The Secret Garden
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 16-21
Summary

That afternoon, Mary is busy with the garden and realizes she won’t have time to see Colin. She tells Martha to let Colin know. When she returns later, Martha informs her that her absence has nearly caused Colin to throw a tantrum. Although Mary behaved in a similar way when she was in India, she has a hard time sympathizing with him in the moment. She goes to his room and they get into a big argument, with Colin accusing Mary of being selfish. Colin threatens to send away Dickon if Mary doesn’t spend more time with him, which enrages Mary. She leaves the room feeling cross and unsympathetic for Colin. She returns to her room to find that Mr. Craven has sent her several nice gifts. She thinks of Colin again and remembers how often he frets about his illness and fears becoming a hunchback like his father. She decides that she will try to go to his room in the morning again to talk to him.

That night, Mary wakes up to hear Colin wailing and screaming for what seems like ages. She becomes angry at his tantrum and at the fact that none of the adults have the courage to stop him. Mary, her temper rising, goes to his room and screams at the boy to stop his crying. Colin reveals that he has felt another lump in his back, which has set him off in the tantrum. Mary demands to see his back and together with the nurse they look at it and see that there is no lump. Mary tells him directly that there is nothing wrong with him and that his hysterics are what cause all his illnesses. Mary’s words help Colin to snap out of his tantrum. The caretakers are amazed and let Mary put Colin to sleep. Mary tells Colin in a quiet voice about all the things she saw in the garden the day before. Her soothing stories puts him to sleep in an instant.

The next day, Mary meets up with Dickon in the garden, who is accompanied by a crow, a fox, and two tame squirrels. Mary tells Dickon about the episode with Colin, and Dickon feels quite sorry for the boy. Dickon insists that they have to get Colin to come outside, where he will feel happier and be less likely to think about negative things. Mary makes Dickon laugh by trying to speak in a Yorkshire dialect. Later, she goes to see Colin. They talk about how they, along with Ben Weatherstaff, have an unpleasant look and sour demeanor in common. Colin apologizes for threatening to send Dickon away before. At that moment, Mary decides to reveal to Colin that Dickon will come to see him the next day with his animal companions. She also tells him that she found the door to the secret garden and that he will get to see the garden at last.

Later that day, Dr. Craven comes to visit Colin. Mrs. Medlock tells him about Mary calming him down. The doctor is surprised to find Colin with Mary and asking if he can go out soon to get some fresh air. The doctor agrees but warns him to be careful, thinking to himself that if Colin is to get well, he will lose his inheritance of the manor. Colin says he does not want to constantly be reminded that he is sick, as this only makes him feel worse. Dr. Craven ends up staying for a very short time and not giving Colin any of the usual medicine.

The next day, Mary runs into Colin’s room declaring that it is spring. She excitedly tells Colin about all of the spring scenery. This morning Dickon and his animal companions—a newborn lamb, the fox, the crow, and the two squirrels—come to visit Colin in his room. Colin is delighted and amazed at the sight of Dickon and his creatures. Dickon shows Colin the animals and they look at picture books. Colin declares soon he will come to see the garden.

It is over a week until the weather permits the children to return to their garden. They spend this time making preparations so that Colin is able to be transported to the garden in secrecy. One day, Colin calls for Mr. Roach, the head gardener, to come to his room for the first time. Mr. Roach is curious at this request, as he has never even seen the boy’s face before. When he enters Colin’s room, he is surprised by Dickon’s animals. Colin gives Mr. Roach the order to keep all gardeners away from the garden walls while he is out for the day. Mr. Roach agrees.

Later, the nurse prepares Colin to go outside and he is left with Dickon and Mary, who push him in his wheelchair out into the gardens. The children show Colin all around the estate, pointing out plants and animals, which delights Colin. Enlivened by the vibrancy of nature, Colin exclaims that he will get well and that he will live forever. The whole afternoon is spent enjoying themselves in the secret garden in the particularly beautiful weather. There, Colin notices the big tree, the branch of which had killed his mother 10 years earlier. He asks if it is dead and Dickon says that it is, but that the roses growing over it make it look alive again. The robin appears just then and takes Colin’s attention away from the tree.

