William F. May
On one take, a trick picture at a carnival appears to be a gargoyle; but, at a second glance, the Mona Lisa shines through. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is no visual trick, but the story intrigues because it provokes quite contrary interpretations.
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.
Amy A. Kass
Shortly before my first child was born, my mother told me the following story, which she had heard from her rabbi. A mother bird and her three fledglings came to the bank of a river, too wide for the young ones to cross on their own. Taking the first fledgling onto her wing, the mother bird began to carry him across, and while over the middle of the river she asked him the following question: “My dear son, when I am old and too feeble to fly far, will you carry me across?” Promptly and respectfully, her son replied, “Of course, mama,” whereupon the mother bird dropped him into the water below to drown. Repeating the test on her next fledging, she elicited the same response, and so dropped him, too, into the waters below. Gathering up her last fledgling, the mother bird administered her test one last time: “My dear son, when I am old and too feeble to fly far, will you carry me across?” Unlike his brothers, the last fledgling slowly but thoughtfully replied, “No mother, I will not do it for you, but I will do it for my own children.” The mother bird, now happily assured of her future, flew her son across the river and lovingly deposited him on its distant shore.
Like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, my mother’s tale is a profound parable about giving between mothers and children. But reflecting back, I think I would have been better served by Silverstein’s. For according to my mother’s tale, giving is an investment in one’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren—one gives for the sake of making the recipients of one’s gifts into givers themselves. However true and important this may be, it requires that the future resemble the past—one must trust that one’s children will have children of their own—and in these uncertain times, this can be both a snare and a delusion. Silverstein’s parable, on the other hand, countenances no such illusions, either about what begets givers or about the unknown future. Rather, it makes vivid the intrinsic virtue of giving to one’s children, here and now, and shows the happiness that inevitably accrues to the mother who can so wholeheartedly give. In brief, it makes clear what it means and what it takes to be a good mother.
From the outset, the tree gives the boy unqualified love. Always welcoming him with outstretched limbs, she willingly meets his most pressing needs; she gives him food to satisfy his hunger, shelter under which to rest his tired body, and companionship to ward off loneliness. But in addition, she attends to his psychic growth: she gives him swinging branches to develop agility, judgment, and courage; she plays hide-and-seek to cultivate enterprise, ingenuity, and a sense of timing; and she gives him leaves to encourage his imagination to soar. Under her deft tutelage, the boy learns to beat down his fears; he gains confidence and self respect, and the capacity to love. It is little wonder that he takes to crowning himself with his self-made wreaths and strutting about with his nose pointing upward. The boy pretends to be the King of the Forest because he thinks he is a king. It is little wonder that beholding the boy’s evident joy and pride and strength, the tree, too, is happy.
The boy’s life, however, is not destined to live up to his great expectations. With time the many sensibilities previously awakened and nourished naturally turn outward. The simple pleasures he once enjoyed no longer suffice. While the tree silently and discreetly stands by, the boy, like most blossoming youths, turns his attention first toward the opposite sex. Next, he decides he needs “things to have fun,” and the tree, indulging his growing appetites, gives him her fruit to sell for cash. Later still, he wants a house to shelter and raise a family of his own, and once again, the tree obliges by giving him her branches. Much later, his dreams of domestic bliss apparently shattered, the boy wants a boat to carry him away from his sorrows and troubles, and once again, the tree readily and lovingly obliges, this time by giving him her trunk. Much, much later, the boy, now quite old, returns to the tree one last time. Though alone and enfeebled, he is still wanting, now for a place to sit and rest. Yet again, the tree lovingly obliges: straightening up her much-diminished self, she invites him to sit on her stump. With each gift, despite her own evident depletion, we are told that the tree is happy. Only once, when the boy’s life journey takes him far across the seas, that is, far, far away from the tree, are we told that her happiness is less than complete. Why? How can that be?
Like all good mothers, the tree is no doubt happy to know that she could help when needed. But more importantly, like the ideal mother she is, the tree seems to understand both the nature and limits of her own maternal powers. She knows that the very sensibilities she so carefully nourished when the boy was young would one day cause him to want a life of his own. She knows she must understand and accept the choices the boy makes even when they seem unwise and misguided. She knows she cannot predict or arrange the boy’s future. Most especially, she knows, probably from the beginning, that the life she will nourish must cost her her own, and she anticipates necessity by giving her young child everything most needful, trusting that a happy and loving childhood will see him through the sorrows and pains of tomorrow. For she knows that happy memories can become holy: They can anchor and sustain one’s life. Though in the end the boy becomes old and enfeebled, neither he nor the tree is broken: despite his wanderings, he does safely return; despite his many hardships, he still has hope. Does this not affirm the tree’s wisdom? Is not this a sufficient reason for happiness?
