THE GIVING TREE: A Picture Book Without a Hero

Few picture books seem to be so divisive as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. 1 While the book has no shortage of fans, many other people protest how the story sentimentalizes (and promotes) a one-way relationship in which a Tree gives and gives and gives without ever getting so much as a “thank you” from the capricious, selfish boy.

This criticism puts me in a mind of one other great doormat in literary history: William Dobbin from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.2 In a nutshell, Dobbin is a sweet, loyal soldier in love with the vapid-but-beautiful Amelia Sedley. Dobbin spends much of the book as Amelia’s friend, caretaker, and confidant — putting up with an endless stream of abuse in the process. At first a reader admires Dobbin’s loyalty and firm character, but slowly we start to get the feeling that we are not watching a hero, but a chump.

One of the most shocking (and delightful!) moments in the book comes late when Amelia — who has since fallen on hard times — finally condescends to accept Dobbin’s oft-repeated proposal of marriage. And that’s when something wonderful happens: Dobbin rejects her! He finally shows some self-respect and demands a woman who actually appreciates him for who he is. Awesome.

Unlike Vanity Fair, The Giving Tree does not have this satisfying reversal — at no point does the Tree stand up for herself. Instead she continues to be exploited and (the narrator would have us believe) continues to be “happy”.

What could Shel Silverstein have been thinking?

I’ve recently been spending a bit of time with the book, and I think I’ve found some things in the text that actually complicate the offensive “doormat reading”. Let’s dive in …

2) WHAT KIND OF LOVE? An essential assumption of the doormat-reading is that the book’s relationship is meant to be an allegory for romantic love.3 However, there are clues in the book that indicate that the dynamic is much closer to parent/child than girl/boy. Consider the fact that the boy moves from child to old man, while the tree essentially stays in a fixed state, always older and wiser. Consider the fact that the Tree shows no jealousy or feelings of betrayal when the boy courts a girl under her eaves. Consider the fact that at every stage, the boy comes to the tree as a provider, rather than a romantic companion. I don’t know why, exactly, but I am much more comfortable with the doormat reading when it is taken out of a romantic setting. No matter what happens, the parent in a parent-child relationship always maintains a degree of dignity and power.

1) BUT NOT REALLY” Every scene in The Giving Tree ends with a refrain: “And the Tree was happy.” Some readers see this phrase as a tacit endorsement of the relationship — and the boy’s terrible behavior. This, however, assumes that the author is being completely straightforward with the word “happy.” Wouldn’t it be nice if Shel Silverstein found a way to indicate that the refrain “And the Tree was happy” was, in fact, ironic? Lucky for us, he does just that! Right before the final scene, Silverstein adds a twist: “And the Tree was happy … but not really.” Of course this does not instantly negate all of the Tree’s aforementioned happiness, but it does point to the fact that the author understands the difference between declaring oneself happy and actually being happy.

3) “I AM VERY TIRED” I have long maintained that an author cannot hide from his ending: the final scene of every story works as a key with which the reader can unlock and interpret every scene before it. Throughout much of The Giving Tree, it does indeed seem as though Silverstein is sentimentalizing a doormat relationship. The end, however, tells a different story. In the final scene the boy returns to the Tree one last time, now old and decrepit. He is made to remember all the things that he has taken from the tree, each one more humiliating than the last (“My teeth are too weak for apples,” “I am too tired to climb,” etc.). While he does not openly apologize for his past behavior, I do think that some sense of remorse is implicit in his tone.4

* * *

I suspect the one thing missing for people are the actual words “I’m sorry.” The old man may be sad and humiliated, but he is not repentant in a way that we wish he were. To this I would answer that an overt apology would undermine the entire book. The point of unconditional love is that it has no conditions.

Of course, we will never know what Uncle Shelby meant to say in his book. However, I tend to believe that if there are two valid readings of a text — one of which makes the book awful, and the other makes it better — we would be best served to grab hold of the reading that lets us enjoy the book. Call it an Occam’s Razor of Interpretation.

