Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a timeless classic about the parent child relationship. The tree is a metaphor for the parent, and the little boy symbolizes the child’s journey into adulthood and away from the parent as he makes his own identity. It is the story of the unconditional love that a mother has for her child and shows how parents, especially mothers, will give everything to their children until they have nothing left to give all the while expecting nothing in return. This story demonstrates how much children need their parents even as the children grow into adulthood.
The story begins innocuously enough by introducing a tree who loves a small boy. We know it is a female by the use of the pronoun “she.” The boy comes to her everyday and gathers up her fallen leaves which he uses to make a crown in order to use in his pretend game of being the king of the forest. He also plays on the tree by climbing her trunk and swinging from her branches. He eats her apples and plays games of hide and seek with her. Her shade provided a place for him to sleep when he was tired from all of their playing. The boy loved the tree which made the tree happy, but, as inevitably happens, the boy begins to grow up.
As the boy begins to grow up and discover other pursuits, he does not spend as much time with the tree which makes for a lonely existence for the tree. However, one day the boy pays a visit to the tree and the tree implores him to climb her trunk, swing from her branches, and eat her apples. In other words, the tree wants him to play with her as he did when he was younger. The boy, now a teenager, has other interests, and all he wants is for the tree to give him some money. Since the tree has no money, she offers the boy her apples which she suggests that he sell in order to make money which is what will make him happy. The boy climbed up and took her apples, and the tree was happy that she could do something for the boy to make him happy. His happiness made her happy. The boy leaves and stays gone for a long time which saddens the tree.
When the boy returns, now a man, the tree is so happy and begs him to play with her, but the man does not have time. The man is only interested in having a house, getting married, and having children. The tree offers her branches to the man so that he may cut them off and build his house. The man accepts her offer, cuts off all of her branches, and carries the branches away so that he can begin building his house. The tree was very happy that she could give the man something to make him happy, and, once again, his happiness was her happiness. Again, the man stays away for a long time.
The next time the man returns, he is now an old man who only desires to have a boat so that he can go far away. The tree has only her trunk to offer, so she does. The old man makes a boat out of her trunk and sails away. The tree is initially happy that she made the old man happy, but then she becomes very sad. Eventually, the old man comes back, but he is now very tired. The tree has nothing left to offer him since she is now just an old stump. The tired old man tells sitting on the tree stump, and this makes the tree very happy since he is now back home with her.
This story has been the source of much speculation about whether it is a story of unconditional love or immeasurable selfishness. It is worth noting though that it is symbolic of the parent child relationship which moves through a series of vignettes much like the characters did. Children are initially under their parents’ control until they begin to grow and mature to make their own way in life. No matter how old a child gets though, he will always need his parents, and his parents will, more often than not, always be there to offer their unconditional love and support.