The Many Layers of “The Giving Tree”

In the last few years, I’ve been better trying to understand myself. One of the things that I’ve been trying to untangle is the difference between being generous and being people pleasing, balancing my responsibilities to others and respecting my own needs, of knowing what is mine and what is someone else’s to bear.

One of the best books that has helped me learn more about healthy and unhealthy giving is Adam Grant’s wonderful book, Give and Take. (In fact, the book has helped me so much that my blog reads like Adam Grant fan non-fiction. 🙂 )

Another book I read recently, the noted children’s book The Giving Tree by Shel SilverStein, gave me more food for thought. The book is a story about the relationship between a tree and a little boy, and how the the tree gives all she can to the boy to make him happy.

When the boy is little, he loves the tree:

He would climb up her trunk
And swing from her branches
And eat apples
And they would play hide-and-go-seek.
And when he was tired,
He would sleep in her shade.
And the boy loved the tree…very much.
And the tree was happy.

New Doc_1

As the boy grows up, their relationship changes. The boy doesn’t want to swing by the branches any more or play hide-and-go- seek. He wants to buy things and have fun.

“I’m sorry,” said the tree,
but I have no money.
I have only apples.
Take my apples, Boy, and sell them
In the city. Then you will have money
And you will be happy.”
And so the boy climbed up the tree and gathered
Her apples and carried them away.
And the tree was happy.

Later, as the little boy grows older, he wants a wife and kids, and wants a house. Could the tree give him a house? The tree offers her branches to the boy so he can build his house. After a long absence, the boy, as he continues to be called throughout the book, comes back. Now, he wants a boat that will take him far, far away. And the tree continues to give, asking the boy to take her trunk to build his boat. All that’s left of the tree is her stump.

When the boy, now an old man, comes back, the tree apologizes, for now she really has nothing to give him. But now, the boy doesn’t need apples or branches or wood. All he needs is some rest.

“Well an old stump is good for sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down.
Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.

This is how the story ends. I will go on the record on this one. I bawled like a baby when I read this book. The story is emotional; the writing, elegant; the pictures exquisite.

I was left with a bunch of entangled feelings though. I was happy that the tree wasn’t alone in the end, that he had the little boy; I felt a little angry at the boy for being selfish; I wondered if the boy was wrong for asking too much or the tree was wrong for giving so much?

As I moved through the rest of the day, this book stayed with me, more as questions than answers.

One of the lens with which I interpreted this book was that of a parent-child relationship. Was this “normal” for a parent-child relationship, the constant taking? Or was this story about a parent who didn’t want her child to grow up, who considered the child a “boy” even when he was a grown man? Was sentimentally waiting for the boy to come back to her the right thing to do?

Another lens with which I viewed the relationship was a general codependent relationship, where one person is often the giver, and another, a taker. Is giving to this extent healthy? It seemed sentimental for the tree to “give her all” to the little boy, but was it right? As for the little boy, did he really love the tree, if all he did was take and take?

I’m verbalizing these questions now, but then, all I had was a huge mangled mess in my head and heart. Why did I cry? Was it sentimentality? Was it relief that the tree wouldn’t die alone? Was it a kinship with the tree? Or frustration about the lack of reciprocity from the little boy?

Later, when I went to dutifully clock in my reading on Goodreads, I stopped to read some of the reviews. The Giving Tree turned out to be one of those books that splits people into camps and like one reviewer put it, kills Goodreads friendships.

Some of the reviews were brutal.

Sava Hecht rated it 1 of 5 stars
Co-dependent tree needs to set some fucking boundaries.
flag 223 likes

Jan Bednarczuk rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: nobody
Shelves: childrens
…What’s the message here? Is it “When someone loves you, it’s okay to just take advantage of them endlessly because they will always be there for you anyway”? Or perhaps “If you love someone, just give them everything you have and expect nothing in return, ever.”
flag 26 likes

Though people assigned different metaphoric meanings to the book—such as being an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice, unconditional parental love, selfish exploitation of the environment, men’s subjugation of women—most interpretations were painful, cautionary tales of too much giving.

And while people who had rated the book poorly often thought that the book’s lesson was selflessness, others were able to separate the story from the lesson, and appreciated this book for the mirror it provided, and treated it as a warning against selfless giving.

Skylar Burris rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: childrens

Many Christians (including myself initially) have thought of this as an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. I can certainly see why people think this is a Christian allegory: the tree, like Christ, gives itself entirely for the boy, even to the point of abject humiliation. If it is a Christian allegory, however, it is the disturbing tale of Christ’s terrible, painful, continuous rejection by man, and _not_ the heart-warming tale of unconditional love and forgiveness many Christians take it to be.There is no repentance in “The Giving Tree,” and therefore no real forgiveness.

Some take it as a tale of unconditional parental love, but if it is, it is again a painful tale: a tale of the child who never, his entire life, truly learns to appreciate his parents. Environmentalist read it as a tale of man’s selfish exploitation of nature. Feminists regard it as a story of man’s subjugation and abuse of woman and woman’s failure to stand up for herself (the tree is a “she”). The fact that the book can speak to so many people on so many different levels is, I think, evidence of its subtlety and irony. It really can work on more than one level, if you _want_ it to.

As one reviewer beautifully observes:

Benjermin rated it 5 of 5 stars

Recommends it for: all human beings

My only thought is that many readers allow their hatred for the boy to be confused with hatred for the book. Does the book condone the boy’s behavior, or simply seek to tell a narrative? Does the quality of a book suffer when the moral quality of its characters flags?

It is the job of narrative to relate a story. It is the job of a classic to relate a timeless story, to which countless readers of any age can relate. So whence the hatred? Is it because so many readers have known people who have taken and taken with such unrelenting fervor that they then displace this hatred onto a book that merely tells a story so fundamental it can’t help but arouse feelings in any human who reads it?

The Giving Tree is a book that disturbed me, that shook me up, that made me wonder about the dangers of giving too much, especially for the tree, but also the little boy. For instance, did the boy learn he could “take” in all other relationships too? While givers can feel burned by selfless giving, it’s also worth remembering that too much giving harms the other person too.

Givers, who often find it hard to draw boundaries for themselves, could benefit from the giving tree by thinking about it this way then: “I will not give to you selflessly, not because it’s bad for me (though it is), but it’s bad for you too.”

How do YOU feel about the Giving Tree? Do leave your thoughts in the comments below. And if this post helped you in any way, don’t hesitate to share with others who may also find it helpful.

You May Also Like

The Right Way to Give–A lesson by Adam Grant and Dr. Seuss

Why “What’s In It For Me?” Doesn’t Motivate Givers

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