Emerging Voices

Thomas Crisp, editor

Inescapable Coexistence: Animals and Humans in The Secret Garden

Sandra Nickel

Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel grew up being fascinated by words and their meanings, with the dictionary being her most likely choice of bed-time reading. As she grew older, she discovered—and fell in love with—the Gothic novels of the 19th Century. Her continued love of the genre led to the writing of The Second Moonstone, her first work. Sandra is currently putting the finishing touches on The Saving of St. Martha's, a middle grade novel that is part mystery-part boarding school story-part girls saving the day!

Sandra holds bachelor degrees in Theology and Social Work, a juris doctorate in Law, and a diplôme de langue from the Alliance Française. She is currently working on her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in Kansas, she later lived in New York City, Moscow and Paris, before settling in a village above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, where she currently lives with her husband and daughter.

Intrigued by the pervasive use of animal characters in children's literature, Ursula K. Le Guin explored a range of children's stories with animals, searching for a theme or themes by which they were united [1]. After considering myths and folktales and reading books found on her own bookshelf, recommended by friends, and endorsed by librarians—books such as The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Charlotte's Web and Black Beauty—Le Guin concluded that the underlying concept bridging them all is their presentation of the interconnectedness of human and animal communities.

Beyond the texts Le Guin considered, there is an additional book that provides support for Le Guin's discovered theme and is worthy of further consideration: Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. Although typically discussed in terms of its motifs relating to flora, rather than fauna [2], The Secret Garden serves as a strong example of the inescapable coexistence of animals and humans and the importance of that coexistence as it relates to children.

What is more, the manner in which Frances Hodgson Burnett brings to light the interconnectedness of animals and humans is a testament to the importance of writers using every device available to deepen their chosen themes. She creates vivid settings and reinforces emotional states through animal correlatives, anthropomorphism, and zoomorphism, as well as by utilizing what Le Guin calls the "animal helper" (105) to draw the reader's attention to—and sing out—the community of all living things. By drawing upon Le Guin's study, I hope to support her assertions regarding the interconnectedness of human and animal communities, while at the same time, further contemporary discourses about Burnett's "classic" children's novel.

The Secret Garden opens with protagonist Mary Lennox living in India, and the reader is immediately cued to recognize her as both lonely and alone: neither her parents, nor her servants, are fond of her, and they spend as little time as possible in her company. Before the end of the first chapter, Mary is deserted in her home, her parents and caretakers, alike, dead from cholera. Her first notion of this abandonment is triggered by the appearance of a small snake, notably the first animal to appear in the story. Burnett uses this snake as what I will refer to as an "animal correlative."

Utilizing T.S. Eliot's notion of the objective correlative, as postulated in his essay "Hamlet and His Problems," my construction of the animal correlative builds upon Eliot's assertion that "[t]he only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding . . . a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion" (85, emphasis in original). Here, Mary finding the snake is the impetus for her initial inclination that she is alone or has been forgotten. She says, "How queer and quiet it is . . . It sounds as if there was no one in the bungalow but me and the snake" (Burnett 6). In the silence of the house, the quiet movement of the snake vividly illustrates just how alone Mary is. As it slides under the door, the snake draws the reader's attention outside of Mary's room, to a series of actions that confirm that Mary's sense of aloneness really is, in actuality, a fact. The snake's appearance also serves as Burnett's introduction to what I will argue is the theme of interconnectedness of all living beings. Mary and the snake share what no one else shares at that moment: they are the only two creatures still alive in the house.

Mary soon goes to Yorkshire to live with her uncle, but there, too, she is alone: her uncle is away and the only time she has human contact is when a servant brings her meals. Burnett again emphasizes Mary's isolation through the deployment of an animal correlative. Mary wanders through room after empty room of the immense Misselthwaite Manor, yet sees no one, other than "a tiny head with a pair of frightened eyes"—a mouse (58). This mouse acts as the correlative for Mary herself, who also appears very small in comparison to the vast manor, and who jumped in fear when she heard the first rustlings of the little rodent.

Mary promptly discovers the rest of the mouse's family and, in so doing, again brings forth the theme of the interconnectedness of humans and animals. Burnett notes, "If there was no one else alive in the hundred rooms there were seven mice who did not look lonely at all. 'If they wouldn't be so frightened I would take them back with me,' said Mary" (59). Mary demonstrates kindness to the mice, while recognizing that they could enhance her life by being near to her, by serving as companions.

