Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree: An Ecocritical Children’s Story

 

the giving treeDr. Seuss is often the name that most think of when it comes to children’s novels, and though his books are among my favorites in the genre, there are few children’s books that say as much in so few words as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.  The work can be read as a metaphor for unconditional love, faith, gender, or abusive relationships, and as such is able to foster empathy in children through a compelling story.  I remember many of the children in my class crying upon being read the book the first time, myself included, and even as an adult, my eyes get wet when reading it.  It is for this reason that the book is so important as it serves to challenge our consumeristic culture and teaches environment ethics to youths by challenging humanity’s anthropocentric view.   It illustrates how humanity is dependent on nature while railing consumerism and demonstrating what happens when humanity does not put back what it takes from nature.  Though the work functions as a metaphor for a number of things, it is the environmental reading that is perhaps most important.

 

ANTHROPOCENTRISM

 

the giving tree 1The environmental perspective of the work is set out with the first five words of the narrative: “There once was a tree” (slide 2).  Rather than starting the narrative by introducing the boy, Silverstein opts to start with the tree, thereby challenging the anthropocentric view often taken in such narratives.  Coupled with this, Silverstein’s choice to make the tree the titular character and the protagonist reinforce the concepts that humanity’s anthropocentric view is flawed.  This harkens back to the creation story in Genesis, whereby God makes nature before he makes ‘man’.  In both narratives, nature comes first, and so, illustrates how humanity needs to recognize that its existence is dependant first upon nature and then our own needs.  To further this argument that nature is on no less than parity terms with nature, Silverstein gives nature emotive qualities associate with humanity, noting that the tree “loved a little boy”.  He also gives the tree a gender, identifying the tree as a female through the use of personal pronouns like ‘she’ (3).  The tree is even able to participate in play with the boy, actively engaging with humanity by playing hide and seek (10).  Silverstein’s framing of the boy also challenges humanity’s anthropocentric view.  Though an adult for over half the narrative, the antagonist is referred to as ‘the boy’ throughout.  From the tree’s perspective, and from nature’s perspective, humanity is still in its infancy, whilst nature’s tenure on the planet reaches back much further than humanity’s, and will extend well beyond it as well.  This perspective demonstrates how small humanity is compared to nature.  By making the tree the center of the narrative, giving it human emotion, and demonstrating how she actively engages with the boy, Silverstein manages to humanize the natural realm and illustrates that human interests are not the only ones worthy of our attentions, a fact he reinforces by referring to humanity’s representative as a ‘boy’ throughout the work.

 

 

the giving tree crownThe necessities provided to the human realm by the natural realm is demonstrative the ways in which the humanity is dependent on nature, further illustrating how central the natural realm is.  When the boy is hungry, for instance, he eat the tree’s apples (9), and when the boy is hot and tire, the trees provides him shade and a place to rest (11), offering him a respite.  Without these provisions, the human realm cannot survive, and so placing the natural realm above the human realm is central to humanity’s own survival.  Aside from the concrete provisions provided by the tree, the human realm is also dependant on the natural realm to build its conceptual constructs as well.  The boy, for instance, collects the tree’s leaves and uses them to make a crown (6), demonstrating how human authority is shaped by nature.  The crown is a symbol of authority, but it is always comprised of natural elements, and those who are not in control of natural elements cannot secure authority, both metaphorically and literally.  History has shown us this in the literal sense, from the low approval ratings George W. Bush received follow Hurricane Katrina, to both Napoleon and Hitler loss of support after their respective winter onslaughts against Russia failed due to cold weather.  Human authority is always at the whim of nature, and because humanity is dependent upon nature for its sustenance, it is always important to maintain nature.

 

CONSUMERISM

 

the giving tree 4While the boy’s failure to reciprocate initially has no impact, as he grows older, human institutions serve to be a corrupting agent that turns the relationship into an overtly exploitative one, exacerbating humanity’s anthropocentric view.  The use of currency is the perhaps the first instance of this.  The boy, who has neglected the tree, comes and tells her that he wants “to buy things and have fun” and then asks the tree is she can give him some money (18), though he offers nothing in return.  His failure to reciprocate is demonstrative of his anthropocentric entitlement.  The tree tries to oblige, and offers the boy some apples to sell, and when the boy returns wanting more, the tree gives the boy her branches that he might build a house (23), then offers her trunk that he might build a boat and travel (26), and finally, when there is nothing left but a stump, the boy, now a man, uses it as a chair (29).  The tree, by this point however, is unable to provide shade as she once was.  This consumerism, embraced by the boy, allows him to take advantage of the unconditional love offered by the tree and transform the relationship into an exploitative one.  It is through this process that the environment is exhausted, and where the tree once provided shade, it can no longer. This means that there is no reprieve from the heat, which could be read as an allusion to global warming.  This exploitation does not occur naturally, but only after human constructs are introduced to their relationship and consumerism taints the boy.  When humanity is too concerned with its own realm to consider its impact on the natural realm, it become clear what the result is: the depletion of the environment.

