One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Shel Silvertstein’s The Giving Tree. I still till this day love that book and would consider it one of the more important books during my formative years along with The Odyssey and The Hobbit. I don’t think I could have told you back then why it had such a profound effect on me, but it definitely did. It might have been because of Shel’s simple but clear illustrations. It could have been the straight forward storyline about growth, loss, compassion, and friendship that I found so comforting and informative. Maybe it was just that it served as a moral framework for me to base how I would develop and maintain friendships even over great periods of time, distance, and strife. I really don’t know. But what I can tell you is this; that book, still to this day remains a staunch reminder of what it means to be a true friend and to sacrifice one’s self for others.
I have heard a lot of contention about the true meaning of this book. I have had feminists tell me that it is this type of patriarchal book that continues to subjugate women in the roles of givers and caretakers. They have told me that books like these perpetuate stereotypical roles for women hoping to reinforce the idea that women should subservient to men and provide a domesticated role for them. I am not sure I get that when I read this book. I can see how the tree can be seen as a Matriarch-type figure because the tree is kind, warm, and nurturing. But I thought those attributes were complimentary to the character of women, and not derogatory. The boy of course acts like a boy, and keeps coming to the tree for all of his needs. But at no point does the boy not love the tree, for it is his friend and of course a tree. He shares his life with the tree who cannot move, he tell tales of the world, he brings his wife to his tree, he relies on his tree for work, for encouragement, in his time of need, and in the end, simply as a friend.
I do not see the feminist point of view in this argument. I do admit that the boy and the tree serve as an example of most relationships in this world, that there are givers and there are takers. This dichotomy exists in all relationships as a form of symbiosis. But once again most relationships rely on some form of give and take. I think this book serves as a vessel to explain friendships. We indeed do take the people who love us for granted and we sometimes in our selfishness take, take, take. It is important to be reminded that a true friend, one that you love, and who loves you will be there for you no matter what. They are willing to look past your short comings and faults for no other reason than that they are your friend. And in every relationship each person will play the role of the boy and of the tree. No one is locked into any one personification of a character. And if you think that you are acting like the boy and that its wrong, then you have used it as a compass to gauge how you are treating your friends. And if you feel as though you are being the tree, then you are being too generous of yourself and it is time to re-assume the part of the boy again.
In the end I feel what the book is really about is just a boy and his tree. Its a anecdote about life. It’s about balance, understanding one’s self, and understanding the people you surround yourself with. In a true friendship, each of you at times will play the role of the boy and of the tree. Remember all things in life that grow are dynamic. If you allow for that eb and flow of roles, then you are giving the relationship real roots and a chance to grow strong like the tree in the book.
….and the boy and the tree were happy.