Yes, I would read this story to my children—my grown children. It is wise and it is true about giving and about motherhood.
Amy A. Kass is Senior Lecturer in Humanities at The University of Chicago.
The ethics of giving are different from the ethics of taking. One can give out of the utter goodness of one’s nature, and yet bestow these gifts upon one with an insatiable need to take. So we must say that the giver is pure while the taker is corrupt. Legions of spoiled children raised by doting but utterly well-meaning parents are sad evidence of this complex moral dialectic of giving and taking.
In the story The Giving Tree, we have a pure and selfless giver bestowing gifts upon an ungrateful, spoiled, and demanding boy/man. Even if we grant that each loves the other, we can still judge the moral quality of the two loves. The love of the tree for the boy/man is a selfless love, while the love of the boy for the tree is a selfish love. The boy never tries to help the tree (by pruning it, feeding it, etc.), while the entire being of the tree is devoted to helping the boy meet his most recent need, whether trivial or essential. The needs escalate and so do the gifts, leading to the offer of the tree to be decimated to a stump just to make a boat—a boat that will take the boy away to some place far from the tree. On the other hand, the love of the tree for the boy is selfless to the greatest degree. The gifts of the tree to the boy are not the proof of her love, but rather the signs of her love. The tree gives because that is what one does for those one loves. Love is an emptying of the self into another. The greatness of love is that such emptying is followed by a self-discovery that is spiritually complete.
On a philosophical level we can use the relationship of the tree and the boy as a way to remind ourselves of the very different judgments produced by utilitarian and deontological ethical systems. Judged by the results of her actions, the tree is culpable before the bar of utilitarian judgment because she produced a spoiled little snot. Judged by her motives, however, the tree remains deontologically pristine.
One final philosophical question: Even if we agree that benevolence is supererogatory in a way that non-malevolence is not, even if we agree that our duty to give and help is much weaker than our duty not to hurt, we can still ask if giving, helping, and bestowing can in some cases become wicked: wicked because it is debilitating to the self-reliance of the recipient; wicked because it deprives one of the capacity to give also to others; wicked because it infantilizes the recipient; wicked because it cements a bond between giver and taker that should be much more evanescent.
In the end I am convinced that the tree was a well-meaning but foolish giver, and yet I am strangely in awe of that foolishness—perhaps because it is so Buddha-like, so profoundly indifferent to the demands of keeping and protecting assets in this selfish and wounded world. The Buddhists call this virtue tanhakaya and they mean by it the release from attachment to the things of the world. It is the third of the four-fold noble truth that stands at the heart of Buddhist dharma. The cause of suffering is attachment, and its cure is release, a simultaneous release from both the world and all need. In that final liberation—perhaps come to sitting upon the tree stump—both the tree and the man are free.
An ancillary fable from the teaching of the Hasidic the master Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, as recounted by Martin Buber in his Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (Schocken).
Rabbi Yitzchak of Vorki knocked, entered Rabbi Mendel’s room, and said in greeting: “Peace be with you, Rabbi.”
“Why do you say rabbi to me?” grumbled the rabbi of Kotzk. “I am no rabbi! Don’t you recognize me? I’m the goat! I’m the sacred goat. Don’t you remember the story?
“An old Jew once lost his snuff box made of horn, on his way to the house of study. He wailed: ‘Just as if the dreadful exile weren’t enough, this must happen to me.’ Oh me, oh my, I’ve lost my snuffbox made of horn.” And then he came upon the sacred goat. The sacred goat was pacing the earth, and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. When he heard the old Jew lamenting, he leaned down to him, and said: ‘Cut a piece from my horns, whatever you need to make a new snuffbox.’ The old Jew did this, made a new snuffbox, and filled it with tobacco. Then he went to the house of study and offered everyone a pinch. They snuffed and snuffed, and everyone who snuffed it cried: ‘Oh, what wonderful tobacco! It must be because of the box. Oh what a wonderful box! Wherever did you get it?’
