The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Once there was a tree...
and she loved a little boy.
- Shel Silverstein.
Gosh I love this story so so much. Love it and hate it, can't wrap my fingers around it and pin it down. Please do spend some time to watch the video.
If you read the book version, there is this part where Silverstein wrote, "And the tree was happy... but not really." Strangely, this line isn't in the video, even though Shel voiced it. Says a lot, doesn't it, that that line was cut out?
If you are as obsessed as me and can't get enough of it, continue reading below.
Taken from The Giving Tree: A Symposium:
On first reading, the harshness of the story depresses: a compulsive giver fatally bonds with a predatory taker. A kind of codependency takes hold, with lethal consequences for them both. The tree gives and gives and gives, and the boy takes; and, as he grows, he continues to take, right on through adolescence, manhood, and old age. In the course of lifelong giving, the tree relentlessly diminishes—from a gloriously alive, leaf-resplendent tree to a stump. And the taker diminishes as well, from a boy, zestfully at play in the tree, to a bent old man, resting on the stump. Giver and taker, both end up diminished, depleted, exhausted. On the face of it, that’s what the story gloomily shows. If, moreover, one thinks of the tree as the motherly feminine or as a symbol for the whole of nature, the shadows lengthen into a bleak morality tale about an oblivious male chauvinism or about an environmentally destructive anthropocentrism, both ominously foretold when, early on, the boy gathers leaves and weaves them into a crown and struts about playing king of the forest, his nose lifted high in the air.
But at another level, the story hints at a possibility in love somewhat brighter than the actual human (particularly the parental) experience of it. Unlike human love, what the tree has to offer is almost providentially apt to the boy/adolescent/man’s changing needs. As a boy he needs to play; and the tree provides him with a sacred space, pole and shelter under which to play and branches in which to adventure. In smoky adolescence, he needs a place to confide/proclaim his feelings, and the tree provides him with a stretch of bark on which to initial his love. In manhood, he needs wood to build a house and, later, still more wood to build a boat on which to ship out in midlife escape; and the tree, each time, obliges to the point of reducing itself to a stump on which the exhausted old man finally comes home to rest.
Clearly, the tree never faces the terrible stymie that confronts parents who fiercely love their children but also discover that they cannot provide them with what they most need—a mate, self-confidence, a reason for living, whatever. One way or another, human parental love comes a cropper; whereas the tree somehow manages to rise to the occasion. What the tree gives in each case is wonderfully apt.
The story also suggests, at this second level, a remarkable progression in love beyond the usual limits of philanthropy. A philanthropist gives out of the margins of his or her resources, out of surplus, if you will. The philanthropist takes care not to let the beneficiary invade the core self. Thus professional philanthropoids at the great foundations like to preserve capital assets so as to survive to another day; and amateur givers as well like to maintain some distance between themselves and beneficiaries to stave off troublesome dependencies that will diminish them or limit their freedom. Philanthropic love is love without ties.
The tree begins, to be sure, offering a love that resembles philanthropic love; its gifts do not cost. It provides utterly costless shade, and it gives of its leaves and its fruit (both highly renewable resources). But then the story turns darker. Or does it turn toward the transcendent, the sublime? The tree presses on to a level of giving which the philanthropist can only interpret as self-diminishing, self-destructive. But the tree apparently doesn’t see it that way. It says that it is happy.
What is this claim? The slaphappiness of the compulsive giver? Or something more? The clearheaded affirmation of a self that cannot diminish itself through its own expenditure because self-expenditure is its unfailing core? And so the tree offers its branches, its trunk, even its stump: “‘Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.’ And the boy did. And the tree was happy.” What kind of tree is this? Some sort of cross between the human and the divine? I am stumped.
- William F. May is the Cary M. Maguire Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.
At the end, the tree is a stump, but she is not stumped. As a member of the genus tree, the end is melancholy, she is not flourishing. But as this tree defined by her love for this boy, all is well.
