Why The Giving Tree Makes You Cry
November 15, 2020 4:28 PM   Subscribe

The book opens with scenes of childhood happiness. The boy plays with the tree every day: running, climbing, swinging, pretending. They are happy. But every good story thrives on conflict, and that is exactly what we encounter when we turn the page. We now read the book to our children, as it was read to us before we knew the loss age brings, back when the story was about nothing more than a tree’s tender love.
posted by jenkinsEar (50 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Giving Tree doesn’t make me cry, it makes me angry because it’s a TERRIBLE BOOK.
posted by kate blank at 4:33 PM on November 15 [112 favorites]

Previously and also previously.
posted by jenkinsEar at 4:35 PM on November 15 [2 favorites]

I'm glad someone wrote this.

I'm glad people are smart enough to write things like "The Tree Who Had Healthy Boundaries and Said No" and that works for me on one level.

But there's something missing from that kind of analysis and this piece reveals a part of it: you think you're keeping all of yourself? Guess again. You can and should be discerning about what you give away and how. But there is also a level at which your choices are more or less about what you give yourself away for. Or into.
posted by wildblueyonder at 4:37 PM on November 15 [16 favorites]

I found that healthy boundaries fanfic baffling. You can set all the healthy boundaries you want, but that won't stop time from taking everything away. The boy sitting on a stump in a barren wasteland is as weird and sad and true as Ishmael floating on a coffin at the end of Moby-Dick.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:08 PM on November 15 [12 favorites]

I dunno... I think it's a wonderful book, and it's recognized by many a child and adult, how often you are unable to enjoy wisdom and beauty and love because you simply cannot see it when it presents itself. Even when we can see it, it's always at fleeting in some way. The lesson you draw from that can go in a number of directions, anger, sorrow, etc. Any and all at the same time. But it seems a universal part of humanity.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:14 PM on November 15 [8 favorites]

But every good story thrives on conflict

Tension, not conflict. The tension can be between competing perspectives the story elucidates that never directly conflict within the world of the characters or events. The tension can be between the real world and the fictional, or some aspect of it, in how the viewer/reader understands them, drawn out by the way the story frames its perspective. Art essentializes reality to highlight select elements for more intense focus by paring away the surrounding clutter.

That's why a story like The Giving Tree can be both touching to some, for how the reader might be drawn to the narrow relationships described, while also annoying to others who don't accede to that frame and see the story as representative of a deeply unhealthy relationship. The way we view a storyframe and the work within can shift as our understanding of the world does, which is why works like The Giving Tree can rise and fall in popularity.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:18 PM on November 15 [12 favorites]

When my first was about one and a half, he demanded this book almost every day. And the first few times, I teared up. Aloud, to your child? It's a hard read. But you get used to it. After a dozen run-throughs, it toughens you up. It's good for the soul, and you need a lot of spiritual resiliency to be a parent.

OTOH, I also agree with a friend of mine, also a parent, who had this to say: "It's just depressing for no reason. Fuck that book."
posted by phooky at 5:24 PM on November 15 [10 favorites]

I met Shel Silverstein in the late 80's, maybe mid 80's. My older sister, a cousin and I bumped into him at a bakery, talked to him and arranged a lunch meeting the next day. I was a 14 year old punk rock poser. We bought some foods from the bakery and sat in the nearby park for a few hours talking. I think we asked for the meeting because we all three had writerly ambitions.

If I had to remember one thing from that conversation it would be his insistence that as young people we did not have to conform and play along. It was a formative moment I can hardly remember.
posted by vrakatar at 5:38 PM on November 15 [52 favorites]

Shel Silverstein is a wonder.

Uncle Shelby’s ABZ book

plus some of my favorite country songs.
posted by anshuman at 5:58 PM on November 15 [3 favorites]

I made a terrible mistake once, planning a listening listen around reading the Giving Tree to my students. They would listen as I read it, and fill in the missing words on their worksheet. I hadn't really thought about it, it's just a book, right, I'll read it, and be fine.

