Is The Giving Tree Good?

The Giving Tree: In Which Tree Is the Hero

Social Network Sunday features books made into networks.  Characters become nodes connected by specific interactions, which, here, is direct speech; a line between characters is called an edge.  How many edges a character has indicates her importance to the stability of the network, a structural centrality that doesn’t always match thematic centrality.  The purpose of this feature is less interpretation than experimentation.  For more on method, please see the first essay in this series.

Today is Social Network Sunday’s first audience request! (Thanks, Christine!) Shel Silverstein’s The Giving TreeFamous, controversial, and bizarre: this is one of the sparsest texts in children’s literature.  There are three characters: Tree, Boy, and an unnamed person seen only from the legs down.

Illustration from The Giving Tree. Text reads "and the boy grew older"The plot is this: a tree loves a boy over the course of his lifespan and, to satisfy his desires, gives him everything she has—her apples, her leaves, her limbs—until she is just a stump that he ends the book sitting on.  Adding to the sparsity of character and plot is that of the illustrations—a kind of Samuel Beckett for kids.  Other than the characters, there is only the following pictured: grass below Tree and Boy, clothes and later a suitcase for Boy, and a couple rocks on the hide-and-seek panel.  Equally minimalist are the adjectives.  The repetition of happy—what Tree is seeking—is swallowed up by the higher combined frequency of unhappy words—what brings Boy back to the tree—tired, alone, old, sad, busy, weak, sorry.

Illustration from the Giving Tree. Text reads "And the would play hide and go seek"

In most books where the controversy is over meaning, the focus is on allegory: first, whether the book should be read allegorically, and second, which of the possible allegorical meanings should be prioritized, i.e. whether we should read Babar or Where the Wild Things as fantasies of child development or imperialism.

With its extreme minimalism, emphasized by the great expanses of white on its pages, The Giving Tree presents an entirely different challenge.  Is there anything other than allegory?

Yes, but to see it, you need form.  It should be no surprise that this is the sparsest network yet covered:

Network for The Giving Tree. Tree is connected to Boy by a straight line

But there is something here, structurally, that doesn’t exist in the content.  Equality.  According to the network, with its equal number of edges, there is no protagonist, no winner or loser, no giver or taker.  There is, as in illustration, only a boy and a tree.  There is balance.  Unlike all the networks thus far covered—in fact, unlike most books—we cannot tell the protagonist by the amount of edges, which means, we cannot tell whose story it is based on the social network.

There are, however, other formal characteristics of centrality, and here, the most telling is screen time.  Only the Tree appears alone.  The Giving Tree, as its title suggests, is not the story of a boy.

Let me, then, restate the plot with less content specificity.  The Giving Tree is the story of someone who loses her family and then must earn her happy ending—of not being alone—by completing three tasks of escalating difficulty, asked of her by a character who appears and disappears after the tasks are completed.  This should sound more familiar—and less allegorical—as a form.

This is, of course, a fairy-tale.  A minimalist hero’s quest for a hero who can’t move. In fairy-tales, the tasks that the protagonist completes for the donor or villain are, no matter how altruistic they look in the moment, never pure gifts, in the sense of a gift not given in anticipation of return.  They are exchanges.  You give—your limbs, your freedom, your voice—in exchange for your happy ending.

Colloquially, we say “happy ending” to mean something that meets the societal expectation of what constitutes ultimate happiness—wealth, marriage, prestige.  In this way, Shel Silverstein was right when he claimed the ending to this book was sad.

In actual fairy tales, though, this is not what happy ending means.  The “happiness” is relational and internally symmetrical to the story.  The ending the hero earns is in proportion to what they have lost or might lose in the beginning.  Sometimes this gives us something that looks much more like justice than happiness, both in the sense of vengeance and in the sense of simple restoration to the status quo ante.  A hero drops a millstone on his murderer; a heroine lifts a curse on her brother.

If The Giving Tree is a fairy-tale, then the equality of the network is one of roles, not characters, and it is, in this way, quite telling.  The Boy is neither the donor, the villain, nor the spouse: he is all of these things.  If there is any lesson in the book, this is it.

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