The other night my 4-year-old son approached me with Shel Silverstein’s classic picture book The Giving Tree. I didn’t know we had a copy or where it came from, but I certainly recalled the book from childhood.
I began reading aloud, and a third of the way in the book ambushed me: I choked up, teetering on the verge of outright weeping. Certain phrases wrenched me inside. I could barely get through the book, needing to stop several times to gather myself (while pretending to admire the illustrations, of course).
This was an intense, ineffable feeling: not quite sadness, certainly not joy, but not even nostalgia — something deeper.
A Google search reveals adults commonly cry when reading The Giving Tree, though they’re often not entirely sure why. As Chrissy Teigen tweeted last year:
Or this fellow:
On its face, the story is about a tree’s sacrificial love for a boy. They play together happily every day, but the boy grows up and pursues the trappings of adulthood: money, a house, a family, travel. So the tree gives the boy her apples to sell, her branches to build a house, and her trunk to make a boat. By the end, the tree is a stump, but the boy — now a tired old man — needs nothing more than a quiet place to rest, so he sits on the tree and she is happy. The end.
Readers have debated the book’s meaning since its publication in 1964, with the primary disagreement captured by the title of a NY Times Sunday Book Review from 2014: ‘The Giving Tree’: Tender Story of Unconditional Love or Disturbing Tale of Selfishness? Variously interpreted as a picture of parental love, divine love, abusive relationships, or even environmental rapacity, the book sharply divides readers.
Here’s what’s fascinating: the book deeply moves adults regardless of whether they view it as extolling the tree’s unconditional love or lamenting the tree’s self-destructive love.
What is going on here?
This: what lends The Giving Tree its remarkable poignancy is not the tree’s love, but the story’s canvas — the passing of time. In ten minutes, we witness the boy’s journey from childhood through old age, with all the loss and longing that accompanies life.
The book opens with scenes of childhood happiness. The boy plays with the tree every day: running, climbing, swinging, pretending. They are happy.
This is a verdant picture of wholeness: shalom.
But every good story thrives on conflict, and on the next page we encounter this book’s.
“But time went by.” With only a hint of the boyhood smile remaining, the boy nostalgically remembers his happy childhood days with the tree.
Continuing to age, the boy no longer plays with the tree. Three times the tree entreats the boy to come and play “and be happy” —hearkening back to their lost childhood days—but the boy is “too big,” or “too busy,” or “too old and sad.”
Time has taken the boy’s childhood joy, and he can never go back.
This evokes not simply the loss of childhood happiness, but a primordial sense of the loss that time inevitably wreaks: of youth, of innocence, of illusions, of hopes, of dreams, of love. Conceptually, this is paradise lost: exile from Eden, the far-off place of shalom where we can find wholeness “and be happy” in the fullest sense, if only we could get back.
With loss comes longing. The boy, despite forsaking the tree for possessions and family, always returns to the tree. For in that place the memory of wholeness lingers, forever engraved in the tree’s base.
But it is the tree who longs most for what was lost, and it is here — at the intersection of time’s passing and the tree’s love—the story is most powerful. Each time the aging boy returns, the tree gives at great cost to fulfill the boy’s desires, aching to regain Eden for him: “Then you can…be happy,” as when the boy played among her branches long ago.
But they cannot go back. The boy returns each time to the tree dissatisfied and desiring more, until he grows “too old and sad to play.” The book ends with a shadow of Eden: the boy and the tree together again, but ravaged by time.
Anthony Ford is the co-founder of Move On Pluto and co-creator of interactive children’s book app Max & Meredith: The Search for Percival. He previously practiced securities and commercial litigation in New York City. Find him on Twitter: @Model_TFord. This article previously appeared in The Coffeelicious on Medium.