I've never tried harder not to cry than getting through that book in front of a class filled with first year junior high students.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:06 PM on November 15 [10 favorites]

Yeah, reading The Giving Tree is a whole different experience once you're old enough to identify with the tired old man. It's a great book. Unlike too many children's books, it's not a simple story with a clear moral. It doesn't tell you how to feel about giving and taking; it just tells a story about giving and taking that stirs up strong feelings and you get to decide for yourself whether there's a lesson in it for you and what it is. If it left you feeling angry because you think the tree is a terrible role model for girls, that doesn't mean it's a bad book. Just the opposite.
posted by Redstart at 6:08 PM on November 15 [28 favorites]

Keep that book away from me. I teared up just reading this article about it.
posted by lhauser at 6:12 PM on November 15 [4 favorites]

I haven’t been able to revisit the Giving Tree since reading Daniel Lavery’s take on it.
posted by mhoye at 6:14 PM on November 15 [26 favorites]

But we cannot go back. We’re too old to play, and the tree we remember is gone. Our days of wholeness lie not in the past, but in the future, in our far-off country.

Damn. I mean, it's not wrong, but could the author have been just a little more gentle? Now having read TFA, I'm trying to keep from tearing up in a study hall class of senior year high school students. Fuck, I wanna go and sit in a park, but, yeah... too old, gotta work.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:15 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]

I split the difference with my twins. I remembered the book differently and the first time I got through it reading it to my kids I was appalled. The second time we finished it, because they liked it, we immediately had some serious discussions about how the tree was kind, the boy was selfish, and it's okay to say no.
posted by Defective_Monk at 6:48 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]

I RTFA. I am now a hot mess. I'll be fine of course, but damn.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 7:00 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]

This book makes me tear up, and fills me with rage at the same time, for it gets at some of the essential flaws in humanity that we seem unable to escape. We love so much it kills us and ruins others; we don't appreciate what we have until it's gone; we try to fill voids in ourselves with an inexhaustible pile of expensive garbage and distractions. And some of us are so loathsome as to cheat our parents out of their houses once they lose their fiscal sense.

We read it once in our house from the library. I thank the author for giving us a long conversation about boundaries and when generousity is healthy and when it is not. My daughter now refers to it as "the book with the evil boy and the tree".
posted by benzenedream at 7:10 PM on November 15 [13 favorites]

The Giving Tree makes me cry because reading about abusive, codependent relationships makes me cry. That's what the article says, right?
posted by medusa at 7:17 PM on November 15 [11 favorites]

Hmm, it seems similar to why the first 10 minutes of Up! make people cry.
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:36 PM on November 15 [1 favorite]

I hated this book as a kid and always avoided it. I read the article thinking it would make me like it more, but I just can't. The boy is so rude, the tree is so pathetic... ugh. I can see the more complex interpretations he is talking about but they seem like a rewrite rather than what I found in the book.

However, we had a book of Shel Silverstein poems which got a lot of love in our house, including this poem which my sisters and I immediately committed to memory and still regularly recite given the slightest excuse (like this post):

My hair grows to my toes
I never wears no clothes
I wraps my hair
Around my bare
And down the road I goes
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:58 PM on November 15 [3 favorites]

Except the wife in Up! doesn't die because her husband used her up. She just dies, like everybody dies. I encountered The Giving Tree first as an adult (although it was around when I was a kid) and I find it difficult to read it as being simply about grief. It seems to be more about a cycle of abuse and regret.

I hate it but I recognize that having warm memories of your parents reading it to you probably changes your interpretation.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:03 PM on November 15 [9 favorites]

I really enjoyed reading this at my grandparents' house when I was five. I don't know why they had it. Perhaps just for me. Or maybe my older cousins.

