The Secret Garden tells the story of ten-year-olds Mary, an ugly and spoiled girl from India, and Colin, a sickly and spoiled hypochondriac. When Mary's parents and their servants die suddenly of cholera, Mary is shipped to live with her uncle Mr. Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England, where she lives for an entire month before discovering Colin's existence. During Mary's time at the manor, her days spent outside in the gardens begins to put color in her cheeks, make her hungry for the first time, and encourage her to think about others outside herself. The healing effects of nature are even more pronounced in Colin who, for the entirety of his life, has been led to believe that he's either going to be a hunchback or die before he reaches adulthood. The drastic transformations of both children represent a worldview that situates the natural world as something even more powerful and capable than human doctors of healing people, both mentally and physically.
The Mary whom the reader meets at the beginning of the novel is a sickly, insensitive, and cruel individual, living in Colonial India. While some of this behavior has to do with the way Mary's parents treat her, the novel is also explicit in linking Mary's poor state to India's climate, specifically its heat, and the fact that Mary never has the opportunity there to spend time in nature. As Mary makes her way to England, adults around her describe her as sallow, unpleasant, and far too thin—all qualities she's developed thanks to the way that India made her feel. Because of how poorly Mary feels, the cold moor air at Misselthwaite and the moor itself have an immediate effect on her: in the carriage from the train station to the manor, Mary begins to feel curious and ask questions for the first time in her short life. Right away, nature begins to mentally invigorate Mary.
Besides inciting her curiosity, nature also begins to heal Mary physically. Because there are supposedly no other children at Misselthwaite, definitely no nurses or governesses, and no indoor activities for Mary to do, her maid, Martha, tells Mary that she'll have to spend her time outside in the gardens amusing herself. While Mary is initially reticent to do so, the fresh air makes Mary feel good, continues to awaken her curiosity, and gives her such a sense of purpose that she's happy to spend her time outside within a week of being forced out. Colin's transformation is even more dramatic: there's little indication that Colin has ever stood on his own feet but yet, after an hour in the garden, he's walking, digging in the dirt, and feeling healthier than ever—all thanks to, as Martha's twelve-year-old brother Dickon and the narrator say often, the cool and invigorating air coming off the moor. This is even more indicative of the power of nature, given that years' worth of nurses and doctors haven't even been able to get Colin to move himself from bed to sofa on his own.
Mary isn't alone when she first begins to understand and appreciate the healing effects of nature; she's helped along in major ways by the old gardener Ben Weatherstaff, the robin, and later, Dickon. While the robin is an obvious part of the natural world, Ben Weatherstaff and Dickon are described as individuals who bridge the gap between the human-constructed world and the wild natural one. Ben Weatherstaff introduces Mary first to the robin and then to basic tenets of gardening, while Dickon is described as an "animal charmer" and guides Mary towards becoming more observant of the natural world and, in some cases, shows her how act as to become a fixture in nature or in the garden by modeling slow and deliberate movements, proper eye contact, and a sense of ease in nature. Through these mediators, Mary—and later, Colin—are able to use what they see to learn how to interact with nature and, in turn, both children become kinder, healthier, and more confident in their own self worth. By continuing to center the children's transformation around their interactions with the secret garden, the individuals who bridge the gap between humans and nature, and the natural world more broadly, the novel makes the case that a person looks outdoors with interest and learns to interact with nature, doing so will heal a person's body and mind.
Healing, Growth, and Nature ThemeTracker
Healing, Growth, and Nature Quotes in The Secret Garden
Mary had never possessed an animal pet of her own and had always thought she should like no one. So she began to feel a slight interest in Dickon, and as she had never before been interested in any one but herself, it was the dawning of a healthy sentiment.
"A bird with a red breast was sitting on one of them and he sang."
To her surprise the surly old weather-beaten face actually changed its expression. A slow smile spread over it and the gardener looked quite different. It made her think that it was curious how much nicer a person looked when he smiled. She had not thought of it before.
But the big breaths of rough fresh air blown over the heather filled her lungs with something which was good for her whole thin body and whipped some red color into her cheeks and brightened her dull eyes when she did not know anything about it.
But after a few days spent almost entirely out of doors she wakened one morning knowing what it was to be hungry, and when she sat down to her breakfast she did not glance disdainfully at her porridge and push it away, but took up her spoon and began to eat it and went on eating it until her bowl was empty.
She walked away, slowly thinking. She had begun to like the garden just as she had begun to like the robin and Dickon and Martha's mother. She was beginning to like Martha, too. This seemed a good many people to like—when you were not used to liking.
"Martha," she said, "they were your wages. It was your twopence really. Thank you." She said it stiffly because she was not used to thanking people or noticing that they did things for her. "Thank you," she said, and held out her hand because she did not know what else to do.
All that troubled her was her wish that she knew whether all the roses were dead, or if perhaps some of them had lived and might put out leaves and buds as the weather got warmer. She did not want it to be a quite dead garden. If it were a quite alive garden, how wonderful it would be, and what thousands of roses would grow on every side!
"Do you like roses?" she said.
Ben Weatherstaff rooted up a weed and threw it aside before he answered.
"Well, yes, I do. I was learned that by a young lady I was gardener to. She had a lot in a place she was fond of, an' she loved 'em like they was children—or robins. I've seen her bend over an' kiss 'em." He dragged out another weed and scowled at it. "That were as much as ten year' ago."
"Could you keep a secret, if I told you one? It's a great secret. I don't know what I should do if any one found it out. I believe I should die!" She said the last sentence quite fiercely.
"He's been lying in his room so long and he's always been so afraid of his back that it has made him queer," said Mary. "He knows a good many things out of books but he doesn't know anything else. He says he has been to ill to notice things and he hates going out of doors and hates gardens and gardeners. But he likes to hear about this garden because it is a secret."
The scene which Dr. Craven beheld when he entered his patient's room was indeed rather astonishing to him. As Mrs. Medlock opened the door he heard laughing and chattering. Colin was on his sofa in his dressing-gown and he was sitting up quite straight looking at a picture in one of the garden books and talking to the plain child who at that moment could scarcely be called plain at all because her face was so glowing with enjoyment.
"I don't want to remember," interrupted the Rajah, appearing again. "When I lie by myself and remember I begin to have pains everywhere and I think of things that make me scream because I hate them so. If there was a doctor anywhere who could make you forget you were ill instead of remembering it I would have him brought here."
"You'll get plenty of fresh air, won't you?" said Mary.
"I'm going to get nothing else," he answered. "I've seen the spring now and I'm going to see the summer. I'm going to see everything grow here. I'm going to grow here myself."
"I shall stop being queer," he said, "if I go every day to the garden. There is Magic in there—good Magic, you know, Mary. I am sure there is."
"So am I," said Mary.
"Even if it isn't real Magic," Colin said, "we can pretend it is. Something is there—something!"
Colin flushed triumphantly. He had made himself believe that he was going to get well, which was really more than half the battle, if he had been aware of it. And the thought which stimulated him more than any other was this imagining what his father would look like when he saw that he had a son who was as straight and strong as other fathers' sons.
"You are just what I—what I wanted," he said. "I wish you were my mother—as well as Dickon's!"
All at once Susan Sowerby bent down and drew him with her warm arms close against the bosom under the blue cloak—as if he had been Dickon's brother. The quick mist swept over her eyes.
"Eh! Dear lad!" she said. "Thy own mother's in this 'ere very garden, I do believe. She couldna' keep out of it. Thy father mun come back to thee—he mun!"