“So the old man told them about the good sacred goat, and then one after the other they went out on the street and looked for the sacred goat. The sacred goat was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. One after another they went up to him and begged permission to cut off a bit of his horns. Time after time the sacred goat leaned down to grant the request. Box after box was made and filled with tobacco. The fame of the boxes spread far and wide. At every step he took the sacred goat met someone who asked for a piece of his horns.
“Now the sacred goat still paces the earth—but he has no horns.”
Marc Gellman is Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, New York.
Trust not the teller, D. H. Lawrence warned—thereby articulating the single most important guiding principle for the reading of any literary work—trust the tale. Shel Silverstein seemed to think that his book was about “giving,” for that is how he titled it; but the book one reads is actually about something else. The story it tells is about growing up and growing-old processes, to judge from his illustrations, for which he has no very great reverence. (We must pay attention to these illustrations, not only because their author is very much an illustrator and thus says as much through them as through his words, but because in every book for little children what is to be seen counts at least equally with what is heard. That, for instance, is what makes the Babar stories, whose texts are singularly dreary, enduring classics. And why ugly children’s books should be banned.)
Look at the book, then, through the eyes of a child. The “hero” is at first a little boy who climbs and swings and pretends he is the king of the forest. And the tree . . . is a tree, realizing, if you will, its treeness. Then the boy gets older, puts away his little-boy things, is interested in a girl, and carves his and her initials into the tree trunk. The tree is still a tree, now the repository of his wish to make some lasting declaration of his existence. Next he feels the need for money and works at carrying off and selling the tree’s apples, and after that, he uses the wood of the tree to build himself a house in which to shelter a wife and children. And all the while he is growing less and less attractive: a slumping adolescent, then a surly-faced young adult, then a balding and paunchy grown man. Some time later he returns to the tree—now a round-shouldered, sharp-beaked, unhappy middle-aged man, longing to get away. This is the figure who cuts the tree down to a stump in order to build himself a boat in which to escape and see the world. And finally he returns to the stump, a bent and outright ugly old man, able now to do nothing more than sit and rest upon all that is left of his old friend. Meanwhile, the tree, too, has been getting older, each time having less to offer but happy to find that it can still be put to use.
Here we have a tale of frequently lonely self-sacrifice—to, as they say, the very max—in the face of a continuing, lifelong exploitation. But is it, as it claims, a story about true givingness? The boy is after all doing what is required of human beings to do: He is growing up, going away, making himself a living, cleaving unto a wife, and later, in his declining years, finding a life for himself—and finally, growing old and in need of a place to rest. The Giving Tree is, to put it mildly, somewhat less than generous, either in word or in picture, about this process.
Thus the tree may be giving (although it, too, is only fulfilling its nature), but the spirit of the book is hardly so. For what it tells us—hardly the message I would wish to be conveyed to my grandchildren—is that life after childhood is a progressive, and progressively distasteful, falling off.
Midge Decter is a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
Why is it that the boy keeps coming back to the tree? Well, why shouldn’t he, the cynic might ask. He gets what he wants, the tree exercises no control over his desires, the tree in fact writes him a kind of blank check within the limit of her powers. Her self-giving is unqualified. Why shouldn’t he greedily return to get what he can in the service of his desires?
There is a part of me that is drawn to this reading I call cynical. We might wonder, for example, whether any mother should ever love her child as the tree does the boy—giving the child whatever he wants. Indeed, we might even argue that such a love does not lead to growth, that it finally diminishes both tree and boy. But I don’t think that is the deepest truth of this story.
The boy keeps coming back. Why? Not just that his needs may be served, but because “the boy loved the tree.” That remains true throughout. When the tree helps the boy realize some of his desires, those wants are legitimate—to eat and to play, to buy things and have fun, to have a house and family, to sail away and (one suspects) begin anew, to rest. But through all of this, when the boy seems merely to be taking and the tree only to be giving, the boy loves the tree. If that is said only once, the reality is plain. For the heart with “ME & T” carved into the tree is never effaced. When the tree is taken down to a stump, that expression of love still remains.
The boy keeps coming back not simply because he gets what he wants from the tree, but because he loves the tree. And we must therefore ask what makes the boy’s love possible. Not, I think, only the things the tree gives, but that she gives herself without stinting. The boy returns not because the tree requires it, but because the tree’s love makes it possible for him to leave and return. The tree’s giving makes possible a relative independence for the boy, makes it possible for him to live apart from her. But the tree’s giving also sustains a continuing bond. The boy is not therefore diminished by the tree’s selfless giving; he is helped to grow and live, to achieve relative independence within a mutual bond of love.
