_The Giving Tree_ & mysogyistic messages. What was Silverstein thinking?

A) I am a huge fan of Shel Silverstein, so don’t even go there
B) I like much of his work
C) I don’t think I’m hypersensitive, but I don’t see another interpretation.
D) The Giving Tree, IMHO sends a (probably unintentional to Silverstein) horrible message.

For those of you unfamiliar with the books, A little kid lives next to an apple…er…giving tree (who, iirc, is referred to as a female). I’m getting the details wrong, but this’ll convey the feel:
Little punk needs to climb, the tree lets him.
Little punk needs money to go to college. Tree says “Take my apples”. Punk strips tree, goes away to college, leaves the tree alone to (pun) pine away.
Punk comes back, needs more money, tree says “Take my branches, make a boat” Punk goes, leaving the tree alone again.
Punk needs a house, tree says “Cut me down and build a house from my trunk” Little snot does and leaves the tree alone again.
Punk is old and bent, sits on the tree’s corpse/stump. She’s dead and mutilated, but hey! They’re together at last. The end!

Note: This is played as good. The kid isn’t played as the monster he is. The tree isn’t played as a (pun warning) sap for killing herself for this selfish twerp. It’s played as right and natural and happy.

In other words: Women, your place in life is to give everything you have to abusive takers expecting nothing in return, until you die. Bleach. What was Shel thinking!?

It could’ve been done right. The kid could’ve not been a taker, or the tree could’ve realized that the kid was a taker and dropped a branch on him or something, or the tree could’ve realized that the kid was a taker and taught him better. Anything but the hopeless futility of the tree giving her life for a little toad who didn’t appreciate her.

Any other interpretations? Opinions?


I always thought the story was kind of sappy.

I vaguely remember the story, and never really thought about it, but it does sound pretty screwed up. However, would it have made any difference if to you if the tree had been portrayed as male? Or asexual? IIRC, that story made me really sad when I was a kid, but I always thought the tree was supposed to represent the unconditional love of a parent (admittedly, a mother, in my mind) for their child. I don’t know if that really changes things, though.
Man, next you’re gonna tell me Dr. Seuss did racist propaganda cartoons during WWII or something.

Wow, two new responses in just the time it took me to read the post!

I have never read the story (yet), but here’s my take anyway, for what it’s worth.

“Punk is old and bent, sits on the tree’s corpse/stump. She’s dead and mutilated, but hey! They’re together at last. The end!”

Is the message really “They’re together at last”?
Are you sure it’s not “Even after death the tree continued to serve the little punk”?

Because in the second case, another interpretation could be “Look what happens to those who are overly giving.” Do you agree/disagree and why?

I guess it’s a matter of perspective.

I’m female, and have always been really touched by the tree’s level of selflessness. I guess I see it more as nobility (however hyperbolic it may be).

To me, that is love: giving completely to make the other person happy and safe and well and fulfilled. It may sound maladjusted just plain treacly, but I have gotten, and do get, a lot out of that kind of relationship with the people I love.

Remember, the boy did finally come back to the tree, in the end.

No, the whole exchange is painted in a positve light. In the end the tree says something like, “Yeah, you’ve screwed me over and I have nothing left, but I’m still happy because I love you and I helped you. Warm fuzzies!” (There’s some serious paraphrasing going on there.) I don’t now if the message is really mysogynistic but I always thought it was waaaay messed up.

I agree, to a point, but he took so much and it never seemed to cross his mind to give anything back. There is no respect, without that, a relationship is * seriously * unbalanced.**

Yes, but she was physically devastated by then! A stump in the ground, I tell you! Ew!

I always thought the kid was a jerk, too. A selfish jerk.

It could easily be “Even after death the tree continued to serve…”, but the tone is bittersweet-to-happy. It’s very clear that the tree doesn’t regret her sacrifice and it’s not played as a cautionary tale.

Regarding selflessness: It’s all well and good to be selfless, and if the tree had sacrificed herself for a purpose other than satisfying the punk’s whim-du-jour, it coulda been beautiful. As it is, it seems dysfunctional.

And yeah, it would have been screwed up if the tree was male or asexual, but I think there’s another level by making it a woman: there’s an idea that women should “stand by their man”. It’d be like making the selfish punk Jewish: It would make it worse, because there’s the whole “Jews are selfish” stereotype.

Creaky: But, presumably the people you’re giving to either give back or appreciate your gifts. The punk expects it. He’s not greatful at all. The only time he shows up is when he needs something. Even at the end, he only comes back to sit on her corpse, not because he cares.
(IMHO, of course)


Yeah, I know… but stumps are nice too. Maybe a metaphor for a woman in her old age?? I saw it as the boy’s appreciation of the “Tree/Woman”, if you will, even when she was old and not so pretty anymore, after he had tired of his follies (or whatever took him from her).

Like he finally realized what was truly important, and came back to it, and the tree was intrinsically charitable and loving enough to forgive.

(And you know, it’s possible that Miss Tree had a coupla flings with a few hot young saplings on the side in the meantime, but it just wasn’t in that version of the book! :D)

And yeah, I totally agree with you that relationships lacking respect are very sad.

