The Giving Tree Meets the Demanding We

The Giving Tree is a children’s book written by Shel Silverstein and first published in 1964. It received a mixed reception with religious organizations lauding it as “it was hailed as a parable on the joys of giving.” while others described it as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature” (Elizabeth Bird).

It is the story of a young boy and a tree in its prime. The “boy” grows old and the tree is slowly reduced to a stump long before its time. The interaction is always the same….. The boy arrives and enjoys the tree. This “enjoyment” is often damaging to the tree but the tree appears to be accepting of this. The tree is “happy” with the boy’s company.

Read, digest and read this small section again before you move on.

“…And after a long time the boy came back again.
“I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree, “but I have nothing left to give you-
My apples are gone.”
“My teeth are too weak for apples,” said the boy.
“My branches are gone,” said the tree.
“You cannot swing on them-“
“I am too old to swing on branches,” said the boy.
“My trunk is gone,” said the tree.
“You cannot climb-“
“I am too tired to climb,” said the boy.
“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.
“I wish that I could give you something… but I have nothing left. I am an old stump. I am sorry…”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy, “just a quiet pleace to sit and rest. I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is a good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.”
Shel Silverstein – The Giving Tree

What do you see here?

  • Some see a religious message with the joy of giving (usually giving to the various churches where you play the role of the tree)
  • Some see a friendship between tree and boy and how that friendship wanes (from boy to tree) as the boy ages and joy is replaced by avarice.
  • Some see satire in the work that cannot then be aimed at children (or the many adults that do not recognise satire)and point to “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift as a pre-existing example of the underlying message.
  • Some see it as an environmental message with humanity stripping away nature, killing off species and, eventually, the planet.
  • Some see it as sexual exploitation…….
  • Some see the parent – child relationship with the tree as an emblem of a mother’s love.

“Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree , which has constantly been reprinted since 1964 and sells so well that its publisher has never even bothered to bring it out in paperback. People assume it glorifies love and generosity, but just think for a moment about the messages it gives children. A tree called “she” is its title character. Under “her” branches a little boy is playing. His only communication with the tree throughout the book is to ask her to give up something for him. He asks her to sacrifice, in turn, her apples, her branches, and her trunk, until finally she has become a lifeless stump. As the tree acquiesces uncomplainingly to each of the child’s demands, she is described as “happy.” Moreover, while she is being depleted, with each turn of the page, the boy grows older. Always referred to as “boy,” he turns eventually into a wizened old man. Despite their parallel outward changes, the relationship between the two remains perfectly static. Totally self-effacing, the “mother” treats her “son” as if he were a perpetual infant, while he behaves toward her as if he were frozen in time as an importunate baby. This overrated picture book thus presents as a paradigm for young children a callously exploitative human relationship—both across genders and across generations. It perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy-an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.”
Ellen Handler Spitz

The Giving Tree Versus Greed

For me, it is the story of the greed of humankind. Of the exploitation in general. Exploitation of the planet, of the poor and needy, and of victims various. Some say that it has always been this way but that may have been true for a minority……. those on positions of power.

the giving tree - boabab

Now we see this avarice, lack of empathy and lack of respect growing exponentially. “To hell with the rest of the planet………… Look at my selfies and congratulate me!” “If I cannot gain from you, you are of no use to me, no interest to me!” “Me, me, me!” This is now seen from the top down…….. or from the bottom up with the likes of Donald Trump becoming an idol for those who only care for themselves.

Nature keeps giving because that is what it does. It will continue to do so but, and this is a big but, like the tree, nature will outlive man. The resources that we need for survival will run out long before we can cause the extinction of life on earth. I, for one, do not have a problem with that.

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