But what of the tree? Is she finally diminished? Only if we think we know the tree better than she knows herself. Only if when the tree is happy we think it necessary to raise her consciousness and help her see that she is not. And more important, only if we suppose that happiness is secured solely by independent personal growth, and not through mutual dependence in a bond of love. The tree’s giving is not without risk; there is, after all, no guarantee that the boy will come back. But he does—does what she deeply desired but did not require of him. And the tree is therefore rightly happy. She has given well.
Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.
Mary Ann Glendon
In future histories of popular culture, The Giving Tree will be seen as a period piece—a nursery tale for the “me” generation, a primer of narcissism, a catechism of exploitation. It will be catalogued with pop hits like “I want it all, and I want it now.”
Let’s review the plot. Boy enters on the scene with the unfocused wants of any very young child. Like lots of little kids, he thinks he’s the center of the universe; in the forest he pretends he’s king of all he surveys. No harm in that. Tree loves him and he loves Tree in the way that small children and those nearest to them love each other. As time goes by, however, Boy seems not to have learned a few simple truths that are usually instilled in children by those who genuinely care for their well-being. He shows no awareness, for example, of the idea that one should treat others as one would wish to be treated oneself. Boy visits Tree only when he wants things”money as a youth, a house in early adulthood, escape in later years. Tree gives first of her abundance (leaves, apples) and later of her substance (branches, trunk). Finally, when old, broken-down Boy has no more desires except to rest, he sits on what’s left of Tree. And the tree was happy.”
Whatever the author’s intentions, his message about love, especially in that last line, is apt to sound something like this to a young audience: If people love you, they will not only give you everything you want, but will ask no questions and make no demands on you. The more they love you, the happier they will be to respond to your desires.
If we concentrated only on Boy, we might have a morality tale here. By the end of the book, Boy has made himself into a certain kind of person through a series of choices and actions. He has constituted himself as a taker, and ends up without happiness, fulfillment, or even understanding of his own condition.
But the author seems to want us to focus on Tree. If the image of the giving tree as a happy provider of unconditional love was meant to be ironic, that irony will probably escape the kids to whom the book is addressed. Most young children will see Tree as a loving, parent-like figure. Yet the fact is that Tree’s qualities would make her a terrible mother—a masochist who, quite predictably, has raised a sociopath.
So The Giving Tree cannot be taken at face value as a story about human giving and receiving. It’s about taking, maiming, and killing, on one side, and passively submitting to such treatment on the other. (Even if Boy doesn’t understand about photosynthesis, his conduct in taking Tree’s branches amounts to reckless arboricide.)
Is the story meant, then, to be an allegory of divine love? If so, the author has got his Bible mixed up with his Sears Roebuck wishbook. For though Tree gives till it hurts, all her giving is in response to Boy’s material wants. Whatever it means to say she “loved” Boy, she did not care for him enough to set him straight on a few minor points, like saying “Thank you,” or treating others as fellow human beings rather than as instruments for the satisfaction of his own desires. No wonder we hear nothing about Boy’s wife and children except that he “wanted” to have them. If he did have a family, they must not have been as sappy as Tree, for on his next visit Boy wants a boat to sail away.
Tree gets no credit for performing corporal works of mercy. Her gifts to Boy are not in response to his needs, but rather in furtherance of his appetites and desires. Nor can she be viewed as a paragon of spiritual works. For one of the most important, difficult, and delicate duties incumbent on one who loves is to point out to loved ones the natural and probable consequences of their acts. Parents begin with little things, like teaching children why we shouldn’t pull up flowers by their roots—or carve our initials in the bark of trees. Never encountering any check, Boy’s demands escalate, and his depredations become more and more outrageous.
The Giving Tree is an artifact of an era that later generations will contemplate with pity and horror. An era when many parents turned their children over to subminimum-wage workers by day, and told them stories like The Giving Tree during “quality time” at night. An era when hordes of American Boys and Girls pursued infantile fantasies and desires until they could eat, drink, and make merry no more. An era when many of us behaved like Tree—tolerant, indulgent, but not loving enough to call good and evil by name.
Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.
