Reflections on "The Giving Tree"

Shel Silverstein’s classic children’s story, The Giving Tree, is idealized by many as a perfect picture of unconditional love, and reviled by many others as the epitome of an unhealthy relationship. It is easy to take sides. As a psychotherapist I find myself more drawn to something else. I am curious about what drives the tree to invite the boy to chop her down and take all of her leaves, apples, branches and trunk, in the name of love.

Is the tree really happy?

We are given a mixed message about this. The narrator says several times that the tree is happy. In fact the story ends with the line “and the tree was happy.” But there is also a palpable sadness that grows in intensity throughout the story. And at the end, with the delivery of that last line, all that remains of the tree is a stump.

I am left thinking that the tree never had the opportunity to pause and explore her feelings on the subject. Nor did she have the opportunity to explore alternative notions of giving and love that do not require a giving away.

I wonder what might happen if the tree were offered space for this kind of exploration. And furthermore what might happen if the tree were encouraged to experiment first with giving herself much of what she wants to give away to the boy. 

What kind of tree would she be?