 


  1. The movie Blue Valentine contains a charmingly direct critique of the book, which you can read about here. Also a nice article on Silverstein’s unlikely rise to kidlit stardom here.
  2. Mary and I have long hoped to one day name a dog “Dobbin” … it is a good name for a loyal friend. (Also, for the curious, the title of this post is a reference to Vanity Fair’s subtitle: “A Novel Without a Hero”.
  3. This is a moment where CS Lewis’ exploration of The Four Loves becomes very helpful in articulating such differences. I would argue that Giving Tree haters assume it is a story of “eros” love, whereas defenders see the book as a portrait of “agape” love — the love that transpires between God and mankind.
  4. You will notice that this is the only scene in the book in which he does not directly ask for anything from the tree. Perhaps because he is too ashamed?

10 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Alina says:

    That SGF video is *awesome*. And Dobbin is a great name for a dog. As for the rest, I think I’ll just nod and look thoughtful…

  • Tom A says:

    Contrast and compare with treatment of father in Cover of Rolling Stone. The band is now rich, but instead of buying dad a car…. ” I got my poor ole grey haired daddy drivin’ my limousine.”

  • Fuse #8 says:

    Oh ho! The first branch in The Triumvirate of Mediocrity returns (branches two and three include Rainbow Fish and Love You Forever, which do not really have any defenders).

    All right. Let’s organize our thoughts on the matter.

    First off, I’ve slowly been coming to a strange realization about Shel Silverstein. He was sardonic and witty. His poetry for kids was some of the best because he wasn’t afraid to get dark. He lived in the Playboy Mansion, is responsible for countless librarian tales about who he hit on and when (ask around at ALA sometime . . . it’s fascinating), and even drew fantastic cartoons about penises. So what have I realized?

    The man had a sentimental streak a mile long.

    I didn’t want to admit it but the more I think about it, the truer that statement becomes. This is the guy who wrote the “Hug-O-War” poem. The fellow who sang that strange “Daddy” song on the Johnny Cash Show. And finally, the guy who wrote The Giving Tree.

    Now Matt agrees with you on this subject, Jonathan. Though his defense of the book is actually the opposite of your own. If I understand him correctly, he sees the book as a cautionary tale. It’s a reading I kind of enjoy, even if I don’t agree.

    In my experience this book splits on gender lines. A fair number of women loathe it and a fair number of men lurve it. I would argue that this is not because women see the tree as a mate (no matter what Sassy Gay Friend says) but because they see her as a mother. Shel made the tree female. He could have said it was an “it” but he doesn’t and that riles the masses. The book came out in 1964 as the feminist movement was on the rise. Suddenly here was a book about a kid who takes and takes and takes and takes from his tree/mother. Then you get to the end and what does the little cuss do? He doesn’t apologize but rather SITS ON HER STUMP. Is it any wonder people aren’t fond of that particular image? It’s like adding insult to injury. Cut me down. Put your bum on what’s left.
    
    I like your point about the “but not very”. I’ve never heard anyone bring that up before. Of course, if the tree isn’t happy then Matt’s argument is pretty valid. And I agree that the boy/man feels remorse at the end. I just don’t think it’s about the tree. He’s not looking at the tree, after all. He’s looking off into the distance thinking about his own life. The tree is just the victim of its own neediness and he couldn’t care less. He does not, after all, mention her in his thoughts.

    As for what Shel thought, he was asked several times during his life what the darned book meant and always put folks off by saying it was just a story about a tree. Jules Feiffer once weighed in, noting how it was always women who objected. Shoot, I should find that quote. I have it around here somewhere.

    Food for thought. Few books elicit this much discussion. Now let’s all read The Tale of Despereaux!

  • Fuse #8 says:

    I should note that when I say “he doesn’t mention her in his thoughts” that’s not entirely true. He mentions what he cannot do that is tree-related. But he’s still just talking about himself.