But if not for him, she would have still been a lovely, lush, green tree. OTHER kids could have enjoyed her branches, her shade, and beauty. Age is something that happens to you no matter what, although I’m sure the trials of raising a coupla kids will take a few years off your lifespan.

I sure Uncle Shel MEANT to write a beautiful metaphor about a parent’s love for a child. It just doesn’t play that way.

Fenris, you’re reading WAY too much into a very nice story.

We usually call this book The Taking Boy. I think it’s nothing short of creepy. I’ve never thought of it as particularly mysogynistic, though. It always just seemed like the story of a relationship between a jerk and a doormat.

At the end, when the boy comes back to the stump, he’s only sad because the tree has nothing left to give. Sure, it’s easy to lament the loss of the tree when the boy can no longer feed like a hog at the trough. I’m convinced that if he could figure out how to use her stump and her root system, he would. Aha, here’s some mysogynisim for you – he’s like the husband one sees on Cops who is crying “I love you, honey!” in the wake of the ambulance that is taking his wife away after he has beaten her to a pulp. At that point, “I love you, honey” and a buck will get him a cup of coffee, and hopefully 5 - 10 years.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out what Silverstein was thinking. Maybe it’s a tale of caution – don’t be like the Taking Boy, or people will post on message boards about what a disgusting git you are?

I always saw the ending as just another way the tree was “giving” to the boy, even after death, and not as any sign of appreciation or togetherness.

And I was rather shocked when I heard the story as a child. It was great when the boy loved spending time in the loyal tree’s branches. It was alright when he took the apples. But when he chopped off the tree’s limbs. . . I mean, what an apalling way to treat a loyal friend! And then he even kills the tree. I mean, WTF?! And, when he’s old and grey, he uses the tree even more as a stump to sit on. It’d be one thing if he’d been nice to the tree and it dies of natural causes and he was sitting on it, but that tree died because of his selfishness.

Anyway, I think the story’s about capitalism, exploiting every possible resource to the fullest extent possible. Once the boy grows up, his exploitation of the tree all serves some financial reason. And then, in his old age, he is still supported by his previous heartless behavior. But then, that’s just me. In any case, I do agree that the story is kinda messed up.

More disturbing than “The Giving Tree” is “The Missing Piece”. It’s about this circle with a piece missing so he looks like pac-man. He’s rolling along, miserable because he’s missing a piece and he doesn’t roll well, then he finds the right piece. Joyously, and lovingly they reunite, and he can roll again. Then he decides he doesn’t like the piece, gets rid of her, and goes back to bitching about how he’s missing a piece.

What he said.

I don’t think I can read that story or the Velveteen Rabbit without crying to this day. And I always want to throttle the two kids in the story. (Yes, I know, VR had a happy ending, no thanks to the twit kid who threw the old toy out.)

It is a heck of a thought-provoking story, though. On the first layer, there’s a purely selfless, even noble love. On the second layer, there’s the caution about how something which is good can be taken advantage of by those who are less scrupulous. And there’s the third layer – might the little twit have turned out not to be such a taker if she hadn’t given to him? How many kids do you know who got spoiled by very good and loving parents who just wanted to make their children happy and ended up going overboard? Or how many parents sacrifice(d) terribly to give their children better things…only to have the kids pretty much only come around when they needed something more?

My take on it? It’s a cautionary tale. “Giving is good. Giving too much isn’t.”

Ah, a discussion about the only book I’ve ever refused to read to preschoolers. There’s just something sick and wrong about reading this book to small impressionable children, and it horrifies me that so many adults do.

In this thread( http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=73785&pagenumber=1 )I decided this ending would have been better:

"And as the boy sat on the stump of the tree, she still loved the boy. But he was a selfish jerk, so she gave him one final thing: a splinter in his behind. Since the boy was old and shaky, he couldn’t remove the splinter, so it got infected and he died of blood poisoning. And the tree was happy."

Isn’t it more fair?

I remember an Oscar Wilde short story called “The Golden Prince” (or something like that) which I thought did the job better. It was still disturbing, but it was beautiful.

I think that “The Giving Tree” isn’t exactly a horrible mysogynistic tale. If I recall correctly, the tree gave the boy permission to take everything that he took. (He asked before he took, right?) The story is sad and disturbing, true, but I don’t think the message is that the boy’s constant taking is a good thing.

And that’s the problem. Message to little boys: it’s ok to take whatever you like without saying thank you. Message to little girls: you should give everything with a smile, even if it hurts you.

It’d be bad enough if the genders were reversed (thus being a less typical portrayal of the roles who’d do either) or if there was just one of the two messages. <shakes head>

It’s been a while since I read it, but if memory serves me right, the kid does a weird passive-agressive sort of whine before each taking.

For example:

like that. He didn’t just take, but she didn’t really offer freely either, he guilted her into each choice (except maybe the first one)


It’s not that the boy’s taking was a good thing, but (to me) that the Tree’s endless giving was good. Subtle distinction, but more-or-less equally bad messages.