The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Giving Tree portrays, nakedly, the two moral alternatives that most people believe are their only options. It leaves the reader with an uncomfortable quandary between a morality of complete self sacrifice and a morality of egotistical taking. It is a literary achievement that elicits a range of reactions from sentimental joy in some, whilst others who believe there must be something better are repelled. The latter hope for the better, legitimate alternative discussed below.
The story is of a tree that loves a little boy. The boy enjoys the tree harmlessly, playing in its leaves, climbing it, returning its love …“and the tree was happy”. But, when he’s older he is not so happy. He wants money. The tree suggests that the boy sell its apples, so he does, “And the tree was happy.”
Later the ‘boy’ complains to the tree that he wants a wife, wants children and wants a house. So the tree offers its branches, which he carts off. Later, he complains he is old and sad and wants a boat to get away. The tree offers its entire trunk, and “…the tree was happy…but not really”. Finally, the boy returns as a sorry old man and the tree can only offer its dead stump. Ungratefully, he sits, “And the tree was happy. The End.”
As a parable The Giving Tree starkly contrasts the unconditional love and giving of the ‘tree’, with the possibly short-sighted behavior of the receiving child. Readers’ reactions depend on the readers’ moral standards, however implicit they may be. The Giving Tree should not be left with a child, as just a children’s story. It needs parental guidance.
PART I – The Good
The story’s title, The Giving Tree, emphasizes the moral standard of the tree. The less obvious, opposing standard –which some will see in the character of the boy– suggests an alternative title “The Taking Boy”. The two standards, known, respectively, as altruism and egotism are the moral alternatives most people believe men must choose between. In effect, the choice can be seen as benign, between philanthropist and beggar, or malevolent, as between prey and predator. These alternative views have dominated moral thought, culturally and academically, for centuries. Most readers gravitate toward Giving Tree altruism, seeing it as the more civilized, loving approach. Yet by the end of the story we can see that neither character has a lot to be happy about.
The problem is that the moral choices in The Giving Tree are not the only alternatives. There is a missing, third moral standard that the centuries have largely overlooked. Once understood, this third standard exposes the falsity of the other two.
Imagine if The Boy enjoyed the tree’s apples, and at the tree’s suggestion he sells them and buys a used bicycle. He visits her more often with his new bike… “And the tree and the boy are happy.” Seeing further benefits, the boy fertilizes the tree. The tree suggests how he could prune her, to make her fruit sweeter. He buys a scooter, “And the tree and the boy are happy.” Inspired by his success, he plants her seeds.
Now we see the boy as a man in a glorious field of blossoming young apple trees that surround their matriarch. The story might continue in this way, until both are very old. The old ‘boy’ sits under the tree, joyfully surrounded by his children and grand children, and the beautiful orchard. Taking an apple, he happily comments that it tastes just as sweet as when he was a little boy… “And all were happy.”
A Standard to Live By
This third morality is the morality of the man who does not live for the sake of others, nor expects others to live for his. His moral standard is contextual, and carefully chosen. Contrary to altruism, he sees himself as his highest value, and contrary to egotism, others are contextual values. He knows unrestrained handouts promote dependence, but will die to save the life of his wife or child. He knows that if he is to be a value to other men he must give them reason to value him. Even his charity is directed to achieve real gain.
This poorly understood moral standard is egoism. An egoist (with one ‘t’) is sensibly and thoughtfully selfish, never the sacrificing altruist nor the grasping egotist (with two t’s). He seeks to live his life among cherished achievements, such as a blooming orchard & happy family.
Unfortunately egoism is widely, and tragically, confused with egotism. Thus, those who are disturbed or repelled by the altruism of The Giving Tree likely seek the standards of egoism, only to balk at finding egotism. Egoism is the standard that gives children, and adults, reason to live and to excel. It holds that one should live happily, and to do that one must live sensibly.
It may not be what Shel Silverstein intended (his website suggests not), but we can at last state the theme of The Giving Tree: when giving and taking are the only moral choices true happiness is an illusion.
The Giving Tree can be used, carefully, to show children (seven and up) that one should neither give nor take wantonly. As they get older it can be used to show the sacrificial nature of misapplied generosity. It shows how beneficiaries can become dependent, lose self-esteem and develop a grasping sense-of-entitlement. As a teenager, the thoughtful reader might seek to understand how altruism and egotism actually work against life…
PART II – The Bad and The Ugly
Generosity as Destruction
The Giving Tree demonstrates true, altruistic giving. It is necessary to the theme that the tree give everything to the boy (i.e. others) whenever he wants it, unconditionally. It is also necessary that the boy be, for the most part, an undeserving, unappreciative beneficiary. The true altruist is humble; his needs are inferior to the needs of others.