In retrospect, it's a book for parents. I can't decide if its message is a celebration or a warning. Perhaps it's both. (As the article states, but more clearly.)

My mom sacrificed a hell of a lot to raise me. I'm grateful and happy to exist. I'm not sure it was the right choice for her.
posted by eotvos at 9:06 PM on November 15 [8 favorites]

@eotvos I read this book as the cover story written by a parent struggling against the cost of having a child, now having no choice left but to give and give in a way that costs parts of their self that they deeply regret. The cover story rewrites this into a repeated free choice to be generous, since being trapped after the first choice is too raw. The cover story is insistent on the tree's happiness in the end.

So the parent buries the story of deep regret wrestling against deep love -- you can't read that one to your child -- and reads this cover story instead. I do think part of them hopes their child takes away my parent gave me so much of themselves and I didn't understand the gift and part of them hopes the child finally sits on the stump and understands the tree's loss but it's okay.

But when this edited cover story is taken at face value, it has a ring of falsity. Taken away from the parent's life-committing choice (which they may regret but that is what parenthood is going in), this repeated free choice, to give even to self-destruction, does look much like codependency and/or abuse, and the insistence on the tree's happiness like validation of this story of love.

If the tree's actions are taken as given and unexaminable, then the story of the child makes emotional sense. We all have underappreciated what was given to us and overlooked its cost to the giver. And we have lost ourselves in routine, lost chances to be ourselves, and regretted how our lives have been spent. That's real. That's normal. But this tree, when you do look at it, is emotionally someone in extreme circumstances even before it gets cast into an abuse shape by the cover story's edits. The tree is somebody feeling they have had only unsustainable ways to act in love and have reduced themselves to a damn stump. That's some parents, but it's not all, or most I think.

If I were a parent who found I had to give myself down to a stump, I'd like to hope I would treat it as an objective tragedy, not in any shred of a way my child's fault, and never, ever give them this book without emending it heavily.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:07 PM on November 15 [23 favorites]

Not mentioned in any of the articles I've seen about The Giving Tree: The boy and the tree are not peers. They don't meet as equals. The tree is already a mature adult when they meet. She knows what she's giving him, each time he asks something of her.

I'm not sure how that changes it. I'm sure that it does, for me; I don't think of it as "two kids who are best friends - human and tree - only the tree-friend keeps giving herself away and gets nothing back from the human-friend."

Tree-as-parent makes more sense. We give ourselves away to our kids, and it's a cost we (try to) bear gladly, and the kids don't give back to us but to others: their partners, their communities, their own kids. We try not to give ourselves away down to nothing, but it's possible that our kids would see it that way - that they don't realize how much of ourselves we still have, our roots and seeds and offshoots, that they don't recognize, that has never been part of our relationship with them.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:13 PM on November 15 [16 favorites]

Tree-as-parent makes more sense

To the point where I don't understand how anyone would read the Giving Tree as a metaphor for marriage.

If I were a parent who found I had to give myself down to a stump, I'd like to hope I would treat it as an objective tragedy, not in any shred of a way my child's fault, and never, ever give them this book without emending it heavily.

I suspect part of the lesson for children in the book to be more grateful, and more independent, lest you reenact the tragedy of the book.
posted by pwnguin at 10:21 PM on November 15 [5 favorites]

Glance through the pages of the book reproduced in the article, and notice that the tree is actually prospering through all the initial demands.

It's trunk gets thicker and thicker despite everything it gives the boy, the man, and the mature man.

What kills it is the old man's final demand for a boat. What the hell does the old man need a boat for? And then the elderly man sits bereft and confounded on the stump at the end of his own life.

It would have given him his coffin and gone on living for the next generation if he hadn't been such a greedy and heedless pig.
posted by jamjam at 11:05 PM on November 15 [13 favorites]

The Fuck You Pay Me Tree (A heart warming tale for the internet age.)