  • Thanks for indulging me, Betsy! First off, I’m not arguing FOR the book so much as I’m trying to sort out some thoughts about a traditional line of criticism. Specifically, I think there’s enough evidence in the text to conclude that Silverstein is aware that the one-sided relationship depicted is complicated, even ugly. It feels like the book is less an advertisement for such relationships than a sad (arguably sappy) meditation on the fact that these relationships exist.

    That’s interesting to hear how you’ve found that the mother/tree thing is the source of a lot of frustration. On that subject, I must defer to mothers, who are awesome. I had always (mistakenly?) assumed that Silverstein made the tree a woman because a male tree would have made the book too obviously religious. But most importantly, the post gave me a chance to dip back into VANITY FAIR!

  • Fuse #8 says:

    Oh, I adored the Vanity Fair comparison! And why has it never occurred to me that a male tree would be religious? That’s brilliant! Suddenly I want to reread the book that way. I should be one of those awful children’s librarians that go about with white-out. Usually they put underwear on naked characters (Mickey from In the Night Kitchen. I, instead, would take out all the “s”s from the “she”s in The Giving Tree. I’ll put it on the old To Do When I’ve Gone Mad list.

    Good point on one-sided relationships too.

  • Bridget Heos says:

    As a kid, this story always reminded me of the song Puff the Magic Dragon. In both stories, the boy grows up and loses touch with his imagination. In The Giving Tree, I always felt more sorry for the man than for the tree. She stays true to herself. She’s always the Giving Tree. He goes from being a happy boy to an unhappy man. (Although, at the end, I think he’s happy again.)

    It never occurred to me that she should stand up for herself. She’s a tree. Trees “let” people climb them, take things from them, even cut them down. That doesn’t mean the man should take her up on it! But if she didn’t allow it, she wouldn’t be a tree. Or she would be a scary Wizard of Oz tree. As Silverstein said, it’s a book about a tree. I understand the mother metaphor, but if she were his mother, wouldn’t he be a tree, too?

  • Kate W. says:

    That Second City video was hilarious! And the reference to Boo Radley…perfect.

    I went from loving the Giving Tree as a kid to not liking it so much as a young woman, but then I watched footage of Johnny Cash and Uncle Shelby singing A Boy Named Sue and the amazing Silverstein changed my mind right back again. It’s incredible how a short video can give so much insight into a personality. Silverstein is modest, demure even, when Cash references his popularity and success. Taking that in account, Silverstein’s sense of humor, his darker side, his demure nature, I have found something again in The Giving Tree and am not so mad at the boy or the tree for being what they are. It is a rich and simple story that is still relevant decades after it’s original publication and continues to be loved. Because what ever type of love the story is about, it is about love and relationships that don’t always go according to plan or fit neatly into boxes and classifications.

    Excerpt below from Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book

    “T is for TV: See the nice TV. The TV is warm… The TV loves you. Do you know that there are little elves who live inside the TV? …If you take Daddy’s hammer and break open the TV you will see the funny little elves. What will you name them?”

  • Kate,
    So glad you came by the site! I think you’ve very right in saying: “Because what ever type of love the story is about, it is about love and relationships that don’t always go according to plan or fit neatly into boxes and classifications.” Also, you are *very right* in quoting the ABZ book! That is without question my favorite Shel Silverstein — and something that helps me tolerate some of his lamer works. My favorite part is when he urges children to drop sugar cubes in their parents’ gas tanks to feed the ponies living inside the engine (“H” is for “horsepower”)

  • I think the book is a clear cut case of co-dependency, and when we read it we pretty unanimously decided the tree was a metaphor for a mother. Actually, we decided it was a metaphor for an extremely unhealthy mother who raised a very unhealthy kid. As the mom of four scrumptious kids, I used this to open discussion about what behavior is OK and what behavior isn’t OK. It’s a safe way to talk to your kids about their responsibility in a relationship. It may sound all deep and corny on a website, but it’s a very easy way to discuss some rather serious topics with your younger kids. Codependency is a sickness and this book is a great way to talk to your kids about being relationally healthy without completely freaking them out.





  • Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

    Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS