Hidden lessons and “The Giving Tree”

I ended up making an essay-length comment on a friend’s Facebook about “The Giving Tree” and why one should be careful to assume that a story teaches the lessons you intend.  I assure you, dear reader, that I’ve long since dispensed with the “lesson” I learned from “The Giving Tree,” though I do consider my childhood experiences with it to be seminal in my strong desire to not have children.  Shel Silverstein does, however, owe me for my therapy bills.

Ultimately, the challenge in teaching a lesson is ensuring which lesson you teach. This is where “The Giving Tree” has a real issue. The boy, as he ages, gets what he wants without any negotiation or resistance. In fact, he receives some kind of prosperity, gets a house, and gets a boat, and gets a chair, all by just asking and receiving. He shows no remorse for the state of his supposedly beloved companion, so it clearly never hurts him. In fact, at every stage, you are editorially told that “the tree was happy.” So, one lesson baked in here is to be comfortable asking for what you want because those that freely give to you are, regardless of appearances, happy to give.

The tree, as it ages and is razed, is the only party holding any emotional context for the relationship. In fact, we know this, because an editorial voice has to step in and remind us that “the tree was happy.” It gives and gives based almost entirely on the sentiment of the relationship, while the boy receives and receives based almost entirely on the material aspects of the relationship, without affirmation or mirroring of the sentiment of the relationship. But, as we are constantly reminded, the process that ultimately destroyed the tree (unlike actual trees, this tree could not regrow its foliage when pruned), also made the tree happy. The tree wasn’t happy in a way we could see. In fact, the tree’s obvious and outward joy ends early in the story. No. The tree was happy in such a sublimated way that the narrator has to editorialize to us that “the tree was happy.” The problem is that this fiat happiness also speaks to a moral dictum. It really says “the tree was happy, and this is good.” So, this leads to another dangerous lesson in “The Giving Tree,” which is that if you have something beloved, then you should not deny your beloved’s requests, regardless of how this seems to impact you, and you should feel happy.

Okay…well, what if you’re the sort of child who, by the time you encounter “The Giving Tree,” are already establishing a bit of critical thought? Perhaps you look at the boy and don’t see malicious selfishness, except maybe when he wants a boat. I mean, people need things like shelter and warmth and money (apples don’t buy much, so the kid couldn’t have wealth, evidenced by the fact that he also lives in the paltry shelter tree branches provide); they’re not unreasonable human goals. So, another lesson to take away is that, even if your needs seem reasonable, they’re hurting something you once found beloved, even if they say they seem happy. So, you learn from “The Giving Tree” to not ask your beloveds for anything because you must protect them from the hurt you are actually doing.

Or maybe you’re a child who is able to take critical distance from the tree, and you see that it is often sad without its beloved, only becoming briefly happy when it contributes to its own destruction by satisfying the requests of fulfillment for its beloved. But, we are told “the tree was happy” at every repetition of it, and because of the cultural context in which “The Giving Tree” was written, there’s a fair chance that reinforcement of “selfless love” is already going around, and you can easily learn the lesson that you should not trust feelings of quiet inner happiness in relationships because they mask the very obvious harm you’re doing to yourself.

And maybe if you get told in a poorly mediated way that this is about a child and a parent…usually from parents. Then you might learn that you’re destroying your parents, that if you become a parent you will be destroyed in exchange for the rationalization that “you were happy” about it, that selfless love is exploitative, and that you should genuinely fear love and make your own way trying very hard to have as little to do with others as possible.

There are even some other lessons waiting out-of-band. What if your beloved remembers some wonderful time of play and companionship that you never experienced? Should you feel obliged to that disparity to make your beloved happy? If the tree is a parent, but you don’t connect with your own parents, and they don’t understand but feel sad, do you owe them their mental image of their child?

There are so many ways that intelligent adults see this book. They range from the personal to the religious to the economic to the political to the environmental. That’s a testament to its ambiguity. Using it as a lesson, therefore, makes it incumbent on the teacher to not expect the story to teach a lesson but instead to use the story as a tool for teaching a lesson that’s outside the story. The lesson is in the mediation; it speaks to the relationship the storyteller has with the audience. Possibly the most risky thing to do is presume “The Giving Tree” has a single lesson, or that a lesson a child takes from it will be a helpful one. But it can be a bonding moment for someone willing to hold responsibility for the exploration that ensues.

Because, seriously, I took away from it that love is painful and awful and exploitative, and that the adults around me were completely nuts for not seeing it.