There once was a tree and she was indifferent to little boys. Every day boys would come and try and gather her leaves to make into crowns to play King of the Forest or try to climb her trunk or swing from her branches or sleep in her shade. But the tree would have none of that. Those leaves and branches, that shade is a product of my labor. If you want to use them, pay me. The boys, not having anything to give the tree went on their way. And the tree was satisfied by the departure of the little freeloaders.

But time went on and the boys grew older. The tree had been happily on its own until one day the boys came back and asked if the tree could give them some free apples so the boys could get an apple selling gig up and running. It’d be a great promotion for the tree, an opportunity to show off her apples for others to see. The tree said, “Fuck you, pay me!” The boys not wishing to pay for services left and stayed away for a long time. And the tree was indifferent to their fates.

One day the boys returned and the tree watched them with suspicion. “Are you going to give me something for my apples now? Or provide some exchange for my branches and leaves?” The tree asked the boys. “We’re too busy to negotiate.” said the boys as they brought out their chain saws and axes. “And we’re strong enough now to take what we want, which is your trunk and all your branches to build our new offices.” And the boys cut down the tree and took away her trunk and branches. The tree was angry but unable to do a damn thing about it.

The tree was left alone to stew on the injustice for a very long time until one day the boys came back. “Have you come back for more?” The tree asked angrily. “Good luck, there’s no apples or branches or even a trunk left for you little jerks to take” She sneered. But these weren’t the same boys, just their employees hired to remove the stump for being unsightly and in the way of a planned golf course the boys would use to relax in their twilight years. Not that it mattered as the tree couldn’t be heard over the engine noise of the bulldozer as they plowed up the stump.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:20 PM on November 15 [11 favorites]

You want heedless youth? Try Oscar Wilde's Nightingale and the Rose.
posted by BobTheScientist at 2:14 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

I absolutely believe that (per TFA) time and loss are what strike adults reading this book to their kids.

But here’s what I learned from The Giving Tree as a kid: “By asking for help, you are literally killing the people you love. Asking for anything — needing anything — is selfish and hurts those you ask.”

That’s obviously not the only place I got the message “Don’t bother anyone with your needs and wants”, but it lays it out pretty starkly.

I’m still mad about it.
posted by snowmentality at 4:35 AM on November 16 [23 favorites]

Huh, the boy NEVER appreciated the Tree. It is the story of a giving tree and a grasping boy. I read it as a single adult and as a parent and I still hate it. I read sentimental articles about how the story is metaphor and still dont buy any rationalization for the boy, later man's behavior and extortionate demands. The tears I have are ones of rage.
posted by jadepearl at 4:57 AM on November 16 [2 favorites]

Ah yes. I recall my mother, who is a champion martyr with has no boundaries at all, who adores playing the "unappreciated sacrificer for the good of others," frequently reading this to me as a sort of background track to a dramatic lament for all the ways I took advantage of her and was unappreciative of her efforts, and how I always would be. I was 4 or 5 at the time. She brought this book up when I was older whenever she needed a little more fuel for her latest guilt trip/pity party. Narcissists, man. Jeez.
posted by ananci at 5:35 AM on November 16 [14 favorites]

I loved... LOVED... Shel Silverstein as a kid, but I. could. not. get. into. the Giving Tree. I mean, it was fine. I guess if I was pressed I would have said the guy was pushy and the tree was pathetic, but it didn't even interest me enough to have an opinion about it.

However, I do find Giving Tree fanfic deeply fascinating, especially the Daniel Lavery story posted upthread. (The Giving Tree as a horror story! How wonderful!)

And I did read the article, hoping it might give me some insight as to why this story resonated with so many people, but I just came up against my crushing indifference. I didn't shed a tear. I didn't even feel remotely moved. (And yes, I always bawl during the first ten minutes of UP.) I just don't care about the characters.

