Do you remember The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein?
I picked it up for the first time in decades (literally) while visiting my friend's baby at her house. She asked me what I thought the book meant. I told her. She was surprised by my answer and then told me that every other person she asks interprets it differently.
I was fascinated.
The Story of The Giving Tree
For those of you who don't remember, The Giving Tree is a 1964 children's book about a tree who happily gives what she can to a young boy. First, she gives him shade. Then apples. She even lets him carve initials into her.
As the boy grows up, he needs more. So he takes her branches and eventually cuts down her trunk. At that point, the tree is alive, but nothing but a stump. Yet the boy, now an old man, still needs more. He needs a seat. She gives it to him. “And the tree was happy.” (The last line of the book.)
First, the practice. Then I will tell you how I and others have interpreted this classic tale.
What does The Giving Tree mean to you? What is the lesson that Shel Silverstein is trying to teach his readers? Share in the comments section!
Interpretations of The Giving Tree
When my friend asked me about the book's lesson, the answer seemed glaringly obvious to me. I said it was this: while unconditional love is a wonderful thing, if you give too much you may lose yourself completely.
My friend, a new mother, had a different take. She saw the lesson as a warning to children not to take advantage of their parents.
Last September, The New York Times asked two writers to debate whether the book was a “tender story of unconditional love” or “a disturbing tale of monstrous selfishness.” But, as their responses revealed, the story has so many more interpretations than that.
For example, it may have a political message and serve “as a cautionary tale regarding both the social welfare state and the obscenity that is late-stage capitalism.”
Or a religious one: “I’m not even going to get into the biblical implications of Silverstein’s decision to make the tree of the book’s title apple-bearing,” one of the debaters wrote.
Maybe the story is a reflection of society's sexist view of the role of women at the time. Or is it a commentary on our abuse of the environment?
2 Writing Lessons From The Giving Tree
I think the debate about The Giving Tree tells us, as writers, a couple of things.
1. Once You Publish Your Writing, It's Not Yours Anymore
First, once you publish a story it’s not yours anymore. It’s the readers’.
Readers can choose to interpret your words however they want.
2. Simple Stories Can Still Be Complex
What I admire most about The Giving Tree is the story's simplicity.
Shel Silverstein showed us a dynamic that we've all experienced—giving and receiving love—and that was enough to make it loaded with meaning.
What else can writers learn from The Giving Tree? Let me know in the comments section!