My six-year-old son Stephen told me he that he already knew The Giving Tree “from kindergarten,” but now he was excited about reading it on his own. When he finished he said that he loved the story. I asked him the leading question: “Do you think the tree gave too much?” “No,” Steve told me, “because she loved the boy, and she wanted to make him happy.” He did not add, as more than a few of my students might, “and if that’s what makes her happy, if that’s her opinion, then who am I to say she can’t do that?” He also did not suggest that he was worried about the tree’s lack of self respect, or about whether the boy was a mean and selfish “taker.” He did not even focus on the role that gender plays in the story. For him The Giving Tree simply concerned how somebody’s love for another involved giving in ways that, while sometimes sad, lead to happy endings. Let me take it from there.
The tale begins with the fact of the tree’s love for the boy. What follows is a depiction of the history, character, and costs of this love. This history includes periods of union as well as absence through which the love stands fast. Indeed, its precise character emerges by way of this constancy. This is a love, first, that is disinterested in that it cherishes the boy’s good for its own sake. It is also, of course, a “rejoicing in the presence of the beloved,” as the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr put it; but neither presence nor union is love’s prior condition, and while each would be a welcomed and hoped-for goal, that goal is not demanded. The tree is “happy” in her giving even when there are no hugs for her, and even when the boy goes away.
Second, we are dealing with a generous love. Not only does the tree love the boy for his own sake, but she gives to him what she no doubt knows is valuable and would have some “stake” in keeping. Crucially, she gives what is more than would be customarily expected. I think that the idea of this “more” must eventually occur to the reader during the course of the giving of apples, branches, and trunk. Now there may be criticisms of this sort of giving as foolish or weak-willed or even unjust (the critic can note that the boy does not once say, “Thank you”). It would be extremely odd, however, to characterize it as tightfisted. Surely the contrary is true.
Yet it is important for the reader to see that, third, the tree’s love for the boy is not merely generous but also, literally, self-expending. What she gives to him includes goods neither replaceable nor peripherally related to who she is; she gives what appears to be constitutive of her very being. The depth of the self-expenditure in The Giving Tree poses for us the difficult question of whether we can commend in our everyday lives a love that seems so thoroughly to diminish the self, or that can reduce our prospects for flourishing as the creatures we were apparently meant or expected to be.
When “the boy cut down her trunk and made a boat and sailed away,” “the tree was happy . . . but not really.” Why “not really”? There are a number of answers, and it contributes to the story’s richness that they need not be exclusive. The tree is sad for the boy, and sad that he is going away perhaps never to return (Stephen’s preferred reading). The tree is “sorry” that she has nothing left to give (as what immediately follows can suggest). The tree might be sorrowing over an act that, under the circumstances, decisively calls the boy’s moral regard for the tree into question. Finally, the tree is not really happy because she is now in some sense no longer a tree, or, more precisely, no longer a being who may “flourish” in the ways we usually think trees do.
So we return to my leading question. I agree with my son’s answer to it because the tree displays, fourth, a certain sort of abiding love. As a feature of her constancy, the tree endures or suffers her losses without failing to care for the boy. She waits patiently for the boy to return, and remains ready both to celebrate his presence and to serve his good. And in the story’s ending, we find that by her love the tree has become, yet again, one in and with whom the beloved may abide. Distinguished only by the bond inscribed on her heart, and “straightening herself up as much as she could,” she gives him a place to feel at home and be safe and find rest in her presence. Thus she is happy. This abiding of each with the other is what an abiding, enduring love hopes for. It cannot be demanded, let alone guaranteed. But it is this hope, as it is sent forth and realized in The Giving Tree , that assures us that the tree loved well, and gave well.
The story of this love is not just for story books. With most of us, it is not one person we love or care for, but many. In these responsibilities to others—our spouses, parents, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers—we do and should look out for their well-being as something inherently good. We also at times will give to them more than is expected, perhaps to the point of expending ourselves in some measure, and bearing up through pain and loss. And as a consequence, we may find ourselves “diminished.” We get weary or anxious, and our powers and energies flag. Projecting some individual success or prospect that would be available to us were it not for our responsibilities to others, we may detach or distance ourselves from these bonds, or at least be ready to, in order to guarantee against “losing ourselves.”
The Giving Tree presents an alternative ideal. It is that what appears to be self-loss may be in reality our deepest fulfillment, since service, not detachment, makes us into creatures with whom our fellows may in some way abide. Abiding with them, we may be happy. According to the Christian Gospel, this “ideal” is set before us as a task to which we are called by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. But that’s another story.