So yeah. Is this something I need to be a parent to understand?
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 5:40 AM on November 16

I thought it was the terrifying portrait of Shel Silverstein on the back cover that makes everyone cry.
posted by St. Oops at 6:15 AM on November 16 [7 favorites]

Hmm, I've always seen this story as environmental. The boy is us, the tree is the earth.
posted by onebyone at 6:39 AM on November 16 [7 favorites]

The story is a mirror.
posted by euphorb at 7:11 AM on November 16 [11 favorites]

I think that this story also reads as a parable about the intrinsic, unconditional nature of love. The tree loves wholly and completely, but cannot control what the boy offers in return for its most precious gift (which is given freely at the start of the story, the tree's love; its branches and etc. are merely its body compared to the gift it gives at the start, its heart). Through the narrative, the tree just loves the boy, unconditionally, and its really tough because we can't control other people and we can't control how they receive the parts of ourselves that we give to them, even when we give from the most precious, irreplaceable parts of ourselves. But the tree knows this, and keeps loving and keeps giving because it believes the boy to be worth it and is acting from its unconditional love. At the end, the boy may or may not have gained any wisdom about life and love and caring and sacrifice as he sits on that stump, but the tree is happy because it still just, simply, loves the boy and is happy because the boy has had a full life, out in the world, and at the end of it all has come back to be with the tree.

Whether that's tragic or affirming is left to the reader, I think, and differs whether the unconditional love is framed as filial or romantic.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:50 AM on November 16 [7 favorites]

Kinda reminds me of this article I read on Slate, which basically asked the question, "Why teach depressing books like Where The Red Fern Grows?" And I mean, I guess you could make the case that The Giving Tree and Where The Red Fern Grows prepare kids for the sadness and disappointment that awaits them in the world... but really, is this necessary? I mean, they're going to experience those things anyway. Why not just cross that bridge when you come to it? Like, eventually they're going to have a pet that dies. Is it really necessary to prepare them by reading a book called When Pets Die?
posted by panama joe at 8:09 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

I always thought it made me cry becuase of the MEGA-CREEPY photo of Shel Silverstein on the back jacket.
posted by punkrockrat at 9:15 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

The work that gives me the response described in the post but without the same ambivalence is Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads.
posted by umbú at 10:08 AM on November 16

The story is a mirror.

I'd always thought of it as a Rorschach test, but yea, similar concept.

When I first read it I saw it as the story of a greedy child who grew up to become a greedy man, thinking only of himself, taking and taking and then walking away, returning only years later when he wanted something else, and that probably says as much about my family history and formative experiences as it does about the story itself.

I haven’t been able to revisit the Giving Tree since reading Daniel Lavery’s take on it.

I hadn't seen this before, and ... wow. If I didn't know better I'd think he'd written it specifically for me, as an allegory of my relationship with my mother.
posted by myotahapea at 11:17 AM on November 16 [3 favorites]

I'm glad jenkinsEar linked up the previous entries about this. I haven't been on the site in quite awhile, and when I saw this I had that momentary "I feel like I read about this before, different links though." And then, boom, right at the top! Confirmation.

I agree and disagree with every single opinion about this book shared here already. It's terrible and it's brilliant. And I have to admit that I tried to read it to my kids one time, because I seem to remember loving it as a child. So, of course I have to read it to my kids. I want to say they were 4 and 5 when I tried. I was an absolute puddle. I finished the book and my kids said "Don't ever read that to us again." That was indeed the only time I ever read it in the last 30 years. Heh.
posted by mrzer0 at 11:19 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

A more positive re-envisioning of the heartbreaking original:
posted by yoz420 at 2:59 PM on November 16

I love about everything ELSE Silverstein wrote, but The Giving Tree annoys the fuck out of me. It reads like something a TA for "Psych 220: Family Relationships" would use as the basis for essay questions on the mid-term.

NB: if "The Giving Tree" makes you cry, do NOT follow this link to Peter, Paul, and Mary singing "Puff the Magic Dragon". It will do you in for sure.
posted by she's not there at 5:10 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]

I haven’t been able to revisit the Giving Tree since reading Daniel Lavery’s take on it.

