The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 1-4

The novel opens by introducing us to the main character Mary Lennox, a little girl born in India who is described as being particularly disagreeable and sickly. She is the child of an English statesman and a self-absorbed mother who have left her to be raised by a nanny named Ayah. As the daughter of rich parents, her caretakers have never disciplined Mary, and thus she has grown to be very selfish and misbehaved. One morning when Mary is 9 years old, there is a strange feeling in the air and many of the servants are missing. Mary sees that her mother is in distress. Mary finds out that there has been an outbreak of cholera and many people have died, including Ayah.

Mary naps for awhile in her father’s bungalow and there is much commotion while she sleeps. When she wakes up, everything feels still. Mary wonders if she will have a new nurse and doesn’t feel much emotion towards the death of Ayah. Mary feels neglected while everyone is panic stricken about the cholera. The only presence is a snake crawling on the ground. Then suddenly, a police officer named Barney enters and is startled to find Mary in the bungalow. He informs her that both of her parents have died from the disease.

Mary continues to act self-absorbed and doesn’t feel much grief at the death of her parents, expecting that she would continue to be cared for as always. She stays with an English clergyman, which she dislikes because the house is dirty and the family is poor. The children of the clergyman take to making fun of Mary’s snobbish ways, which angers her. She finds out from the children that she will be sent to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. In a few days she will sail to England, where her uncle lives at a place called Misselthwaite Manor.

Mary departs on her journey to England and once arrived is met by her uncle’s housekeeper named Mrs. Medlock. Mrs. Medlock is shocked how plain Mary is compared to Mary’s beautiful mother. Without Ayah, Mary is beginning to feel lonely and sad at having no sense of belonging. On the way to her uncle’s manor, Mrs. Medlock informs Mary that Misselthwaite Manor is a huge, gloomy place with hundreds of locked up rooms. Mary responds indifferently. Mrs. Medlock also informs Mary that her uncle is a “hunchback” who has become very isolated and strange after the death of his pretty young wife. This compels Mary to feel momentarily compassionate for her uncle.

Mrs. Medlock and Mary drive to the manor and Mary is curious to see the landscape, including the moor. It is a long drive and finally they see the light of the manor in the distance. When they arrive in the mansion, a servant tells Mrs. Medlock that Archibald does not want to see Mary and to send her to bed immediately.

The next morning Mary wakes up and is curious at the sight of her new surroundings. She converses with Martha, the servant of Mrs. Medlock. Mary is surprised at the nature of the English servants, who are much less servile than the ones in India. Mary asks Martha to dress her, and Martha is shocked that she doesn’t know how to dress herself at this age. Martha reveals that when she heard Mary was coming from India, she thought she might be dark-skinned, and this idea enrages Mary, who can’t believe she could be mistaken for a “native.” When Martha tries to serve Mary porridge for breakfast, the little girl refuses to eat it, as it is not what she is used to.

Martha encourages Mary to go out to the garden and play by herself. Martha tells Mary that after Mr. Craven’s wife died, he shut off one particular garden and that no one has entered it for 10 years. He has buried the key so that no one is able to go in the garden. Mary spends the day exploring the other gardens and is curious to see the different plants, although it is bare because it is winter. She listens to a bird sing, which helps her feel less lonely.

Mary approaches a groundskeeper and watches him work. She asks him about the gardens and at first he responds coldly, until Mary mentions the secret garden and the red bird, which makes him smile. He coaxes the bird to come out again which delights Mary. The groundskeeper, named Ben Weatherstaff, tells Mary that the bird is a robin, who are known to be very friendly. Mary steps near the bird and stares at him, and she tells the bird that she is lonely. Ben reveals to her that he is also lonely, and in a blunt, gruff way, compares her sourness and unattractiveness to his own. This honesty startles Mary, who has only known the polite remarks of her servants. Yet she feels happier now to have met Ben and the friendly robin.


The opening chapters of The Secret Garden acquaint the reader with the unfortunate young protagonist, Mary Lennox. Within the first few pages, tragedy has already struck; everyone close to Mary has died from a pandemic and now she has been left alone, without parents or nanny. Yet even before her parents’ untimely death, Mary has not exactly been cherished and cared for by her family. We are shown how as wealthy people in a foreign land, the Lennoxes have left their daughter to be raised by servants. At this time in India, the Indian people are regarded by their British employers as almost less than human, and thus Mary’s relationship with her main nurse, Ayah, has hardly been warm and familial, but more like that of servant and master.

Mary’s loneliness is something that pervades these chapters, as she comes to terms with the fact that she has been abandoned and treated like a doll for all of her almost 10 years. This comes to the forefront when Mary must move to her reclusive uncle’s manor and is cared for by English housekeepers who are a far cry from the endlessly docile Indian servants. Mary is astounded at being treated like a human being rather than constantly coddled like a princess, such as when she demands Martha to dress her. Mary’s assumptions about other people is ultimately what alienates her, making her feel hatred and frustration at not being treated in the glorified way she expects to be.

Although Frances Hodgson Burnett repeatedly characterizes Mary in all her sourness, the reader is still made to feel compassion for this abandoned little girl. We are shown how throughout Mary’s life, she has been rejected or pushed aside by those adults who were supposed to provide care and love. Even the woman who is in charge of taking Mary on the ship from India to England can’t help but to comment on little girl’s “ugliness,” which is overheard by Mary. In this way, it seems that Mary’s class circumstances have assigned her a certain haughty personality that has stuck with her from an early age, and now placed in a wildly different context, she must learn who she is apart from this image.

We start to see the sweeter, more childlike nature of Mary come out in certain moments of the story. For example, when first driving to Archibald’s manor, Mrs. Medlock informs Mary about her uncle’s wife who died young. This temporarily breaks Mary’s cold and disinterested demeanor, provoking her feelings of sympathy for a relative she has yet to meet. We also to see her sense of curiosity when she hears about the secret garden that has been locked up since the death of Archibald’s wife. For her whole life, Mary has been kept from exploring like a normal child does, and she now has to regain this natural sense of wonder.

In these chapters, we can also see how Burnett uses symbolism to evoke certain themes in the lives of her characters. Particularly we see use of natural imagery as a storytelling device. Right before Mary receives news of her parents’ death, she spots a little snake, the only moving element in her entire surroundings. From the way that snakes shed their skin and adapt to new circumstances, we can see the snake here as a representation of the major transformation that is about to alter Mary’s life. Later, when Mary first enters the gardens at her uncle’s estate, the appearance of the friendly red robin serves to break through Mary’s coldness and loneliness, allowing her to open herself to the possibility of connection with the vibrant world around her.

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