These tentative connections with animals—with the snake and the mice—eventually lead Mary to a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of living creatures and help to draw her out of her loneliness. Her first understanding of this interrelation is introduced by Burnett through the usage of anthropomorphism. According to Le Guin, in children's literature, "[c]ommunity is shown as fundamental, a given, by the assimilation of animal to human and the mingling as equals that we see in folktale and in such books as The Wind in the Willows and Dr. Doolittle" (106). Anthropomorphism, then, inherently emphasizes the interconnectedness of all living creatures—acknowledges our yearning for sameness—and that interconnectedness is further emphasized by personified animals interacting with humans.

Throughout The Secret Garden, Burnett attributes personified characteristics to a wide range of animals. The crow, Soot, caws "remarks about the scenery" (206) and "announce[s] the entrance of a visitor" (210) and otters, badgers, water-rats and field mice are the "same as us," as they work to get their homes in order (208). Birds pause from their "domestic errands" to inquire what is going on at a picnic (222), and insects climb "blades of grass as if they were trees from whose tops one could look out to explore the country" (241). The squirrels, Nut and Shell, chatter about a rose being planted (234); a mole paws with "elfish hands" (241). As a final example, Soot, Nut and Shell, along with a fox and lamb, form a circle and join in a magical ritual with Mary and her later-discovered friends (246).

There is one animal, however, who is anthropomorphized more than any other, and that is the robin, the central animal character of the story. His personification is, at first, timid, as the reader sees him through the eyes of Mary, a protagonist unaccustomed to exploring nature. Burnett writes of her initial sighting of the robin, "[Mary] could see the tops of trees above the wall, and when she stood still she saw a bird with a bright red breast sitting on the topmost branch of one of them, and suddenly he burst into his winter song—almost as if he had caught sight of her and was calling to her" (36).

As Mary becomes more accustomed to seeing the robin, she increasingly thinks of him in human terms—even crediting the robin with asserting his own humanness: "It was as if he were talking. His red waistcoat was like satin and he puffed his tiny breast out and was so fine and so grand and so pretty that it was really as if he were showing her how important and like a human person a robin could be" (66). The gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, also describes the robin with personified traits. "He's a conceited one . . . He likes to hear folk talk about him. An' curious—bless me, there never was his like for curiosity an' meddlin'. He's always comin' to see what I'm plantin'. He knows all th' things Mester Craven never troubles hissel' to find out. He's th' head gardener, he is" (39).

As the narrative continues, the personification of the robin also continues, until it becomes overt and less self-conscious.

The Robin was tremendously busy. He was very much pleased to see gardening begun on his own estate. He had often wondered at Ben Weatherstaff. Where gardening is done all sorts of delightful things to eat are turned up with the soil. Now here was this new kind of creature who was not half Ben's size and yet had had the sense to come into his garden and begin at once (83).

Above, and later toward the end of the book for several paragraphs, we see Burnett's strongest use of anthropomorphism. She attributes to the robin his own point of view:

The first moment he set his dew-bright black eye on Dickon he knew he was not a stranger but a sort of robin without beak or feathers. He could speak robin (which is a quite distinct language not to be mistaken for any other). To speak robin to a robin is like speaking French to a Frenchman. Dickon always spoke it to the robin himself, so the queer gibberish he used when he spoke to humans did not matter in the least. The robin thought he spoke this gibberish to them because they were not intelligent enough to understand feathered speech (266).

What is especially clever about providing the robin with a point of view is the depth it adds to the theme of interconnectedness. As the robin is being anthropomorphized, Burnett constructs him, in turn, as a character that zoomorphizes Mary and Dickon, a boy from the Moor who is exceptionally gifted with animals. Burnett writes that Mary is a "new kind of creature" who has the sense to dig up soil as any bird, dog, mole—even worm—would do (83). Dickon is described as a "robin without beak or feathers," someone who can "speak robin" (266). And, of course, with his own point of view, the robin can give voice to animalistic prejudices and take revenge on the negative animal metaphors that form part of human speech and are scattered throughout the book.

The robin is not the only character Burnett uses to attribute zoomorphic traits to the children. From early in the book, adults describe children in animal terms. When Martha, Dickon's sister and a servant at Misselthwaite Manor, first meets Mary, she unceremoniously compares Mary to "th' rabbits an' wild sheep an' ponies, an' th' foxes themselves" (63). Martha additionally describes her siblings in animal-like terms. She says they are "as hungry as young hawks an' foxes" (32) and that they get fat by eating the grass "same as th' wild ponies do" (31). Burnett also utilizes the character of Ben Weatherstaff to zoomorphize Mary. He says to her, "Tha'rt like th' robin . . . I never know when I shall see thee or which side tha'll come from" (93). And later, "Tha' looked like a young plucked crow when tha' first came into this garden" (93). These third person descriptions further underscore the similarity of the children and animals and their interconnected natures.