Under altruism, being moral requires that so long as one has something to offer others, it must be offered. Anything held back, any personal gain, is selfish and uncaring of others. This even means getting pleasure from one’s own generosity is a selfish evil (ref. Immanuel Kant). The Giving Tree touches on this. After its trunk was cut down we learn “the tree was happy… but not really”. Only Immanuel Kant would say the tree was not completely altruistic.
What, among all this altruism, is the role of the boy?
It is important that the boy not be a genuinely likable character, or the character of the Giving Tree would not be so clearly altruistic. If an altruist were to choose among his beneficiaries, hoping to find a way to do the most good, then he would be choosing according to his values. If he seeks out the poorest beggar, because that might be more helpful then he would have a personal goal for his generosity. It reveals a selfish intent, which taints his “devotion to others”, contradicting the altruist ideal. If the boy were of the type that would fertilize the tree, or even love it, then the tree’s altruism would be invalidated.
Some readers may see the boy’s visits to the tree as a sign of his love for the tree, but that was only true at the beginning. Subsequently the boy’s words suggest otherwise. For example, as an old man, it is not that he wants to sit with the tree; what he seeks is “just a quiet place to sit and rest.” Any resting place would have sufficed. The tree is as close as it can get to being purely altruistic, if it would stop being so darned happy about it.
If altruism requires charity without regard for the character of its beneficiaries, then what do sincere altruists really seek? There is only one thing left: they want the complete sacrifice of the giver, for the least possible reason. That is, they want the giver’s destruction. This is exactly what happens to the Giving Tree.
Motherhood is not altruism.
Some interpret the boy in The Giving Tree as one’s much loved child. This confuses the real generosity of a valuing parent with the non-valuing generosity of altruism.
For most parents one’s child is such a value that no effort is too great to ensure his well being. In fact, people will and do die to save their children. But, as previously explained, when one does this, it is a brilliantly selfish act of egoism, not the sacrifice of an altruist. How could a parent live knowing they had stood by and allowed so great a value as their child to be destroyed?
Parents work hard for their children, and some mistakenly consider their effort to be a “sacrifice”. If a single mother buys a sorely needed car rather than a second television, she has chosen between two values. She did not sacrifice the TV for the car, she wants that car. When she helps her child with his homework rather than going out with her friends, she is choosing between values. She is not sacrificing time with her friends, she wants to be with her child. She is practicing egoism, not altruism. She wants the value in raising a smart and happy child. It is not a sacrifice.
In The Giving Tree, the tree spoils the child so much that he grows into an aged ingrate. Remember, “Any resting place would have sufficed!” The tree might be a symbol of motherhood for some, but altruism is not good parenting.
Taking as Destruction
Egotism is the false alternative to altruism, and its destructiveness is easily recognized. The egotist sees the ‘tree’ character of The Giving Tree as simply a resource, to be used. But, the ‘tree’ is clearly not just a tree. It would be disingenuous for an adult reader to ignore its allegorical purpose; they must, at some level, grasp that the tree represents a human. If a reader finds that distinction irrelevant he likely carries egotistic moral premises.
An egotist considers himself to be superior to others, to be the only real value. Others are resources to use in whatever manner he can manage. He sees or acts as if the world is comprised of two kinds of human. There are those who make things available –perhaps his altruistic parents or anyone who acts similarly– and those willing to use them. For him, if there are to be handouts, he had best be a receiver. By this standard, the boy is merely practical, and the Giving Tree is handy or, if anyone cares, tragically foolish.
The egotist deceives himself. A closer look reveals that the boy used up and wrecked his marvelous resource. We can see he is not an independent soul, and is not truly happy. He could have harvested apples regularly to earn money for his boat. He could have seeded apple trees; but, an egotist does not build, he depletes.
Those who view human relationships from the egotistical standpoint are no less destructive than the altruists. Where the altruist sacrifices himself to others, the egotist sacrifices others to himself.
Trade as Constructive Justice
Under egoism, the third and proper morality, the boy saw value in, and obtained value from, the tree and helped it. The tree, in this storybook sense, saw value in, and obtained value from, the boy and responded to it. Some readers may recognize this by the economic saying “mutual trade to mutual benefit”. Too often that extraordinary and caring logic is wrongfully scorned as cold and unfeeling, yet it is the only rational approach to human relationships.
The only pro-life morality is egoism and the trade it engenders.