William Werpehowski is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.
Thoughts after reading The Giving Tree:
Those who endure to the end—are they saved?
Those who give without limit—are they rewarded?
To those who ask—is something always given?
To those who are given—do they know gratitude?
Is the tree greater than the man?
Does the man redeem the gifts he receives?
Is there friendship? Can the man return the grace?
Is the tree loving? Dependency-creating?
Is the life of the boy/man a mere repetitive cycle? Does it have purpose? Destiny? Fate? Salvation? Redemption? Pleasure? Significance? Strength? Courage? Beauty? Love? Pleasure? Independence? Is there here self-critical awareness? Maturity? Responsibility? Loyalty? Justification? Struggle? Insight? Illumination? Success? Failure? Depth? Spirituality? Reflection? Repentance? Contemplation? Is there rootedness? Tradition? Knowledge? Happiness? Sadness? Success? Failure? Hope? Despair? Prudence? Generosity? Liberality? Justice? Self-regulation? Civic-mindedness? Character? Is nature innocent, naive? Does the man exploit nature? Is there an ought-to-be in this is? Does sentimentality conquer all? Are there qualities here? Is this a start and a stop with only sentimentality between, no meaning? Might we prefer dramatic encounter with contingency through which the eternal shines, eliciting creative response, self-discovery, and transparency of soul to being? Yes.
Timothy Fuller is Dean of Colorado College.
Leon R. Kass
Several reasons could be offered for reading The Giving Tree to one’s children. It conveys important truths about our human situation and about human giving. It might induce appropriate attitudes and salutary sentiments or inspire fine conduct by imitation. And it could occasion educative moral discourse—about giving and receiving, about loving and being loved, and about what makes for human happiness.
All of us live and flourish only because we are the beneficiaries of unconditional and unmerited generosity, natural and human. We are graciously fed with the bounty of nature, from mother’s milk to the fruits of the earth, and not because we deserve it. Beginning even before we are born, we live necessarily as consumers of the substance of others—of their bodies and labors, their time and energy, their attention and care, their love. We live using up not only the renewable resources—like leaves and apples—but also the irreplaceable essence—branches and trunk—of others, especially of our parents, and most especially of our mothers.
The giving tree, identified as female, is an image of mother love. She loves the boy selflessly and unconditionally, because he is her own. Because she loves him, which is to say, because she desires his happiness above all else, she gives to him without condition and without measure. Her own happiness consists in contributing to his happiness: Only when she thinks she has nothing left to give him is she not happy to see him, and her happiness is restored—as is her dignity: “Straightening herself up as much as she could”—when she realizes that she can still give him what he needs. Blessed is the mother who is able to help her child, at whatever age. This truth about parental happiness is surely known by any loving parent who has been compelled to watch impotently while his child is suffering.
To some especially “liberated” readers, the self-sacrificing behavior of the tree will seem perverse: Why does she not give only of her surplus, in a giving that does not exhaust the giver, in a giving that does not destroy the possibility of future giving? But here speaks only calculation, not mother love. Indeed, the tree’s self-expenditure is, at the same time, paradoxically not self-denial but self-fulfillment—at least self-fulfillment as a loving mother and as a giver. For her child is, in a sense, the mother-at-work: She lives in her children and in their flourishing. Besides, to live means always to spend one’s substance—one’s time, one’s effort, one’s soul. Those who are always husbanding their resources or their being for some future occasion do not live, and hence cannot live happily.
Yet the happiness of the boy served by the tree differs from the tree’s own happiness of service. True, formally considered, happiness for both of them is the perfect match between the heart’s desires and the power to satisfy them. But the boy’s desires are not like the tree’s. He seeks to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life: child’s play, young love, marital and paternal fulfillment, distraction from sorrows, a restful old age. Although in no way grand, these are decent enough desires, in no way reprehensible. Yet the boy is not himself a giver, nor is there anything in the ever-indulgent conduct of his unconditionally loving mother that would encourage or induce him to imitate her generosity.
If the tree”and mother love”is to be faulted it is not for self-denial but for lack of wisdom. To give without qualification is defective not because it gains nothing in return for the giver but because it may be harmful to the recipient. For giving to be excellent, it must be done wisely”which is to say, one must give the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. How can giving”or loving”be good if it does not foster goodness in the recipient? Mother love is, by its very nature, prone to prodigality and foolishness: loving their own without qualification, mothers often love not wisely but too well.
