The Giving Tree or The Taking Boy

Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:

The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.

By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.

The end.

Yes that is harsh.  But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale.  So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:

Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.

There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.

The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.

This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.

So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.

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About Andrew Kukla

I am the proud father of four wonderful children, loving husband to Caroline, brother to three mostly wonderful sisters, and son of two parents that gifted me with a foundation of love and freedom. I also am a Presbyterian pastor and former philosophy major with a love of too many words (written with many grammatical errors and parenthetic thoughts), Soren Kierkegaard, and reflections on living a life of discipleship that is open to all the challenges, ups and downs, brokenness and grace, of a chaotic and wonderful life founded upon the love of God for all of creation.

Posted on July 7, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Karen Schultz

    Hi Andrew! — I applaud your challenge to this classic! However, I must come to its defense. I see via the interweb that this story has ruffled the feathers of many others. More notably parents who read it to their children and saw it differently through adult eyes.
    In my perusing, I also found a post from a Giving Tree defender whom I agree with completely. So while I cannot claim these words as my own, I did want to share this alternate view of The Giving Tree:

    “The tree is a metaphor for the earth or anything else that gives unconditionally. The boy is humanity. The message is that if you take and take and take, there will be eventually nothing left. The boy takes everything he can, wasting it, and never gives anything back. Just like any natural resource, if its unrenewable it will eventually go away. The message a child should take away from the story is that they should NOT be like the boy, although it is very easy to be. They should look to the ramifications of their actions and not waste what is available to them.”

    • I approve of this defense. That is to say, I approve of the message this defender walked away with. I maintain I do not think that is the dominant interpretation of the text (which either says something about the dominant narrative’s ability to co-opt the message – or it says something about the failure of the medium to tell the intended story). Either way. I would agree with that quote and maintain my own message in contest of the dominant interpretation of the story which seems to laud the tree giving, giving, giving and that this sacrificial giving “makes the tree happy” (a claim the story actually makes for itself).

      That said you raise another good point I also agree with – some times we teach “via negativa.” That is we tell a story to help our children (or ourselves) see what is wrong with the way of life presented in it. We are able to see that wrong in the story better than we will point it out in our own lives (out of defensiveness) and hopefully connect the dots and learn and apply that learning in our lives. This is much like Jesus (or prophets and storytellers and myths) use of parables as teaching techniques.

      Thanks for the “defense” and engagement – I love it!

  2. It is a horrible book. I agree completely.

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