As the day winds down, Colin vows to return to the garden every day. Dickon suggests that soon Colin will be well enough to walk beside them instead of being pushed in a chair. Suddenly, they see Ben Weatherstaff’s face appear above the garden wall. He is very angry to find them and starts screaming at Mary. When Ben spots Colin in the garden, he is extremely surprised. He had always thought he was a “cripple,” and Colin firmly tells him he is not. In his anger, Colin remarkably stands up from his chair to everyone’s shock. Ben responds in tears. Colin tells Ben that he must obey him and that now he must be in on the secret of the garden.

Analysis

These chapters are marked by the expansion of Mary’s secret as she opens up to new relationships with those around her. The garden is no longer her special spot alone but is now also in the hands of Dickon and Colin. In this way, we can really witness the way Mary has grown since the start of the novel, when she was in India. Mary has become a force for bringing people together, such as the way she introduces Dickon and Colin to much success. Yet the other side of Mary—her spoiled and angry nature—still comes out in certain moments, such as when she sees Colin at the peak of his tantrum.

For a split second, Mary withholds her empathy, for in Colin’s hysterics she can recognize her own past behavior, her sense of entitlement that ultimately made her quite lonely. Yet it is also Mary’s own deep experience of being misunderstood and isolated from life that allows her to show much compassion for the upset boy. In a great moment of irony, Mary becomes the only one in the whole manor, amidst trained nurses and other adults, who can bring Colin out of his temper tantrum and talk some sense into him, making him realize that he is not the sick and disfigured person that he has been labeled as for his entire life.

This is a major theme coursing through the story: sickness cannot be healed through more fear and more despair. We are shown how it is Colin’s dwelling on the possibility of developing a humpback that launches him into an emotional outburst. This is the mistake of the manor staff and the doctor: instead of providing Colin with encouragement to get better, they constantly reinforce his illness to the point that it has become his sole identity. Even through the language of the characters we can see the derogatory attitude towards the sick and disabled in the way that Colin is constantly called an “invalid.”

This point is emphasized through the character of Dickon, who serves as a force of joy and light in what are often heavy circumstances. It is Dickon who points out to Mary that Colin’s experience of not being wanted by his parents is “the worst thing on earth for a child.” When Dickon hears about Colin’s major tantrum, he is overcome with sadness for the boy and insists that they must bring Colin out in the garden so he can reconnect with nature and the happiness it can inspire. Mary and Dickon show much effort and dedication in executing the plan to bring Colin outside, which requires coordinating with the servants so they do not discover the children in the secret garden.

The plan ends up being a great triumph, with Colin completely entranced and delighted by the magic of the beautiful spring weather and the diverse plants and animals that populate the gardens. In this way, the narrative emphasizes how it is the simple things in life—a blue sky, a nice sunset, fresh air—that can revive people so completely that they break away from patterns of sickness and apathy. Although Dr. Craven has warned Colin not to spend too much time outdoors, it is exactly this decision that makes Colin feel better, vowing to return to the garden every day, and even finding the strength to stand up from his wheelchair.

Colin’s newfound happiness is not something that can be suppressed or debated; even when Ben Weatherstaff catches the children in the garden, his initial anger changes into awe when he sees how enlivened Colin has become by his presence in the long-hidden space. The secret garden, once the site of a tragic occurrence, is transforming into a refuge for healing and reconnection with life, where those who have been steeped in defeat can reencounter the sensation that they will “live forever and ever and ever,” as Colin declares. This is further symbolized in the way that the old dying tree, whose branch killed Mrs. Craven 10 years earlier, is now covered with vibrantly growing roses.

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