Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is at once the most beloved and hated of all children’s books, perhaps along with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. But what’s it about, anyway?
I did not read this book growing up. It was published in 1964, and I was born in 1969, and yet I never heard about it as a child. I learned about the book when I was in graduate school in my 30s, several years after Silverstein’s death in 1999, and eventually bought it to try to figure it out. It’s a picture book, and the words are easy, and the pictures are simple, and it is stunningly difficult to figure out what Shel Silverstein is trying to say.
The story is about the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. The apple tree is female, constantly described as “she.” When the boy is a boy, he plays in and around the tree, and the tree is happy, and they talk to each other.
As the boy gets older, as shown by drawings, his needs become more complex, and every time he comes back to the tree, he refuses to play like he did when he was a boy, but instead takes things from the tree, progressively apples, branches, and then her trunk. When she is only a stump, Silverstein breaks the pattern of saying the tree was happy and modifies with “but not really.”
In the end, the boy comes back as a broken-down old man (still referred to as “the boy”) and sits down on the stump, and because he is there, the tree is happy again.
So what is one to make of this story?
The book was written for children, so looking for an interpretation from the adult perspective may be a misguided strategy, but I’m doing it all the same. Children do think differently than adults, but what even would a child make of this story?
A natural assumption would be that the story is allegorical — in other words, the tree is not just a tree, and the boy is not just a boy, and they both stand for something else. And from that moment, you can easily enough interpret that it is about mother and child. And so the book could be seen to have a certain meaning and moral which, I must warn you, once you read, you will not be able to shake off. Don’t read the next paragraph unless you are prepared to have me influence your understanding irrevocably.
“A child makes the mother happy when young, and she gladly gives to that child all that she has as he grows and is happy just to know that he is happy. And then in the end, she is ruined and disillusioned because he seems to have abandoned her. And then when her child, an adult, comes back to see her just for a little while, she gets some happiness just from seeing him for that time and having the feeling that he still needs her .”
Let us say that it is necessary to embrace this very dark view of the mother-child relationship. The question then becomes — why illustrate it for children? Why would Silverstein want to make children upset, to make them feel guilty for their relationship with their mothers? Is he doing it to purge negativity from within his own life? (I know nothing about Shel Silverstein’s personal life.) I will gladly stipulate that the message I have written above is a persuasive narrative about the human condition, which is to say that there is an inevitable decay in the mother-child relationship which, though it may be healthy in the end, occasionally becomes as dark and bitter as this book might be seen to portray.
But again, why tell this story for children?
I’ve gathered some quotations from others who have interpreted the book, and predictably, they have seen it differently than I have in some respects.
Common Sense Media: ” But the tree can also be seen as a masochistic female who doesn’t know how to set limits. (Or could the story even be a warning about greedily using Mother Nature’s resources?)”
From a 1973 review by William Cole, who knew Silverstein: ” The book, to me, is simply a backup of “more blessed to give than to receive.” My wife’s interpretation, not surprisingly, is that the tree represents a mother, giving and receiving with not expectation of return.”
From christine79 at epinions: “This is an excellent story about unconditional giving. I have found that my children need some guidance in understanding the underlying message – that giving does not come with a promise that you will receive something in return. I explain that the tree, while giving everything of itself, is happy knowing that she had done something for the boy, which is enough of a reward.”
From edutainingkids.com: ” Some find The Giving Tree to be a sad tale of codependency–about a tree that doesn’t stop giving, and a boy who doesn’t stop taking. I tend to think of the book as a story about the unconditional love a parent gives a child–the parent gives what he/she can, fully aware (and mostly happy) that the child will grow to be independent of the parent. The boy/man clearly develops a life of his own. This in itself is not sad. However, that the tree is reduced to a stump is not exactly fun; and, that the boy only appreciates the tree near the end of his life is indeed sad! The story can be viewed as one that makes people stop to think.”
So on the one hand we have a parable –the preferred storytelling method of Jesus in the New Testament — about unconditional giving, an attempt to teach Christian values of generosity and unselfishness. And then on the other hand, we have the specter of codependency. Codependency means that the codependent person feels an obligation to solve another person’s problems and neglects the self in order to take care of the other.
Where to settle in this mess of interpretations I don’t know. Perhaps you will choose to comment on the matter yourself.
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