Burnett also depicts the children as identifying themselves with animals. Dickon says about himself, "I've lived on th' moor with 'em so long. I've watched 'em break shell an' come out an' fledge an' learn to fly an' begin to sing, till I think I'm one of 'em. Sometimes I think p'raps I'm a bird, or a fox, or a rabbit, or a squirrel, or even a beetle, an' I don't know it" (101). Dickon also uses animal metaphors for Mary, saying that she will get as fat as a "young fox" and he will keep a secret she has told him, just as if she were a missel thrush who had shown him her nest (110, 114).

When Mary first meets Colin, the cousin who has been kept secret from her, he is as equally unloved and unlikable as she was at the opening of the story. He is domineering and has a tendency toward raging tantrums. His mother is dead; his father stays away from him by traveling; the servants avoid him. Yet, even before Colin makes his transition from unhappy invalid to spiritual guru, he describes himself in animal terms. In explaining to Mary why he will like Dickon, he says, "He's a sort of animal charmer and I am a boy animal" (158). And, indeed, when Colin and Dickon are introduced for the first time, Burnett describes their meeting in similar zoomorphic terms. Colin stares at Dickon and is unable to speak. "But Dickon did not feel the least shy or awkward. He had not felt embarrassed because the crow had not known his language and had only stared and had not spoken to him the first time they met. Creatures were always like that until they found out about you" (205). In her discussion of the interconnectedness of the greater living community, Le Guin describes the "transformation of man into beast" in modern children's stories as being "more likely to be enlarging and educational" (106). Similarly here, Dickon's transformation of Colin into a "creature" gives him instant understanding of the best way to react to Colin's silent staring.

Le Guin makes the point that children, more than adults, are drawn to the "animal otherness, that strangeness, older and greater than ourselves" (106). She asserts that they have an innate connection to, and understanding of, animals that has yet to be diminished by what she sardonically calls "the full glory of intellectual maturity and mastery" (51). The Secret Garden adds weight to this, because in it, the links between the animal and human kingdoms are the children. [3] They are the ones who spend their time with animals—not the adults—and they are the ones who view them as their equals. Dickon, speaking to the robin and describing the children's work in the garden says, "Us is near bein' wild things ourselves. Us is nest-buildin' too" (Burnett 167). Mary even gets to the point that she does not make a distinction between humans and animals as her friends. She says, "I never thought I should like five people," and then lists those people: Dickon, Dickon's mother, Martha, the robin and Ben Weatherstaff, in that order (112).

Burnett further delineates the connection between children and animals by associating negative animal metaphors, similes, and turns of speech with adults [4]. For Mary's adult servants in India, the worst possible insult is to be called a pig (3). Ben Weatherstaff is described as "crabbed" (116). When Mary tells Ben she went into the orchard, he says, "There was no dog at th' door to bite thee" (38). On another occasion, Ben says, "Th' world's full o' jackasses brayin' an' they never bray nowt but lies" (231). Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, describes Mary as flying at Colin "like a little cat" when Mary was angry about his tantrum (195). All of these turns of speech cast animals in an unfavorable light and give the impression that the adults have moved beyond an empathetic understanding of animals into a mindset filled with animal stereotypes and clichés.

Because of Mary and Colin's abandonment, their exclusion from each other, and their inexperience with nature, Mary and Colin seem, at first, to be destined to live isolated lives, destined to miss the interconnectedness of animals and humans. The robin, however, changes this by taking on the role of what Le Guin calls the "animal helper," a motif she describes as one "of mutual aid across species, which we see in folktale and as clearly in modern animal stories, [one that] tells that kindness and gratitude can't be limited to your own species, that all creatures are kin" (105).

The Robin, in his first incarnation as helper, serves as ambassador between Mary and Ben Weatherstaff when they first meet, melting the ice between them (Burnett 38). Ben is rough and dismissive until Mary tells him she has seen the robin and he sang to her. Then, "[t]o her surprise the surly old weather-beaten face actually changed its expression. A slow smile spread over it and the gardener looked quite different" (38). Ben understands that Mary and he share a mutual friend, and from that point on, the robin brings them together and makes each of them a little less lonely.

