LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Relationship Between Location and Well-Being

At the beginning of the novel, one notices that there is a opposition between India and England; and these opposition also have to do with the personality and well-being of Mary. In India Mary is sick all of the time, “her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.” This shows how India is not the place that a English child should be raised in, throughout the novel India is represented as a place where you will find illness and ugliness. But when she moves to England she changes, health improves and she starts to even be beauty. The secret garden seems to help cure Mary of the illness that she had and it does the same for Colin also. The novel represents the ways in which your location could be the reasons in which your health is failing.

 

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The Secret Garden

Distant Reading of The Secret Garden

Distant Reading of The Secret Garden

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Mary and her garden

The Secret Garden is a magical tale that deals with the healing powers inherent in having a good soul and a good attitude.  Mary’s transformation from a sour puss to a sweet young girl is just one example of the magic she experienced from the goodness of the people around her like Martha and Dickon.  Colin undergoes a similar experience when Mary and Dickon treat him with love and respect and share their secrets with him.

The novel revolves around the transformation of the two children as much as it revolves around the secret garden.  I believe the secret garden could act as a metaphor for Mary’s change into a good little girl.

When Mary finds the garden, she is already starting to become a nicer child.  Her fascination with the robin and her conversations with Ben Weatherstaff have softened a very small part of her.  When she finds the garden, it is overrun with weeds and dead branches, but at the same time, she sees the beauty that’s hiding under all of that and imagines the way it could be if someone would just take the time to take care of it.

As Mary weeds the garden, color comes to her face and she looks more like a natural child instead of her cold, frigid self.  She pulls out the grass and gives the sprouts space to breathe, much as the fresh air from the moor gives Mary more room to breathe and the fresh air does her good.

As Dickon enters the situation, the garden begins to come to life just as Mary begins to become a real child with a real friend her own age.  She becomes enraptured by Dickon and Dickon is obsessed with nature, content to prune it and make it come alive, just as Mary comes alive around him.

Spring comes and the garden blooms completely, but not before Mary has her ultimate transformation and that comes at the hands of Colin.  Mary’s love for him changes her into a good person with a good soul.  Her sympathy for him and her concern for his illness and her faith that he can become strong and healthy all coalesce to make her become a sweet young girl.  Understanding the ways that Colin is selfish and spoiled helps cure her of her own spoiled nature.  When the garden comes into full bloom, Mary, too, comes into herself completely and becomes the sweet little girl she always could’ve been, and the girl the garden helped her to become.

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The Secret Garden and the Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden is said to be where God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and they lived there until the “Fall.” During the time of the Fall, God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden for eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which they had originally been forbidden to do.

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The Garden of Eden is linked to the secret garden when Martha tells Mary the story of Mistress Craven and the garden’s history. Martha tells Mary of the lovely and peaceful times that Master and Mistress Craven spent within the garden together. These divine times came to an end with the literal “fall” of Mistress Craven, or when she fell out of a tree and to her death in the garden. After this fall, Master Craven banished himself from the garden and locked it up, so that no one could enter, as Mistress Craven’s death had tainted the beauty and sanctity of the garden. This parallels how Adam and Eve’s (less literal, more figurative) Fall caused them to be banished from the Garden of Eden by God.

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Later on, Mary and Dickon reenter the garden together. For them, the garden represents a paradise of beauty and innocence, much like the Garden of Eden and the secret garden originally did for the Master and Mistress Craven. In the garden, the children develop and experience an exceptionally intimate relationship with God. They work to rejuvenate the garden together and seem to become “Adam and Eve,” returning to the garden to right what had been wrong there. The motif of the Garden of Eden adds another dimension to The Secret Garden, and allows the audience another perspective on and another window into the events that take place in the story and, more specifically, in the secret garden itself.

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Nature Does a Body Good: The Impact of Environment in The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre

In The Secret Garden, the theme of the environment and its effects on the characters is very prevalent. Because of this, it seems that Frances Hodgson Burnett was influenced in some ways by Jane Eyre. At the beginning of the story, Mary is a selfish, spoiled child. This attributed to the absence of her parents and the environment that she grows up in. India, which Burnett makes clear is a less than ideal place, is described as yellow, hot, and humid. The servants cater to her every need because they fear they will be condemned for not entertaining her whims and be a bother to the parents.