Could reading the story of mother love to a child supply what mother love lacks? Perhaps a precocious child, identifying with the boy, will come to see how much he owes to his mother. Admiration for her selfless love and extraordinary generosity—undemanding and unrequited—might in a noble nature induce gratitude or, at least, prompt shame for ingratitude. Perhaps the child as taker will come to identify also with the tree as giver, and will see—or at least hear—that the tree was happiest when she was giving: In the end, the “boy” (i.e., the old man) merely found rest, but only the tree was said to be happy. Perhaps conversation with the child about the story could help enlarge his little recipient’s soul.
I doubt it. The overt lesson of the story from the point of view of the boy is that the tree always has more to give, not that one should become a giver oneself. Besides, the poignancy of the story depends on self-conscious awareness of the life cycle—of puberty, leaving home, disappointment, and decline. It is a rare young child who senses what life has in store for him, or that he might someday be in the place of his mother or father, with a child of his own to love and rear. This is not a story likely to teach virtue or gratitude to a child when young.
Yet I would urge parents, especially today, to read this story to their children because of what it can do for us, the parents. For the giving tree is an emblem of the sacred memory of our own mother’s love, without which our life and our progress into adulthood would have been impossible. If we were lucky, we had mothers who were always there, always generous, always loving: whatever trust we acquired regarding our own worthiness and the possible goodness of the world we learned-indirectly—from her generous love. Now, with children of our own to care for, we need spiritually to return to our source, which we are now able to see truly for the first time. Reading The Giving Tree to our children can thus inspire gratitude in us as parents and can encourage us to repay our debts to our own mothers (and fathers) in the only way we can—by gladly spending our substance in the loving care of our own children.
There may also be a small direct benefit to our children. For, God willing, children to whom The Giving Tree is read when they are young may eventually come to understand its meaning—and the meaning of having parents who read it to them—when they can-with rich memories—read it in turn to their own children.
Leon R. Kass is Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought at The University of Chicago.
Timothy P. Jackson
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
—William Butler Yeats
Ever since Eden, some of us have been phobic about apple trees. Having initially eaten of the wrong fruit, we will now not eat of any; we fear take two on the Fall, so we deny the neediness that would make us consumers. We may even fault the giving trees of this world: they are too indulgent of others and too sacrificial of themselves. No self-respecting bough should let herself be sawed off, and no other regarding boy should take without remorse. Codependency, we reason, is the root of life’s evils. This is a mistake, however.
We are no longer in the Garden, and this time it is abstinence that means death. We are evidently supposed to fell and fashion trees; Jesus was a carpenter, after all. The voice of the serpent now praises prudent self-reliance, as though love does not expend itself unconditionally. George Orwell knew better. “The essence of being human,” he wrote, “is . . . that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.” Shel Silverstein knows better too.
I cannot say that I read Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to my children, since I have none. But the high compliment I can pay his story is that it makes me want to have readable children. The Giving Tree is a wonderful tale not only because it schools the young in the virtue of generosity but also because it encourages the old to be hopeful about the young—in spite of, even because of, their dependency. The primary lesson is that it is good to need each other.
It will be objected that the tree is masochistic and the boy ungrateful, yet early on we are told that the tree loves the boy and the boy loves the tree. Moreover, the tree’s love is not an abstract, impersonal benevolence: She wants interaction and relationship. Like a mother, she is saddened by the boy’s absence. The boy is rather self-absorbed, and I have no stake in defending him in detail. But I would not be too hard on him, either. Is not impatience the way of youth, and beyond? As the boy grows older, he visits the tree less often and his wants and needs change, but the latter are never merely destructive or unreasonable. Who has never asked his parents for material goods? It is the tree, in any event, with whom we should principally identify.
The boy does not stop to say, “Thank you” (a vice), and he does not consume resources sustainably (must we be that PC?). Nevertheless, he does mature. The evolving list of his desires includes: money, a house, a wife, children, a boat, and finally a quiet place to sit and rest. These are all intelligible, even predictable, and no pure taker would marry and build in the ways suggested. The boy’s wish for the sailing trip is unexplained; maybe he is undergoing a midlife crisis, but perhaps he has lost his wife and family prematurely and needs to get away and forget. In any case, the tree’s giving for the boy’s sake continually makes her happy, with only one exception . . . when she has nothing more to give. When “the boy” (now an old man) is at last content to sit still with her, the tree, though stripped, is once again happy, even fulfilled.
