrection in the Book of John 20:10-18. Finding Jesus’s tomb empty, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener. She asks him to help her find Jesus’s body, mirroring Helen’s search for Michael’s grave in “The Gardener.” Like Mary Magdalene, Helen’s redemption throughout the story is signified, not only by her renewed respectability from society’s point of view, but, more importantly, in her redemption through Christian faith and in the recognition of her acts of love and sacrifice.
The fact that the gardener immediately knows Helen’s secret is representative of the fact that, although Helen has tried to hide the truth from the people around her, her secret is known to and forgiven by God. The story’s closing image of the gardener tending the young plants in the graveyard leaves readers with the Christian message of hope and renewal and encourages them to emulate the gardener’s compassion and tenderness.
Christianity and Compassion ThemeTracker
Christianity and Compassion Quotes in The Gardener
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing them up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but that things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money.
“All right. We won’t talk about it anymore if it makes you cry.” He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skillfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up to the appointed one hundred and four, he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with the assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make a difference between them.
Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after another with great care, and saying earnestly to each one: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through a series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope and prophesized word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored.
Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her. Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to all but the finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
Because I’m so tired of lying […] year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ‘em and I’ve got to think ‘em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t have been—the only real thing—the only thing that happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life. The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown toward the naked black crosses. “Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”