The Obvious

the giving tree and the taking wretch

Posted in books, thoughts by theobvious on June 7, 2011

Shel Silverstein was, of course, one of my favourites growing up. Today I read Brainpicking say this about The Giving Tree:

The duality of its interpretations – one seeing it as the poetic story of unconditional love between a boy and his tree, and the other as the darkly faithless portrait of a selfish boy who keeps on taking from a tree that keeps on giving – illustrates some of the longest-running debates of moral philosophy: Is there such a thing as true altruism, and are human beings innately kind and selfless or innately unscrupulous and selfish? (We choose to side – and live – with the former.)

What do you think? I’m afraid I have to subscribe to the latter notion—not of humanity in general, but of this story—, although I generally believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt (and often chide A. for being prone to jumping to a pessimistic conclusion). But in this case I really cannot make a case for the boy. This kind of “user mentality” is repugnant. There is no way for me to see past the boy driving the tree further and further down with his passive-aggressive demands.

The greatest danger of reading this book as the story of a selfless tree which rejoices in giving, therefore, is that with this idea comes a justification of the boy’s behaviour, interpreting it, I guess, as gratitude and acceptance of the tree’s benevolence. This is too much of a price to pay for teaching a child that giving is necessary and enjoyable, which message is, in my view, of lesser priority than that of not abusing kindness and practising gratitude and humility.

If ever I have a child, I believe I will read this book with him, and the character I will emphasize shall not be the mono-dimensional, unequivocally good if overly submissive tree. It will be that of the manipulative ingrate who learns at an early age to emotionally bully kinder people into giving him whatever he wants at great cost to themselves. My message will be both Do Not Be That Boy and Do Not Be That Tree—never let anyone do you such an injustice.

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