When I was in elementary school, my teachers used to read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud to my class. I understood that my teachers thought that the story depicted selfless giving on the part of the tree. Year after year as the boy and then the man come to her asking her to give of herself to him, she happily obliges, allowing him to take her apples, her branches, and, finally, her trunk. But, despite my teachers’ apparent love for this story, it never enchanted me. To me, it was a dark and twisted tale, one in which a man unthinkingly kills someone who was kind to him, because he thinks only of his own needs.
My teachers would have seen the tree as a example to us all. The tree loves her Boy unconditionally and does everything in her power to provide for him and to make him happy, even though he is grateful for none of it. I appreciate this interpretation and can only hope that I can become a little more like the tree myself–generous, cheerful, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others. However, I cannot help but feel that the interpretation is missing something–a recognition that, even though the tree is generous and loving, that does not excuse the actions of the Boy.
As a child, I possessed the sense of justice that many children possess. I knew instinctively that the boy was wrong and selfish, even though this is not something any adult would have said. The focus was all on the positive–how kind and giving is the tree! No one mentioned that the tree was capable of such sacrificial lengths only because the Boy she served was willing to chop her down without a second thought. A more well-rounded interpretation of the story would, I think, acknowledge that it is not okay for someone to keep taking, taking, taking with nary a thank you. Nor is it acceptable for someone to ask another person to hurt themselves so that they can attain more wealth or material possessions.
Am I being too literal? Well, that is what elementary school me thought when my teachers read this story aloud. I never liked The Giving Tree. I found it disturbing and I found it even more disturbing that the adults seemed unperturbed by the ending, in which an old man sits down on the stump of the tree he has killed. The tree is happy because she can keep on giving and the man rests content, still oblivious to his selfishness throughout his life. (Yes, technically the tree is still happy so I guess she is not really dead, but surely the man who chopped her down didn’t expect her to somehow go on living? That is not how trees work!) To me, the story was more about the depredations of the selfish Boy than it was about the abused love of the tree.
Years later, I still cannot stand The Giving Tree. I cannot help but think that readers too easily dismiss the actions of the Boy in order to praise the sacrifices of the tree. I am pleased to learn that some criticism has been leveled at the work, with some readers interpreting the work more along the lines that I do–as a story about the selfishness of the boy or the ways in which humanity destroys nature. But I suspect that many elementary school teachers go on reading the work, happily untroubled by its darker undertones.
How do you interpret The Giving Tree?