Happy Earth Day! In between conference prepping and submitting a revised chapter of my thesis for review, I took a few minutes to re-read one of my favourite childhood books: Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
All things said, it’s not really a cheerful story. A boy and a tree love each other and have happy times playing together. Soon the boy grows up, though, and begins to take more and more from the tree, without even a word of thanks. Finally, old and unhappy, the boy takes the tree’s trunk to make a boat and sail away. When that too fails, he comes back to the tree, who offers the only thing she has left: a seat on her stump. And the boy sits.
No one really agrees on what we should make of The Giving Tree. Is it about an abusive relationship? Does it demonstrate the role of a parent? Is it an environmental allegory, describing how we humans take and take from nature until there’s nothing left?
Over on The New Yorker, Ruth Margalit ponders these questions. Should happiness be a prerequisite in our children’s literature? Is The Giving Tree even a children’s book? Silverstein famously hated children, something Margalit notes, adding: ‘Silverstein detested stories with happy endings. As he once put it, “The child asks, ‘Why don’t I have this happiness thing you’re telling me about?”’
Based on Silverstein’s life and work, Margalit challenges the idea that we can find such simple answers in The Giving Tree:
Finding that a childhood favorite wasn’t at all what I remembered carried with it a peculiar thrill, a kind of scientific proof that I’d grown up and changed. And, if I’ve changed, perhaps “The Giving Tree” has, too. What, for example, does Silverstein mean with his injection of the flat, repetitive “happy”? He wasn’t one for happiness. In fact, the book’s illustrations seem to undermine this very conceit. “And the tree was happy,” we are told, but all we see is a sorry stump and a hunched old man staring forlornly into the distance. Is she happy? We have to ask. Is he? Or maybe the book isn’t about love or happiness at all, but a lament about the passing of time, an unsentimental view of physical decay, a withering away. Maybe it’s enough to take Silverstein’s own reading of it. “It’s about a boy and a tree,” he once said. “It has a pretty sad ending.”
You can read the rest of the article at the link. In any case, it’s remarkable that such a simple story about a boy and a tree can inspire this kind of discussion. At the very least, The Giving Tree made me look at the inanimate things around me very differently, much in the same way as The Brave Little Toaster, or even, much later, the Toy Story movies.
Any other good examples of beloved childhood books or films that describe our relationship to the world of objects, both living and non-living?
One thought on “The Giving Tree”
Thank you Ruth Margalit, I enjoyed your synopsis of the giving tree. For one, you are still pondering it until this day and your article was not only ripe and shiny, but also a tasty apple for thought.