LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Transcending The Garden

on April 10, 2013 10:10pm

Similar to many of my classmates, I too read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s acclaimed children’s novel The Secret Garden during my childhood. However, when gleaning over its pages as a more educated college student, I now see that this entertaining memory from my youth is riddled with a vast array of Christian sentiment and philosophical thought. Chief amongst the novel’s widespread display of symbolic allusions would be the undeniable Transcendentalist influences which arise repeatedly throughout the adventures of Mary, Colin and Dickon in The Secret Garden.

Let me meditate on it for a little while

Let me meditate on it for a little while

Firstly, this claim begs the question as to what the term “Transcendentalist” entails? The Transcendentalist Movement was a philosophical phenomenon which arose during the early part of the 19th century. Supporters of the movement believed that having a close relation with nature and one’s inner self would in turn allow a person to become closer to God. This train of thought became widespread due to the literary leaders whom supported its message, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. This unyielding belief in the goodness of humanity and the benefit of having a relationship with nature appear on numerous occasions throughout the novel.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The most powerful examples of this would be the physical, mental, and emotional healing powers of the Secret Garden itself. As Colin spends more and more time in the Garden, his health begins to improve drastically. His immersion in nature becomes complete when he final frees himself of his wheelchair and stands on his own two feet inside the Garden’s walls. This is symbolic of Nature’s ability to improve a person’s health and allow them to become self-reliant. Much like Colin, Mary also become less “sickly” as she spends more time in the Garden, thus adding more support for the Transcendentalist theory. This complete submission to the beauty of nature heals the children mentally and emotionally as well. Just as the vines forever grow over the walls of the Garden, the children’s friendships grow stronger along with them.

Now thats what I call a Garden

Now thats what I call a Garden

Another instance of Transcendentalist symbolism would be the character of Dickon. Dickon is described as a being that is perfectly at peace with nature.  In addition to being a child of the Moor, he is consistently described with diction relating to nature and has a strong connection with the animals that occupy the grounds. Because the author portrays Dickon as a character with a positive connotation, he serves as the strongest symbolic support for Transcendentalist theory in the novel.

He even looks earthly

He even looks earthly

Lastly, Transcendentalism was at its very core a religious mentality. The Secret Garden is a novel that derives its message from the deeper insights of the Christian Science and New Thought movement. Because these two movements share similar values, The Secret Garden provides a powerful support for the theory of Transcendentalism as a result.


One response to “Transcending The Garden

  1. Like you, I also read The Secret Garden as a young girl. I also saw the play during a school field trip and remember feeling a little scared and a bit creeped out by the mysterious aspects of the garden. However, rereading it for class has definitely introduced me to a new outlook on the book. I now notice the ideas of Transcendentalism in regards to nature and well-being, both physical and spiritual. As the group presented on Tuesday, Frances Hodgson Burnett has been involved in the theories of Christian Science which associate healthiness and stability to nature and the outdoors. Another notion of Christian Science that is present throughout the story is that of magic. This mysterious and mystical force permeates throughout the garden and can be likened to Christianity’s omnipresent, omniscient God. In accordance to her religious beliefs, Burnett also believed that divinity could be found within the natural world. This theory is clearly exposed in The Secret Garden. For example, Colin once describes “hearing the golden trumpets,” which is a direct relation to the idea of being summoned into Heaven. As you described, Transcendentalism largely involves the concept of healing, including that of the mind, body, and spirit. In my opinion, this notion of healing is the novel’s most significant theme. Because of the positive effects of the beautiful garden, multiple characters are ridded of their weaknesses and ailments. Unlike her sickly and harsh demeanor in hot, humid India, Mary is now a jolly, healthy girl. Colin who was unable to use his legs after being trapped indoors can finally walk with his father. Mr. Craven becomes a happier man as his son’s health improves due to the boy’s experiences in the garden. Clearly, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s religious beliefs and Transcendentalist views are showcased through the healing powers of nature.

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