Thank you for sharing this link. I love Lavery's story so much more than I hate "The Giving Tree" that I suppose I now qualify as an actual fan of Silverstein's book—without which Lavery's story wouldn't exist.
posted by she's not there at 5:47 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]

There's a MONSTER At the End of This Book!
posted by bendy at 7:29 PM on November 16 [6 favorites]

NB: if "The Giving Tree" makes you cry, do NOT follow this link yt to Peter, Paul, and Mary singing "Puff the Magic Dragon". It will do you in for sure.
Puff the Magic Dragon is an interesting comparison. I'm tempted to argue that Puff doesn't seem to give up much - except, perhaps emotionally - which makes it different. I don't know if it makes it better or worse. It makes it easier to embrace. (I once saw it performed live by them, with a less well dressed and cooperative audience, probably a few years later than the recording. It was definitely moving, even as a young person.)

Thinking about what makes a children's book so controversial is interesting. I went nuts for the universally-hated book The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes around the same age. As I recall, it's also a book with a complicated message and no heroes. But, the world is complicated and people who intend to be good do things that hurt both themselves and others all the time. The Disney fairy tale model with good guys and bad guys can be fun, but you have to go far to find something interesting to say about them. I still can't decide whether that's good or bad to tell five year old children or not.

I recently bought a copy of my favorite book from when I was young to give to my best friend's kid. (Guillot's The King of the Cats.) But, I realized I should read it first to make sure it is actually something kids should read. I've been putting it off for something like a year now because I don't want to discover that it may be actually awful.

There aren't too many things I have truly ambiguous opinions about. Thinking about another one is fun. (And, as usual, the level of thoughtfulness in the discussion here is invigorating.)
posted by eotvos at 12:06 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

It's probably not at all what Silverstein intended, but it's hard for me not to read the Giving Tree as part of the general societal trend to view children as a selfish, potential horrors in beginning the 60s and continuing on through the 70s. You have the rise of the "evil child" movies--The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, Rosemary's Baby, It's Alive, The Omen, The Demon Seed and on and on. At the same time, child-free apartment complex and even restaurants were on the rise. Parental advice books often warned against being too indulgent or loving, and sometimes even pictured young children as master manipulators who must be resisted. Throw in rising divorce, the increasing need for both parents to work, and the latchkey kid phenomenon--the entire cultural attitude toward parenting was markedly different than in the 1950s. I think of this section from Strauss and Howe's 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Fail?, about attitudes toward what everyone else calls Generation X:
The emerging Silent [generation] view, from the late '60s through the '70s, was that parental love did not require parental sacrifice--indeed, that it could be harmed by too much sacrifice. If parents did too much for their kids, so the new thinking went, then the resentment parents would later feel would result in false or destructive parent-child relationships.
It's often said that every generation sees the younger generation as inadequate, but I don't think that's true. The WWII generation in America was hailed as heroes from the time they were young, and took leadership right away. The kids of the 40's and 50's Baby Boom were seen as full of boundless potential, the young scientists and engineers who would continue and extend the US Golden Age. Then came Generation X, and a pretty profound shift to a raft of anti-child policies and attitudes. Considering the timing of the Giving Tree, I tend to put it in the context of the pronounced child hostility of the 1960s and read it as a warning that, dammit, those little beasts will suck you dry and they'll do it for your whole life until at the end there's hardly anything left of you at all.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:26 AM on November 18 [7 favorites]

Yeah, my parents didn’t believe in praising children because it led to “overinflated egos” and “needing praise for what you should be doing anyway.”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:58 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]

This book, like good literature, is complex and leads to different feelings in different people, and different feelings in the same person over time. This is not a failing, it is a success. Many of his best poems are deeply disquieting.
posted by Caxton1476 at 11:19 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]

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