And the boy, who on the face of it seems awfully selfish, loved the tree. Very much, we are told. There was a forest, so there must have been many other trees, but he always came back to, played with, swung on, climbed up, and slept under this tree. Even when he is an old man he is still called “the boy,” which may indicate that he never grew up. Or maybe that he never outgrew his love for the tree, to whom he was always “Boy.”
After we are told that the boy loved the tree very much and that the tree was happy, we come to this, “But time went by.” Before that, all is idyllic and love is wondrously reciprocated; up to now the narrative is a succession of “and,” “and,” “and.” Now comes the abut” of time’s testing. “But time went by.” The boy has another love, while the tree has but one. Perhaps “Y.L.,” his other love, was an abiding love, even his wife (he takes the initials with him on the boat); perhaps not. It may be the tree was jealous of Y.L.—two leaves fall like tears when the boy lies with her in the shade.
I do not think the tree was jealous. Two things are necessary to the tree’s happiness, the presence of the boy and the ability to give him what he needs. The latter is more necessary than the former. The boy says, “I want,” “I want,” “I want.” The tree (unwisely?) interprets his wants as needs and, in meeting them, tells him each time that he will then be happy. We don’t know whether the tree believed that he would be happy or was just encouraging him to be. When it comes to taking her trunk for the boat, she says, “Then you can sail away . . . and be happy.” The ellipsis is important, I think, indicating a doubt on the tree’s part as to whether the boy would ever be happy.
We are never told whether the boy was happy, but there is a kind of resigned contentment at the end. All along, the tree, taking the boy’s wants to be his needs, was able to meet them; and the fittingness of things continues to the end when the boy neither wants nor needs what the tree cannot give, but needs what the tree can give, “a quiet place to sit and rest.” It is the first time the boy speaks of what he needs rather than of what he wants, suggesting that he has arrived at a measure of wisdom.
All in all, the boy’s was not a happy life, it seems. After that fateful line, “But time went by,” we see him smile only once, and it is a rather desperate smile as he runs off with the branches, filled with ambitious plans for wife and family and goodness knows what else. But the boy found happiness in the tree, and in the love of the tree—hers for him and his for her. He did not just come back to ask for things. He came back to visit with the tree. When you visit with someone whom you love, you talk, inter alia, about your troubles and dreams. On each visit, the tree wants them to do together what they had done before, before “time went by.” The tree wants it to be the way it was, but the exigencies of the boy force the tree to move on, to discover new ways to give, new ways to be happy.
There is another noteworthy ellipsis. After the boy has taken the trunk for the boat we read, “And the tree was happy . . . but not really.” It is not just the act of giving that makes her happy. It is giving within the hope of continuing love, giving within the hope of being able to give again. She is not really happy because it seems probable the boy will never come back, and because she has nothing else to give. But the boy does come back, and the tree discovers that she does have something more to give, and it is just what the boy needs. And it is all that the boy will need. There is no anxiety about whether she has more to give, nor about whether the boy will be there. He will stay as long as he can, as long as he is. So this time we read, without ellipsis, “and the tree was happy.”
Each time the tree had made a proposal to the boy, she told him that he would then be happy. But not at the end. It’s just, “Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.” No promise that he would be happy. But maybe he was, or at least happier than before, now that he is no longer filled with wants. “I don’t need very much now,” he says.
The stump straightened herself up as much as she could, and she was happy. As a general thing called “tree,” she was greatly diminished; as this tree loving this boy, all was well. Of course the boy will not be around very long, while the tree will. Trees, even trees that are stumps, last much longer than boys. As time went by, and the boy was no longer there, was she happy in remembering the happiness that was theirs? Or did she regret that she gave so much? If she still had her trunk and her branches and her leaves and her apples, she could have befriended another boy and started up all over again. In that event, however, she would not have been this tree.
The story is not about a tree and a boy. It is about this boy’s tree and this tree’s boy, and the ways of their loving, the ways of their belonging to one another, as time went by.
- Richard John Neuhaus is Editor in Chief of First Things.