How to Interpret Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


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Does Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree depict selfless love or an abusive relationship?

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How to Interpret The Giving Tree

You can read Krysta’s thoughts on interpreting The Giving Tree here.

The Giving Tree is read in elementary schools throughout the U.S. (possibly other countries, too?) as an example for students of selfless love. Teachers talk about how much the tree in the story gives the boy, who grows into a man and then an elderly man, and then encourage children to show this type of love and generosity. (A quick Google search for lesson plans on The Giving Tree, for example, brings up multiple web sites where teachers focus on “gift giving” as the main theme and ask their students to reflect on whom they would give a gift or to ponder that friendships sometimes include both getting and giving gifts and both are okay.) I have memories of one of my own teachers sharing such a lesson, holding up The Giving Tree as a charming and inspirational story about how kind the titular tree is and how we should also give gifts. As an adult…I can’t disagree with this interpretation more.

I’ve been skeptical of this rosy interpretation for years: The story is, quite frankly, about a tree who is kind to a boy, letting him climb and play and eat her apples, who grows into a man who apparently forgets all these kindnesses and just takes what he can from the tree, never giving anything in return. The tree is certainly selfless, but the man is selfish.

I reread The Giving Tree specifically to write this post, looking hard to see if I could find a way to read it as a happy story, but I could not. I thought, for instance, of reading the tree as a mother figure, one who is always happy to sacrifice for her child, to give him what he needs to succeed and be happy in his own life. But such an interpretation falls apart because the boy is never grateful, and he is never truly happy. He comes back to the tree to take more and more from her– apples to sell for money, her branches to build a house, her trunk to build a boat– until the tree is just a stump. And still the man is not satisfied. And still he goes back to the tree to ask for more.

Giving of yourself, sacrificing, helping others– these are admirable traits. But The Giving Tree definitely reads as if the tree is being taken advantage of. The boy has a good relationship with the tree; they play together and seem to get mutual enjoyment from being together. But once the boy grows up, he rarely visits the tree; the book states multiple times she is lonely. When he does come, he takes from her and never even utters a “thank you.” One is tempted to yell at the tree through the pages to just let it go; the boy/man doesn’t love her, and she doesn’t have to keep giving things to him that apparently never please him anyway.

I think there are a number of valid interpretations of the story. Some people think it is about a parent-child relationship, some about friendship, some about nature and the environment. I don’t think any of them are really positive stories, though, when the tree ends as a stump, and it’s ambiguous whether the man is finally happy or not.

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “How to Interpret Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (Classic Remarks)

  1. Norwich Linguist says:

    I’m from the UK and discovered this book in my early 20s. The selfless nature of the ‘tree’ is certainly clear, but the selfish nature of the boy/man seemed clearer – but perhaps I’m a jaded adult!


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