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The Giving Tree Has a Polarizing Effect

Giving-tree I don't think The Giving Tree was in my reading rotation when I was a kid, but someone gave it to me when I had my son, and it's since become one of my favorites.


If you're not familiar with the book, it's a Shel Silverstein classic that chronicles the relationship between a boy and a tree. The tree gives the boy anything that he needs that it can give over the course of their lives together; a place to play, a place to sit in the shade, apples to sell, branches to build a house, and its trunk to build a boat. Finally, when the boy is an old man and wants to simply rest, it offers him its stump.

And the tree was happy.

And the kdiddy was crying.

I get how how people might find the tale upsetting or offensive, as actor Ryan Gosling does. Gosling plays a character in his upcoming movie, Blue Valentine, has a The Giving Tree tattoo on his arm (which pisses me off because I was TOTALLY going to do that and now everything will think that I'm just copying of some jackass who was in The Notebook). Gosling told NY Mag:

That book is so fucked up; that story’s the worst. I mean, at the end the tree is a stump and the old guy just sitting on him; he’s just used him to death, and you’re supposed to want to be the tree? Fuck you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.

The-giving-tree This is not at all the first time that I've heard someone express this opinion about The Giving Tree. And, really, I can totally see reading it that way. Is the metaphor that in our relationships we should just be SO selfless that we should be happy when someone totally uses us without so much as a thank you?

Yes and no.

When I first read the book to my infant son, it hit me really hard. I cried for hours and tear up now just thinking about it.

As a parent, that selfless giving is pretty much how I feel about my relationship with my son. I will readily give him all that I possibly can, even if it's ultimately to my detriment, because his survival, security, comfort, and happiness are the most important things in my life.

Is that fucked up? Maybe. I don't know. I think it's less fucked up when viewed in the context of a parent-child relationship than, say, a romantic relationship. My selflessness applies to my husband, too, but it's different than the kind expressed in The Giving Tree. If a children's book were to be written that would perfectly express my feelings and hopes for my marriage, it would probably be called The Egalitarian Partnership Tree or The Don't Forget You Married a Feminazi Tree, in which the tree offers up its apples in exchange for fertilizer and maintenance and...whoa, that sentence got really Freudian. Alright, let's forget about that book, it doesn't sound very good.

Anyway, I'm not saying that I'm a model parent or that everyone must have the same philosophy that I do. But I know that a lot of parents feel the same way.

Other views that I've read of the book have stripped most of the metaphor away and argue that it speaks to our relationship to the Earth and how we exploit it. Eh, maybe. I'm very supportive of environmental efforts and conservation and treating our planet way better than we do, but I'm just not seeing the pro-deforestation in Silverstein's words and illustrations.

Do you have a strong opinion about The Giving Tree? Do you think it's messed up or are you crying too hard thinking about it right now to form coherent thought?

NY Mag







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Comments

Angela in Ontario

Put me in the crying camp. I'm not allowed to read The Velveteen Rabbit either, as it has the same effect on me.

Amy H

I love reading the book to my kids. I can't remember when I first read it but I am positive I was a child at the time. It means something else to me now.
When I first read it I thought it was messed up, too. That the guy was really selfish and that the tree just totally loved him so much that she would give everything for that selfish jerk.
Now I look at it like the parent-child relationship that you brought up. I give my children everything and when there is almost nothing left, I give them that, too. But I think the beauty in reading this book to them is to show them both sides. Don't be the tree and give it all up to someone and don't be the guy and take it all without any concern for the tree. You don't want to end up old and bitter like the boy in the book and you don't want to end up like the tree, either.

good post. :-)

Kayleigh

I first heard about The Giving Tree shortly after reading Atlas Shrugged for the second time, and through the Objectivist lense it looked like total crap. Now I see it as a great description of how parents feel about their children, but I still see that feeling as a temptation to be resisted. Yes, you love her so much you would wear yourself down to a stump, but you shouldn't.

Alyssa

I love it, but I guess I always took it more as a "remember to appreciate the people in your life who've made sacrifices for you" thing. Because the little boy/old man never really seems fully conscious of what the tree is giving up, he just keeps taking and taking. Even though the tree was happy to give, to me as a kid it was like "DON'T BE LIKE THAT JACKASS!"

Laurel

I always read it the same way as Alyssa. "Hey kid, look at how you totally fucked this tree up and never gave it anything in return. Maybe think about some reciprocation next time."

Keryn

It makes me cry. But this? Made my day:

"The Egalitarian Partnership Tree or The Don't Forget You Married a Feminazi Tree"

Muirnait

I love the book. I think as a metaphor it best represents the parent-child relationship, but also works a bit as a cautionary tale. Mostly, it's about love. :)
But yeah, as a grown-up reciprocal relationship, it wouldn't be healthy, and I get that - but I don't think that's what it's supposed to be.

Irma Floresta

If you ever want to have a complete breakdown in public including incoherent sobs and ugly cry-face, try picking up "Love You Forever" in a book store and reading it right there.

Oh GOD why didn't someone warn me??

Tanie

I am offended by your description of Ryan Gosling as "some jackass." He is a NATIONAL TREASURE.

ctags

I've always just sort of disliked the idealization of the giving tree. Yes, it could be read as a cautionary tale, don't treat people like the boy/man treated the tree. But where's the empowerment of the feminized giving tree, she can either be victimized and seen as a perfect martyr, or the boy/man could choose to treat her better. Why not stand up for herself? Why not assert her right not to be treated in such a manner? My mother loves me unconditionally, but she does not put up with being treated like a doormat by her children. Just because she is a mother doesn't mean she stops being a person who has the right to be treated like a person. And when my sister attempts to treat her like that it hurts her, and she doesn't stop loving my sister, but she doesn't just take it either.

Marilyn

I can't handle The Giving Tree. It makes me too sad. I like to pretend that I've never read it.. Maybe Ryan is actually turning his sadness into anger to help him deal with his pain.

Bill

In many ways, The Giving Tree reminds me of Forrest Gump. The little boy is an a-hole for using the tree, and Jenny is a c*** for using Forrest. The first time I read the story I looked at my wife and said, "Blech." (she sees it as being a sweet story, and obviously we read it to our kids in the sweet way, because I do see the sweet aspect of the tree [and of Forrest]).

Also, while I would definitely do anything for my kids I sure hope I don't raise them to be selfish little a-holes who just take and take, and then sit on me when they're old. ;)




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