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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

I give up

I hate “The Giving Tree.”

When I first read this book years ago as a child I thought, as many people did, that this was a sweet story about the giving nature we should all hope to emulate. Yet, even then there was something that annoyed me about it when I re-read it for the second time. I remember not being able to put my finger on it, that something seemed off about the story, and instead of being guided to a better and more generous position I was only left with empty sadness. Why did the tree have to essentially die? Where is the boy in the times of long silence? The book made me angry at the tree, and angry at the boy. Yet, it was read during children's sermons, at Christian camps, and even at youth group meetings as if it was some kind of holy grail, some pinnacle in the theological achievement of man with no discussion, no explanation, just that last scene hanging in the air as if we were supposed to grab on to the implicit wisdom.

Since then, I have re-read the story that has been described as a sadomasochistic relationship. The tree enabling the boy to only hurt it over and over again until almost nothing is left. The end of the book shows two beings, both aged and weak in the failing twilight of existence. This is a children’s book?

The fact is that Shel, who got his published start with Playboy Magazine, very well have might never intended the book to be for children, or at the very least not just for children. His enigmatic nature and refusal to reveal any peeks behind the curtain of his persona and published work create a body that is ripe for critical appreciation and examination.

The opening portion of the story portrays the little boy essentially sharing a life with the tree. The two are close, but there is still the element of love being present or equated with what is provided. The boy gathers leaves, eats apples, swings from branches and sleeps in her shade. While none of these elements cost the tree anything, neither is the boy in any way caring for the tree. There is no mutuality. Yet this love of the boy makes the tree happy. It is interesting that this love comes at a price; would the boy love the tree for its simple existence? The tree does not love the boy, it is only happy when the boy is happy.

As the boy ages, he get’s “too big” to climb and play. The boys desires outstrips what the tree can directly provide, yet the tree consistently gives all, literally everything she is to the boy. Each time the boy receives something the tree is happy, interspersed with long periods of sadness in which the tree is left alone. The tree gives each time knowing in some way (especially in the last instance of giving in which the tree gives her trunk to make a boat so the boy can sail away) that the boy is going to be leaving, assumedly making the tree sad in his absence. The tree acts as enabler to actions that continue to injure her.

In the last scene, at the end of life, the tree is surprised that she still has something left to give the boy, but it is a sad moment as dying tree and dying boy sit alone in the final panel. The boy’s constant taking has reshaped the tree into just what the boy needs then at that moment. Is the lesson here to re-make the world into what we will need? To be warned? To see the hubris of our desire? Many point out that the boy is never once, in any point of life thankful or grateful at what the tree is constantly providing except to say that in childhood the boy loved the tree, but this is never said in adulthood.

The book has a universe of two -- created archetypes that boil the whole of conscious creation into the giver and the receiver. The boy gives nothing to the tree, except - and only at childhood - his love. This love is shifted to another and then not talked about again for the remainder of the story. The Tree too never talks of love, only the happiness she feels when the boy is (assumedly) made happy by her giving. Surely this is a world of order, but of arguably perverse or broken order that has no equality or gratitude. Only the never ending desire of the boy and the will of the tree to meet those needs at any and every cost.

An interesting point is that the tree is female. While the boy represents mankind, the female tree, which could just as easily be Mother Nature, or the natural world, is easily taken as the male Jesus. When I re-read this book for the purposes of this paper I was shocked to find female pronouns. Until that moment I was sure that the tree was male. How did I miss this?! Growing up was I such a product of a misogynist society that I simply heard what I expected? Our household and larger family was rife with strong female roles and characters who could have easily been associated with selfless giving. Did I, even then, imagine the tree as God and simple associate the maleness of my image of God to the tree in the story. I have no answers for these questions, and include it only to share how thunderstruck I was at the revelation.

Yet it begged a further questions. Does the tree need to be female? Does it need to be male? Does it need to have gender in any case? If we associate the tree with Christ, or God, it would be better perhaps to have a sexless provider.

