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.
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.
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.
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.
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.