Jane walking on the moors (Jane Eyre 2011 movie)

Jane walking on the moors (Jane Eyre 2011 movie)

The children playing in the secret garden

The children playing in the secret garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarly, Jane Eyre has absent parents (she is orphaned) and yet the servants and her only family treat her harshly and ignore her for the most part. Both Jane and Mary are considered to be ugly children who behave terribly and spend very limited time outside. One could argue that they both misbehave because they are a product of their indoor environments. Yet when each character is removed from their destructive environments—Mary back to idyllic England and  Jane far, far away from Gateshead—they are exposed to the outdoors and the wonders of the moors, which does much to improve their persons. Mary begins to love and care for others after she arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, and her appearance and health improve drastically thanks to the openness of England’s moors. In Jane Eyre, when Jane flees from Thornfield Hall, she finds a brief safe haven with its natural resources. Likewise, Colin finds healing in the secret garden and Mr. Rochester finds peace at the remote Ferndean Manor (located deep in a forest away from society). The Victorians were very in favor of gardens and the many varieties of plants (thanks in part to Romantic and scientific interest in nature and biology), and yet they discouraged any real, long-term interaction with the wilderness and it seems that Burnett embraces that ideal. The great outdoors provides healing and escape for the characters of both The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre.

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The Secret Garden: Appropriate for Children Today?

The Secret Garden is a novel that focuses on the differences between India and England, expressing that children need to be raised in a good environment in order to become well-behaved children and experience a childhood. It is a book that focuses on the beauty and healing properties of the natural world, but is it appropriate for children to be reading, today?


On one hand, The Secret Garden encourages the reader to step outside, enjoy the fresh air, and explore the beauty of one’s garden. It entices the reader to watch life blossom before one’s eyes, and educates the reader on the basics of gardening. Considering how technology has given children plenty of entertainment and distraction, in doors, I feel that this book would be worth reading to a child, in hopes of helping that child step outside and explore the possibilities of imagination and free play. While the book fails to teach a child how to imagine a new world within one’s head, considering Mary does not possess such faculties, it does show a child that the mere act of skipping rope can be worth pursuing. As a result, perhaps children of today should be reading this, due to the fact that it exposes them to a world that they may not have previously thought was worth venturing into.
On the other hand, The Secret Garden expresses several negative thoughts about the vibrant and beautiful culture and country of India, which increases the potential for racism and closed mindedness about the exotic world. The Secret Garden expresses that India is a sandy country, that is too hot for activities, and is full of ‘blacks’ who are expected to serve Europeans. Considering how diverse the population of America is, today, such messages may be ill-received by families of foreign nationality, and may only lead to more reasons for bullying between Caucasians and other ethnicities. It is possible that, should the child pick up on such propaganda within the book, a caucasian child might believe that individuals of a darker skin type are meant to treat him or her as a superior, and may resulting treat those children as inferior. Such messages pave the way for segregation and discrimination, so one must wonder if it is worth the risk.
Is it better to read the book, in order to encourage children to explore the great outdoors, or should this book be saved for when children are old enough to understand that the messages in the book about class and race are from an earlier era?

 

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What is a Classic?

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An individual may ask what characteristics make up a “classic” when it comes to literature and the usual response would be the age of the book. A classic can be a novel that has been around for several decades and is still being read by both children and adults today. In fact, a classic tale can become immortalized as it is passed down through generations of readers as long as people are willing to keep the books alive when reading them to their children. Considering classic literature is very outdated, there are several occasions when the values in the stories are quite different from contemporary ones. Moreover, the language and writing style become a lot more difficult to comprehend over time, but fortunately some classics have been recreated in modern English, so that readers can understand according to how they speak today. There are also different ways the characters behave and talk in society. In other words, a classic can serve as representation of the time period it was written. However, despite the many changes throughout time, a classic always maintains consistent morals and a unique story for readers of any age and time period to enjoy for an eternity.

A book can be deemed a “classic” merely by how memorable it is to society. Time does not necessarily limit the “classic” label, but it does strengthen the credibility when someone picks up a book that is several years old. One could probably argue that it is the book’s popularity and the large sum of people who know of its existence and contents in the story that immediately makes the book a classic. Perhaps it is a little pretentious to consider a book a classic after being out for not even a decade, but it is really up to time to decide if a book should be considered a classic. If future generations are able to remember books of today then these contemporary books should indeed be considered classics, but we have to let time decide the future label of a book. Both adult and children’s books can both be evaluated equally in terms of being classified as classics; both adult and children’s literature have their fair share of renowned stories and, in most cases, are books that are kept alive by the educational system which requires these classics to be read.