Female trees produce apples, however. A male historic Jesus provides the bread of heaven. The nature of the sex of the character of the tree is poignant I think, if we look at our expectations in terms of provider. Male trees do not provide fruit. Yet, the historic male Jesus lived, taught, and died on the cross. The provision nature of these two aspects lends itself I think to perceive the overall neutral or “complete” nature of God to begin, allowing us to shed completely the gender expectation of requirement in God.

A story was told that Shel and his friend, a Jesuit priest, met in the park and the priest asked his friend to describe Jesus Christ. This book was to be that answer. This was later to be revealed to have been a fabrication created by the priest to align with sermons he was giving on the topic at that time. The fact is that Shel never reveals which aspects of the book may or may not represent the almighty. Christians are quick to describe the tree (a woman remember!) as Christ, and the boy as all of humankind. This is the worst kind of theology, not only making Jesus something that is available for our whim, and even finds his happiness there, but it has none of the passionate thanksgiving that is supposed to be a deep part of our interaction with Christ and God, and has been in psalms and throughout scripture for all of time. Additionally, there is no charge from the tree that the boy should share what is given (freely), instead the boy sells apples to supply his own need, builds his own house, and sails away to escape the sadness in his own life. How is this tree supposed to be like Christ again? It does nothing but support the continual selfish actions of the boy at every turn. The only time the boy returns to the tree is to get what he wants.

Others see the story differently, which I want to mention only briefly since they do not necessarily apply to what we are looking at here, but provide an alternate outlook to the story. Not everyone has fallen into the bad theology trap of trying to shoehorn Christianity into a book that it has no business being a part of.

In 1998 a phenomenographical study was performed in relation to this book with Swedish and Japanese parents. This type study investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something. It is an approach to educational research which appeared in publications in the early 1980s. I. E, , the world exists and different people construe it in different ways and from a non-dualist viewpoint. What it found was that Swedish mothers and children tended to interpret the book as having to do with friendship, while Japanese mothers interpreted the book to be about parent-child relationships.

How did this story go from being recognized as “one of the most divisive books in children’s literature” and rejection by Simon and Schuster for being “too sad” to it being championed by Christians as a “parable on the joys of selfless giving?”

Perhaps it resonates with our understanding of who we are as human beings. Needy, greedy, and never truly thankful. Perhaps we see in the boy all of our own desires and folly and we take and take, not only from God without any real thankfulness but from God’s created world at large. To that last point there is of course the thread of eco-warning that we can pull from the book; that the constant consumption will leave us with no more bounty or beauty to look at, enjoy or experience.

In The Giving Tree, the human is the villain. We follow our own hedonistic choices and are trained this way from our childhood. While it might seem innocent enough playing “king of the forest,” what are we truly kings of? Instead, we note how in the book, each time the tree is injured, or made less, it is paired with a reference to an earlier childhood game. I no longer eat the apples, but sell them - the apples are mine. I no longer swing from the branches, but cut them down and live in them - the branches have always been mine. The trunk is not what I will climb up, but cut down - I will make my escape at the final expense of your life.

And there! That is the only glimmer of theology I can find here that is acceptable. In the episode with the trunk, the boy, now a man, has realized that pain and torment of life and seeks escape. The tree, now just a trunk, gives the last part of it’s life in order to make good the boy’s escape. It is a perfect substitutionary, even penal, atonement theory. The tree has done nothing to the life of the boy, and is not touched by the pain of life that troubles him, yet willingly give up the last bit of itself to fashion a boat. Interestingly enough only after this (when the boy finally returns) are the tree and the boy again at some kind of peace. The boy has stopped taking and can finally simply enjoy the tree as it is. Selfishness it seems is at an end, yet there is no remorse or lasting kindness from the boy even at this late and perhaps “saved” state. Humans it seems are selfish to the core.

Perhaps we like the image of a God who is stationary. Rooted in place, so we know where to come when we have need. How have many christians done this very same thing to God already through their perception of the church. God dwells there. If you need to pray, if you need prayer, if you need something it will always be there. How different this idea is from the moving, active, socially aware, loving and caring Christ we find in the gospel. How passive, how troubling, and sad is the God who sits in one place at the beck and call of her only love. Here we have a God who lives to serve us and has no claim of its own. No wonder it was on the bestseller list.

