Total Sacrifice is Overrated

I hate The Giving Tree.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Yes I realize, according to the dust jacket, that this is “a story of unforgettable perception”; a “tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation.” Bleah.

In case it’s been awhile, let me refresh your memory:

Boy hangs out with Tree, eats apples, swings in branches, slides on trunk and rests in shade. Everyone’s whole and happy. Then Boy leaves and Tree is sad. Boy comes back when he needs something and Tree, delighted by these scraps of attention, literally offers up bits of herself until she is reduced to a stump. Book ends with Stump (formerly Tree) apologizing (!) for having nothing left to give, then offers herself as a place Boy can sit and rest.  “And the tree was happy.”

Dust jacket blurb highlights this continuous, one-sided sacrifice as the “serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return”. Sounds noble when put that way – hurray for Tree. But what about Boy?  What kind of parent, partner, child, friend, team member or employee would that kind of person be?



  1. Thank you! Right now I feel like the stump. I am so tired of always being there for everyone else when no one is there for me.

  2. As a Shel Silvertstein fan from the 60’s, you’ve caused a memory of struggling with this book at bedtime reading—–I thought of it as more of an adult book really. I thought that it was written by someone else, not Silverstein—-too different. My kids had lots of questions usually fended off by ‘what do you think?’. Consequently, it was not their top book request——too boring. I intend to ask them now what they thought then and if it made a particular impression. They definitely turned out embracing selflessness and empathy——probably to the detriment of a gritty business sense and their retirement fund, but I think little credit to Shel.

    Here’s an excerpt from a 1964 book review that gives the book some credit:

    ‘——This book has been interpreted in many ways. Some see it as a Christian parable, celebrating selfless generosity. Gender theorists have noted that the tree is a stand in for a feminine figure that is literally stripped and used by an ungrateful male figure. And then there is the environmental interpretation, which reveals humankind’s selfish and unsustainable interaction and ultimate exploitation of the natural world. Whatever your interpretation, the prospect of reading this story to your children may require a bit more rigor than just turning pages and reading words off the page.

    This is not to say that this book should be omitted from your personal library, avoided, or banned. I still contend that this book is of great value, if not essential, but its message (or many messages) beg to be discussed with children in depth. Here are some suggestions.

    Ask the child about how they think the tree feels, if they think the ending is a happy one, and what he or she might have done if he or she were either the boy or the tree. This gesture may not change the world or alter the reckless course of humanity, but it might be a literary baby step towards a more thoughtful, enlightened discussion about empathy, selfishness, and the greater good.’

    Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

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