 

RECIPROCATION

 

the giving tree 7Rather than offering a model that provides a solution to humanity’s consumerism, the book provides a model that details self-defeating practices that humanity engages in with respect to their relationship with nature.  The boy, for instance, claims to love the tree but expresses this love by carving his initials into the trees (13).  This seems more like an expression of ownership than love.  Whether it be branding cattle, or enslaved people, or marking wives with a ring and a surname, patriarchal figures have often expressed ‘love’ by asserting ownership.  This, however, is not ‘love’ at all, but self-interest.  The boy also neglects the tree and by extension nature, by leaving is alone for years (16), and though the tree expressed gratitude and love, and claimed to be happy, after everything had been taken away, it is revealed that the tree was “not really” happy (28).  This neglect, then, had a negative impact on nature and soured the relationship between the two realms.  What is as important as the neglect and abuse that is depicted in the narrative, is that which is absent.  Nowhere in the narrative does the boy ever seek to take care of or propagate nature.  There is, for instance, no watering of the tree, and no planting of seeds.  The end result is that the children, who the boy tells the tree he has sired, will have no tree of their own as their father has exhausted the natural realm.  This, then, serves as a warning about what we are leaving future generations.  The answer then, is to use the boy as the antithesis of the model humanity should adopt, and what the boy fails to do, humanity needs to compensate for, otherwise they will share the same fate.

 

OTHER READINGS

 

the giving tree 6Whilst the ecocritical reading of the work is the most obvious, there are a multiplicity of other readings.  An ecofeminist or feminist reading, for instance illuminates the exploitative elements present in relationships under patriarchal custom, where by women are in the position of the oppressed, neglected and abused tree and the patriarch is represented by the boy.  Likewise, the narrative speaks to the ways in which we all adopt egocentric views and fail to consider the value of unconditional love and importance of nurturing and reciprocating that love.  This reading can also be linked to ageism and the way we view elders in our society.  While a parent offers love and support, they often need their children to return this support when they get older, but sadly elder neglect is a growing issue, especially with the baby boomer generation currently entering retirement.  There is also a theological reading whereby the tree represents god and the unconditional love god offers.  The online edition I read seems to allude to this as the words of the tree are written in green, just as most New Testament publications print the words of Jesus in red.  This frames the tree as a ‘green’ or ecocritical incarnation of Christ.  The fact that each of these readings can be pulled from a narrative that is overtly about the relationship between humanity and nature reinforces the value of ecocritical readings.  It demonstrates that examining how we interact with the environment can give us insight into how we ought to interact with other humans.  This ecological metaphor, then, serves to enhance our understanding of how we engage in the world around us in any number of ways.

 

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

Though over fifty years has passed since the initial publication of Silverstein’s work, its relevancy has only grown.  In writing the work in the most ambiguous of terms, he manages to create a narrative that anybody can come to and engage with.  The work fosters empathy, and highlights the importance of humanity’s relationship with nature, but also gives readers a template that they can apply to any of their relationships.  Outside the work of Dr. Seuss, it is rare to see such an effective economy of works and illustrations.  The work’s simplicity is its driving force.  With monosyllabic words strung together with a sporadic ellipses alluding to the untold perspectives and years of neglect, and simple lines joined together on a page, Silverstein manages to use the crudest and minimalist of pallets to create a work with such emotive depth and social importance, that the message is simultaneously accessible to the most accomplished and novice readers alike.  This is a work should be in every pre-school, every classroom, and every children’s room on the planet.  No youth should graduate from childhood without this book having been read to them, or read by them more times than they can count.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  For those who do not have a copy of the work handy but would like to read it yourselves, or perhaps to your children, a free, online copy can be accessed here.

 

Works Cited:

Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree.  New York: Harper and Row. 1964. Web.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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