In a cartoon entitled “I accept the Challenge” which was published in Different Dances, Shel looked at what can only be the same themes found in The Giving Tree in a more adult manner. In this cartoon a nude woman cuts off a nude man's arms and legs with scissors, then sits on his torso in a pose similar to the final drawing in Giving Tree in which the old man sits on the stump (see below).

The woman consumes the man for her need, and yet still unfulfilled she sits sadly waiting for a “real” man to arrive. Just as the boy sits, after dismantling the one thing the used to bring him joy, waits for something else to take him.

I have tried to picture the boy as God instead. Asking for our continual sacrifice as human beings, our joy then coming from the satisfaction at providing to God the works for the kingdom God is building. Even at our own end, when we think we have nothing to offer, we have instead the very perfect thing that God intentioned for us at that moment. That God is shaping us our whole lives, and that what seems to us to be a lessening of our structure of who we are, ends up bringing us closer to God in the end (as we the tree and God the boy sit in total peace and communion). The tree then is never said to love the boy because is it really possible for linear, finite humanity to truly love God. God loves the tree, but the tree has to be satisfied with joy at being useful in the plan and tasks of God. It falls short as God then becomes absent, but if we were to untether the tree in space, it could be the tree that is absent from God (the boy), re-finding that marvelous joy only when God re-enters life. I am almost sure that this nothing like what Shel intended, but it almost makes more sense than trying to picture Christ as the tree.

There is a part of me that wants to redeem this story, if for no other reason that I have good memories of it being read in the warmth and comfort of our local library during storytime on cold and rainy days, but I have trouble being able to do that -- to find a way to reverse this “text of terror (as a story through the lens of the exploitation of woman and nature)” and let it mean what Silverstein intended.

But that begs the questions, what did he intend? This is after all the same man who wrote for Playboy and whose picture is used to ensure the compliance of children in “Diary of A wimpy Kid.” It’s possible he isn’t a nice man.

It’s possible that he always meant for it to be a sad tale of woe, or as some suggest a satire piece commenting on the passivity of female givers in relationships as mother or wife. If it is about God or Christ, then the picture is bleak. It’s a condemning piece about the nature of humanity that we cannot escape. Even our attempts at atonement in the form of the boat eventually fall short as we return again to the tree, empty old and broke. Too old to enjoy the fruit of God, to weary to enjoy the vigor God once provided, too jaded to play in joy with the Lord, we are destined to only sit and await the end of our mortal life. Nothing is done about our plight, and in the end nothing can be done to help us, except to provide for our comfort while we sit empty of the person we once were.

At best the giving tree is a thoughtless commentary on how we are and a warning to do things differently, at worst it is a terrible theological forray into a God who has failed and sits quietly waiting for the end with his beloved creation with whom at one time used to walk in the cool of the evening together. We are left like the boy, alone and facing away, looking to the distant horizon with our hat in our hand.

And to think they give this book to kids for Christmas.

"The Actual '73 Giving Tree Movie Spoken By Shel Silverstein." YouTube. 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 10 Apr. 2014. .

Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.

Baughan, Michael Gray. Shel Silverstein. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.

Case-Winters, Anna. Reconstructing a Christian Theology of Nature: Down to Earth. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub., 2007. Print.

"Top 100 Picture Books #85: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein." A Fuse 8 Production. Web. 10 Apr. 2014.

Cole, William. About Alice, A rabbit, A tree... New York Times Book Review, September 9, 1973.

Joseph T. Thomas Jr. Reappraising Uncle Shelby. Horn Book Magazine, San Diego State University, 2005.

A Mother and a Friend: Differences in Japanese and Swedish Mothers' Understanding of a Tale - I. Samuelsson, U. Mauritzson, M. Carlsson, M. Ueda. Childhood - 12/1998

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