Representations of Illness and Recovery in 'the Secret Garden'

Topics: Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary Pages: 6 (2507 words) Published: March 20, 2013
“Explore The Secret Garden’s representation of illness and recovery.”

The Secret Garden, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is a children’s story that has endured enormous popularity since its publication in 1911. The novel centres round a young and lonely protagonist, Mary Lennox. Mary’s journeys in The Secret Garden- both physical and spiritual- have been followed by child readers and often remembered long into adulthood. The text communicates to readers themes such as death, sickness, and recovery and it is largely because of this addressing of serious and sometimes relatable issues that the novel has been considered such a significant contribution to children’s literature. The notions that illness and unhappiness of all kinds can be ‘cured’ by positive thinking is a concept that runs through the text and is generally attributed to the authors own belief in Christian science. Burnett was known to have found comfort in spirituality and this ‘New thought’ ideology whilst dealing with the deaths that occurred in her own life and the resulting depression from them. By exploring the representations of illness and recovery within The Secret Garden readers are able to recognise the messages and lessons Burnett as an author was attempting to portray to children. From this, readers can also gain a greater contextual understanding of the kind of society Burnett- and in turn, her characters- would have existed within. In many works of children’s literature, it is common for parental figures to either not be present or to be removed from the story in some way, to allow the child protagonist to have their own ‘adventure’ without adult supervision. The Secret Garden is an example of this, but what stands apart from other children’s texts is the harshness of the situation that Mary as a character is immediately faced with. By the end of The Secret Garden’s first chapter, both Mary’s parents and any servants that provided care for her have been killed by an outbreak of cholera. Mary Lennox is instantly surrounded by death at the beginning of the story, and her sudden physical loneliness only draws attention from readers to the fact that Mary was very much alone and uncared for in the first place; as Burnett writes, as soon as there is an outbreak, “…She was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her…” . Death and sickness are the themes that open The Secret Garden to readers and in turn give readers the first impression that these themes are what largely define Mary Lennox as a protagonist. Before Mary is taken to live with her uncle in Yorkshire, she first stays in India with an English Clergyman and his family. What is interesting about where Mary is taken when she must leave her first home is that she is only seen as safe and away from disease when taken into a British setting- even if it is only made British by the people she is living with. It is decisions like this one made by Burnett that affirms to readers that India is seen to her as a ‘sickly’ place; the novel in fact opens with a paragraph stating Mary “had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.” It is important to consider that the first outbreak of Cholera is seen in the servants- those who are native to India- which is the cause of Mary’s parent’s death. India is frequently suggested to be an unhealthy place, especially in comparison to England, which as The Secret Garden progresses is shown to be the place where character’s health improve. This apparent view of an English writer seeing England as a place of good health, whilst a foreign place to be somewhere that produces sickness and death, puts forward the question to readers of whether they are being presented with an accurate perception of settings, or if they are reading the descriptions of someone who is significantly biased. Understanding this, adult readers should consider if child readers could be negatively influenced by the writer’s own opinions. The...
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