“Happiness is a place between too much and too little.”
“And the tree was happy … but not really.”
—The Giving Tree
TRANSLATED INTO MORE than 30 languages, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (1964) holds a place in many hearts as one of the greatest children’s books ever written on unconditional love. It also features prominently on many lists of controversial or outright banned books for children. The story is simply told and sweetly drawn: A tree, notably deemed a “she,” loves a little boy so much that she progressively gives more and more of herself to him, his needs and requests expanding throughout his life. First she provides her shade and her leaves, then her apples, and later her branches and trunk. Ultimately, she is reduced to a stump. The boy — still addressed by the tree as “Boy” by the end, despite being an old man — never hesitates to take what is freely offered. Nor does he ever say “Thank you.”
The recurring refrain, “And the tree was happy,” consummates each escalated sacrifice. It is the only repeated line in the 621-word story. Only once does the author interject with a variation on the phrase after the boy has cut down the tree’s trunk (to build a boat to sail away in). The line reads, “And the tree was happy … but not really.” However, that is not the final exchange in the book; the boy eventually returns after decades pass. The tree apologizes that she has nothing left to offer the boy, but then they mutually realize that her stump is all he needs, a place to sit and rest. The book’s final words? “And the tree was happy.”
Whether you’re sobbing or gagging at the end, you’re not alone. “The Giving Tree” has been given plenty of valid characterizations, from being an allegory for late-stage capitalism to an eco-conscious parable to a codependence playbook to a celebration of male privilege (the latter claim of sexism being the driving justification for the book’s ban). My mother-in-law, a true gem of a human who taught nursery school for 30 years and has a degree in early childhood development, praises the story’s demonstration of selflessness as aspirational. Yet when pressed about the gender dynamics at play, she admits to never having considered the story from the perspective of gender roles, the modeling of boundless generosity being inherently female.
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Is the idea that maternal generosity necessitates the complete ruination of the giver? Or if we drop the parenting metaphor — what is the takeaway of a story that equates happiness to the wholesale abandonment of self for another?
There is a pervasive theory that the tale is about the sacrifices of motherhood, or parenthood in general. The author himself only stated that it is about “a relationship between two people; one gives, and the other takes.” Is the idea that maternal generosity necessitates the complete ruination of the giver? Or if we drop the parenting metaphor — what is the takeaway of a story that equates happiness to the wholesale abandonment of self for another?
Shel Silverstein famously disliked giving interviews and frequently bemoaned any deeper analysis of his work. While I don’t usually consider an author’s personal narrative in the context of their creative output, the confusion and polarization over the book’s messaging compelled me to look for clues on the author’s intent.
Silverstein was a Lothario. A stalwart presence at the Playboy Mansion, he fathered a daughter with a Playmate, who died when the child was only 5 years old. He then sent his daughter to live with relatives instead of bringing her into his life. Sadly, the child died at age 11 from a brain aneurysm; Silverstein later dedicated “A Light in the Attic” to her. In this case, his motto appears too fitting. “Comfortable shoes and the freedom to leave are the two most important things in life.”
I read “The Giving Tree” with each of my kids and later with some of their friends. Their hot takes proved illuminating:
“What is this book even about?”
“She didn’t get any respect. I was happy for them but also ... very sad for her. He cuts down her branches ... but she does tell him to do it.”
“This is just — it is just mean! They loved each other, and now they’re killing each other. Money, houses, boats — this isn’t love, it’s economy! And cannibalism.”
“At the end of this book, I feel bad. And because I feel bad, the story is telling you not to act that way.”
“At first, the maternal feeling was appealing, but as it progressed, their relationship rapidly felt grotesque. The boundarylessness was destabilizing. I didn’t like it when they would read this to us on the carpet at school, and at the time, I didn’t know why.” —Josh, 48 (technically not a child), on his conflicted relationship with this book.
What responsibility does a story directed at children have to clarify whether its message is one of warning or endorsement? Is a book culpable if it highlights problematic behavior, without commentary, to children who are likely to have a conflicted understanding of it? Should there be caveats explaining that some actions are to be viewed as cautionary tales?
If it feels as though I am taking this 57-year-old children’s book too personally, it’s because I am. Like so many people, perhaps women in particular, I am currently suspended in a season that has me stretched so thin as to be translucent. The pandemic has only magnified an existent reality; I think I have felt this way for years. My friend Sophie, an anthropology professor at Vanderbilt and a mother of two, calls “The Giving Tree” the ballad of the working mother. Sorry, we’re stumps. We’ve tried; we’re still trying.
I relate to Sophie, and to this stump. But I am not a giving tree. I do not feel “happy” to give when I am this worn down. What I am is something else, something closer to bone-weary. Resigned? Besieged? In some moments, fiercely angry.
This season will bring renewal, and I will find a way to take a six-week nap. At the same time, I find myself asking, How do I model a new path for my daughter, where she can have a family and a career, and all roads won’t lead to stump town? If a giving tree never falls in the forest — because she didn’t invite anyone to cut her down — what kind of story might that be?
Ivy Elrod Writer
Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.
Gigi Rose Gray Illustrator
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator and fine artist born and raised in New York City, now living in Los Angeles. She received a BFA in illustration at Parsons School of Design.