The robin's next helping role is that of "civilizing" Mary. Mary watches how the robin transforms Ben when he speaks to it, "as if he were speaking to a child" (38). She has "a queer feeling in her heart, because [the robin] was so pretty and cheerful and seemed so like a person" (39). Soon, Mary is talking to the robin "as if she were speaking to a person" (41). What is important here is that Mary's recognition of the robin's humanity is the key to Mary herself becoming more childlike and open to the world. In fact, after hearing Mary address the robin, Ben says, "Why . . . tha' said that as nice an' human as if tha' was a real child instead of a sharp old woman" (42).

The apogee of the robin's role as helper is when he leads Mary to the key for the secret garden, and then to its door. He allows her to come close to him, so that she can see where he is digging, and in so doing, he draws her to the key. The next day she follows him and teases him: "You showed me where the key was yesterday . . .You ought to show me the door to-day; but I don't believe you know!" (76). He knows, of course, and this time, he lures her to the very wall where the secret garden's door is hidden.

Thanks to the robin, both Mary and Colin are able to work and play and discover the magic of the garden. Thanks to him, they are able to step out of their own lonely, self-absorbed lives and celebrate a broader, more diverse world. They form a trio with the animal charmer Dickon, spend every available moment in the garden, and create a community that welcomes any and all species that wish to join, including humans, birds, foxes, squirrels, sheep and rabbits.

The beautiful thing about The Secret Garden is that Le Guin's theory of mutual aid across species does not travel in only one direction. The children also act as human helpers. Dickon, of course, personifies most fully the human in service to nature. He aids a crow with an injured wing, adopts an orphaned fox, saves a lost, hungry lamb, and is forever vigilant for how he might help the animal community. The trio of Mary, Dickon, and Colin also aid the robin and birds of all kinds by creating and cultivating a cloistered and protected environment away from a threatening world. Dickon recognizes the value of what they have done for the bird community: "[The garden would] be th' safest restin' place in England. No one never comin' near an' tangles o' trees an' roses to build in. I wonder all th' birds on th' moor don't build here" (106).

Burnett thus brings forth the unmistakable motif of the inescapable coexistence of living creatures. By using animal correlatives, anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, metaphorical language—and by having both members of the human community and the animal community recognize their interconnection—Burnett employs the varied literary devices necessary to bring forth her theme. And while she does this, she also endorses the all-important role children play as guardians of the interconnection between humans and animals. Le Guin says, "The six-year-old spelling out Peter Rabbit, the twelve-year-old weeping over Black Beauty—they have accepted what so much of their culture denies, and they too reach out their hands to rejoin us to the greater creation, keeping us where we belong" (107). The same may be said for children who understand that the robin is just as important to the secret garden as Mary, Dickon and Colin—they reach out their hands in an effort to unite the kingdom of all living creatures.




1. Le Guin’s study was initiated for her 2004 Arbuthnot Lecture, which was presented at a meeting of the American Library Association. She later expanded the scope of her study for her essay, “Cheek by Jowl, Animals in Children’s Literature,” which was included in her book of talks and essays by the same name.

2. Whether studying larger social, psychological or gender issues, articles addressing the significance of The Secret Garden, base their discussions of nature primarily on symbols and metaphors of flora. Examples of this include, Jenkins, Ruth Y. "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden: Engendering Abjection's Sublime." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 426-444. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Feb. 2012; Price, Danielle E. "Cultivating Mary: The Victorian Secret Garden." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 26.1 (2001): 4-14. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Feb. 2012. This focus on flora in the above two articles originates in contextualization, with each of the authors noting the Victorian fascination with flowers and gardens (Jenkins 427, Price 4).

3. Ben Weatherstaff also acts as a minor link, but, having passed through adulthood, he has acquired a certain amount of close-mindedness, and only regains a fuller understanding of life and nature through the agency of the children.

4. Mary, however, does use one negative animal metaphor. When Colin describes being irritated by a woman and biting her hand, Mary says, “She thought you had gone mad like a dog” (157). Her norm, however, is to use more positive allusions. For example, when she admires the sky, she describes the clouds as “white birds floating on outspread wings” (214).


Works Cited

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. 1911. Oxford Children's Classics ed. London: Oxford University, 2009. Print.

Eliot, T.S. "Hamlet and His Problems." The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1920. London: Faber & Faber, 1997. Print.

Jenkins, Ruth Y. "Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden: Engendering Abjection's Sublime." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 426-444. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Cheek by Jowl. Seattle: Aqueduct, 2009. Print.

Price, Danielle E. "Cultivating Mary: The Victorian Secret Garden." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 26.1 (2001): 4-14. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Feb. 2012.




Sandra Nickel

Volume 16, Issue 1 The Looking Glass,May/June 2012

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