Is this a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is sad. We are all needy, and, if we are lucky and any good, we grow old using others and getting used up. Tears fall in our lives like leaves from a tree. Our finitude is not something to be regretted or despised, however; it is what makes giving (and receiving) possible. The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.
The tree is gladly crucified on the cross of itself. This joy in service marks the tree as the type of Christ: “This is my body which is given for you . . . ” The tree would not infantilize “the boy” by giving him what he needs, any more than Christ would infantilize “the children of God” by dying for them. With God we have to take the active, conscious step of asking for help; the boy asks primarily for things, but he too must voice his vulnerability in order to be cared for. For all its gifting of itself, however, the tree is not untouched; it also receives from the boy. Even as a stump, the tree is literally marked by the boy’s love. The carved heart with “M.E. + T.” inside endures across all changes, simultaneously a scar and a sign of love. Love bears all things and it never ends, even if life does. We must think the tree happy, not like the absurd Sisyphus but like the Suffering Servant.
Timothy Jackson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
Recently I handed Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to a bright and very giving mother of a three-month-old baby girl. Her first comment was, “Shel Silverstein. He’s pretty famous, isn’t he?” Her second comment, after reading The Giving Tree, was: “This is a vicious book. I’m surprised. I thought he was supposed to be a good children’s author.” I pressed this new mother. “Why,” I asked, “do you think it’s vicious?” And she said, “Well, just look at the tree. It has nothing left. It’s just a stump. And the boy, or man, is just constantly ‘gimme gimme’ and he expects the tree to give him anything he wants or needs. He never really grows up. He’s just spoiled. He’s like so many Americans. He thinks there should always be someone to satisfy his wants anytime he wants anything.” I concurred with this assessment; indeed, I had already formulated this assessment before I put the mother of our granddaughter JoAnn, our daughter Heidi, to the test. I am pleased, therefore, to report that she is a chip off the old maternal block, or a branch off the stem as the case may be. Let it also be said that Heidi’s mother, unlike the “giving tree” in question, hopes to have a few working bits remaining when she reaches the end of this earthly pilgrimage. In other words, I do not aspire to stumpdom.
Why not? Am I, then, ungiving? I would hate to think so. In fact, I think the “giving” in Silverstein’s story is suspect: it smacks of bad faith. Oh yes, we are told that the boy loves the tree and the tree loves the boy. They have a wonderful life together at the beginning, partly constructed out of the boy’s fantasy that he is “king of the forest.” Like the always good mother of infant fantasy, the tree supplies nourishment, shelter, succor, and is a fun pal to boot. The tree and the boy are happy, poised in a kind of eternal equilibrium (or the tree, presumably, would have it so), a world in which nothing ever happens or changes.
But change will come. The boy grows older. The tree just stands there”it is, after all, a tree. The tree doesn’t find new company. It is alone. This is an ideal fantasy for the one who has deserted, namely, that what one has deserted is frozen in time, expectant, awaiting one’s return. Life doesn’t go on for the tree, although the tree swings into action when the boy returns and wants “some money.” Needed once again, the tree obliges. The tree is happy—another perfect fantasy for the apple-taker who can meet his needs without ever incurring opposition, argument, friction of any kind. On and on it goes. The boy wants a house. Fine. Take my branches. The tree, although denuded in a rather major way, is happy. The boy, of course, stays away for a long time. (I dare say he never writes.) But the tree stands firm. She is beside herself when the boy returns. The man is old and sad. Take my trunk, sail away, be happy.
A little bit of sadness enters at last. The tree isn’t really happy. The reader perks up. Perhaps the tree has at least realized that this relationship is entirely one-sided, not that of a parent to a child in a realistic and decent and loving relationship, but that of a fantasized maternal figure to a narcissistic child in a relationship that is riddled with plenty of passive-aggressive nonsense. Why is the tree sad? Because it has nothing left to give.
The boy, now an old man, sans wife or children or any evidence of having lived a life, returns to the maternal tree/stump and sits. The tree is happy at last. In an odd way, the tree is victorious—she has the boy with her and they are both wrecks but they are together—but it is a pernicious sort of victory, bought at the expense of her “treeness” and the boy’s humanness. This isn’t a happy story. It’s a sappy one. And it has nothing to do with caritas or agape either, for that matter.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at The University of Chicago.
Richard John Neuhaus
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 “but” 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.