Now how exactly would Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Secret Garden, be considered a classic to contemporary readers? The first and most important thing in a classic novel is the universal appeal. Burnett uses the garden motif as an expression of life and its beauty. Moreover, the garden is a place where healing and magic occurs, a location where things are able to be at peace and grow. As readers, we can often relate to flawed characters like Mary Lennox and Collin who eventually overcome their problems and develop into strong and memorable characters. The lesson in this novel seems to lean to being positive and looking on the bright side which is often accentuated by the beauty in the garden. Mary begins as a spoiled and immature character, but by meeting Collin she becomes aware of her own flaws which are practically mirrored through her cousin. Mary learns to take responsibility and Collin, who was initially wheelchair bound, is soon able to walk. The characters play an important role in making the story survive for multiple generations, the morals and lessons taught through these characters can be relatable to many readers no matter what time period they live in.

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Real and Imagined Spaces: The Role of Ekphrasis in The Secret Garden

I read The Secret Garden for the first time two years ago, once on my own and then again shortly after with my little brother.  I had seen the film when I was little but had never read the actual book.  During the summer that I first read the book, I had just finished reading Jane Eyre and I could not help but see the many parallels between the two texts.  However, perhaps surprisingly, the one that stood out the most was the integral role that art and illustration play in both stories.  And not specifically physical illustrations on the pages, like the ones I’ve included hear by Inga Moore, but instead works of art and illustration that are describes via words throughout the novels.  This literary tool, usually used to describe a work of art or illustration with words, is known as ekphrasis coming from the Greek word meaning “description”.  Moreover, ekphrasis is, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, an “intense pictorial description of an object…a virtuosic description of physical reality in order to evoke an image in the mind’s eye as intense as if the described object were actually before the reader” (252).

With ekphrasis in mind, we turn to The Secret Garden, where art and illustration play an important role in determining the real and imagined spaces that the characters, especially Mary and Colin, inhabit.  In a way, the descriptions and importance of paintings, mostly portraits, and illustrations work in a similar vein to windows and doors, as thresholds for the characters to go between.  As I read the text again for this class, I started paying more pointed attention to wear ekphrasis surfaces and kept a running list.  I’ll be giving some of these examples throughout this post, so let’s look at what role this actually plays; why is it important?  For both Mary and Colin, painted, imagined spaces serve as a form of reality for them.  Colin for example has never really left his room.  His windows are shut, and he has no access to the outside world, to “reality”.  Instead, he contents himself, or at least survives, by pouring over illustrated picture books, in which perhaps he imagines himself living out the fictional escapades of heroes within or at least taking strolls through beautiful landscapes.  He also has the portrait, often covered up, of his mother when she was a child.  She serves as his constant “human” companion, with his nurse and maid coming in and out every once in a while. Emphasizing the fact that Colin often lives in an imaginative world, is his first encounter with Mary in which he has a hard time believing that she is even real: ” ‘Who are you?,’ he said…’Are you a ghost?…You are real aren’t you?…I have such real dreams very often.  You might be one of them.’ (74). So for Colin, the imagined,dreamlike, painted space is his reality.

Dickon, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.  He is always out in the open, always out in the real world.  We can infer that he has little contact with paintings or illustrated texts.  However his imagination thrives off of reality.  In his wanderings through the real world out on the moors, instead of a dark, gloomy, stuffy room, he takes on a sort of mystical nature.  He talks with the animals, he plays a pipe, and has a magical quality.  So unlike Colin who has to use his imagination to create his reality, Dickon uses his reality to form his imagination.  And where does Mary stand in all of this? Mary seems to be the fusion of both worlds, of an imagined reality and a reality fed by imagination.  When she first comes to Misselthwaite Manor, Mary has interesting and somewhat intimate and gloomy encounters with the portraits around the house. For example when Mary first enters the home, Burnett provides us with this description: “The entrance door… opened into an enormous hall, which was so dimly lighted that the faces in the portraits on the wall and the figures in the suits of armor made Mary feel that she did not want to look at them.  As she stood on the stone floor she looked a very small, odd little black figure, and she felt as small and lost and odd as she looked” (15).  Right away, we get a sense that Mary has some sort of strange relation with the works of art in this home, they are given an animation, a real life-like quality, as if the faces in the portraits are real people, looking at and judging Mary.  These gloomy, old portraits seem to follow Mary everywhere, and as readers we get the sense that these portraits take on a realistic, human nature, they aren’t just paintings, they are these characters that fill the house.  Another important moment is the description of Mary wandering through the house passing “hundreds of rooms with closed doors” (33) that goes as follows: “There were doors and doors and there were pictures on the walls.  Sometimes they were pictures of dark, curious landscapes, but oftenest they were portraits of men and women in queer, grand costumes made of satin and velvet…She [Mary] walked slowly down this place and stared at the faces which also seemed to stare at her.  She felt as if they were wondering what a little girl from India was doing in their house….she always stopped to look at the children… There was a stiff, plain little girl rather like herself…’Where do you live now?’ said Mary aloud to her. ‘I wish you were here'” (33).  Thus, this moment may be the clearest one, where we witness Mary using these portraits as a reality to live in, she’s staring at them and they stare at her, she even tries to hold a conversation with one.  Thus this mirrors Colin’s attempts to use his imagination to create a reality.

However, as time passes, Mary starts to open up to the “real world” outside the walls of the manor.  She gets glimpses of it at first through the windows, which serve in a way to almost make illustrations or framed paintings out of the real world, since when she’s behind the window she’s not actually outside.  And much in the same way as Dickon, who seems to fuel his reality with imagination and whimsy, Mary starts to do the same.  For the first time she starts to form relationships with real people and in real spaces, not painted ones.  However, even when it comes to her garden, it is described in a very artistic and story like way, as  “some fairy place” (53), “a world of her own” (47), it’s almost like the garden is a painting or illustration that has finally come to life.  Interestingly enough, when Mary encounters Colin they have many interactions over illustrated picture books and they share a connection through their use of their imaginations to create reality.  And when Mary begins to describe the garden to Colin, before she reveals that’s she’s actually been in it, she is indeed painting a picture for him of the garden, a picture of words, almost like doubly layered ekphrasis (this scene is on page 79).

While there are many other examples, especially a really interesting one on page 159 with Dickon’s mother in which she’s described as “rather like a softly colored illustration in one of Colin’s books” emphasizing this interplay of the painted and real, I’ll stop there as it’s getting to be a bit of a long post.  But this topic is just a fascinating one for me; the way that reality and imagination, real and painted spaces all mingle with each other in the characters of Mary, Colin and Dickon.  As a final note, the specific illustrations I’ve chosen from Inga Moore’s illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, all incorporate paintings or illustrations within the illustration which makes me thing that Moore picked up on this theme and may have delighted in creating these pictures within pictures.

While this last image does not employ the picture within a picture theme, I’ve included because it a frame where we see all three characters, Mary, Colin, and Dickon, as they are abound to cross the threshold into the secret garden. Here we see the interaction of all three of these characters, and the interplay between reality and imagination.

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Sex: Secret and Not-so-Secret

The Secret Garden is ostensibly a children’s novel – the protagonist is a youthful girl of ten years of age – and comes off as a weird-mix of Victorian and Edwardian novel child mixed with British imperialism. To sum up, Mary is a naïve child and yet, despite her naivety, the side characters are constantly engaged in adult sexual activities throughout the entirety of the book. One example of this include the “lesser” servants romping on page 67 when the watchful presence of Mrs. Medlock is absent.  Two other major characters participate in either implied or explicit sexual activity. The first, the implied, comes from Martha who tells Mary after she returns from her day off: “I didn’t walk all th’ way. A man gave me a ride in his cart an’ I can tell you I did enjoy myself.” The “ride in his cart” that she enjoyed can easily be seen as Martha and the man in the cart having sex.

I think we all know where this one is going...

I think we all know where this one is going…

The second, more explicit, example comes from Ben in referencing the red-breasted Robin when he states that he has been “reddinin’ up thy waistcoat an’ polishin’ thy feathers this two weeks.” Implying both a masturbatory image as well as a potential sexual relationship between the robin and his lovers, both in the past and future.

The reasoning behind all this sexuality, I feel, lies in what I feel is the coming of age story of the story. It is about a woman maturing: Mary goes from a sickly child to a healthy Victorian girl (as well as the significant transformation of Colin). To seal this idea of Mary growing up I’d like to look at one final image of overt sexuality in The Secret Garden: the titular garden. The Secret Garden is an overt reference to the female vagina: specifically, in a sense, Mary’s. Its “untended” nature references the youthfulness of Mary and the blooming of the Garden reflects a girl maturing and blooming into adulthood, more specifically: the blooming of the roses symbolize the menzies (blood) that accompanies a girl’s transition into and life as a grown woman.

These are Roses

These are Roses

Thus, as you can see, the transitioning from childhood to real adulthood – more specifically womanhood- and sex is tied throughout the entire piece and is integral to the story as a whole.

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Transcending The Garden

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.

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