The Giving Tree Summary and Analysis by Shel Silverstein

About Shel Silverstein: Born in 1930, in the City of Chicago, U.S., Sheldon Allan Silverstein went on to become a man of many talents. He was in his lifetime a poet, a singer and songwriter, a cartoonist and author of many children’s books. His most notable works include ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’, ‘The Giving Tree’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’. He received many prestigious awards for his works including two Grammy awards. His style of writing poetry which was laidback and conversational was easy to understand by the general populace. He died in 1999 of a heart attack at the age of 68.

About The Giving Tree: The Giving Tree’ is written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein in the year 1964. It is a children’s picture book and one of the most notable works of Silverstein. From the date of its release, it had numerous interpretations, both positive and negative, so much so that it got labeled as ‘one of the most divisive books of children’s literature.’

Setting of the poem: The poem revolves around one place, the forest and two characters, the boy and the tree. The tree is the constant existence in this narrative. The boy speaks of house and family and boats but the narrative never shifts there. It always stays with the tree and focuses on her feelings and conversations with the boy.


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Poetic Devices in the Poem The Giving Tree 

Allegory:The Giving Tree’ has a good and sound moral in it. It shows natures’ unconditional love and sacrifice and it shows humans’ greed and selfishness. Above all, it makes one take away feelings of inspiration, of realization and of introspection when one is done reading it.        

Enjambment: The lines of verse flow into each other. For example, lines 3-6 make one sentence. 3 or 4 lines make one sentence throughout the poem.

Personification: The main poetic device seen throughout the poem is personification. The tree is personified and given voice and feelings. The tree feels joy when the boy plays with her and it feels sadness when he leaves. The tree longs for his return and is willing to help the boy with anything he wants, going so far as to sacrifice herself. The tree can be taken to be the personification of a mother, a father or any person who shows unconditional and sacrificial love towards another.

Free Verse: The poem has not a single rhyming instance in it nor does it have any regular meter. It is written in free verse, with language that can be understood easily by anyone.

Allusion: There are passing mentions of the boy’s family: wives and kids. There are also mention of a house and a boat.

Narrator: The poet, Silverstein is the narrator of this poem. This is mentioned specifically because the poem is told in a third person view.

The Giving Tree Summary by Shel Silverstein

        There was a tree in a forest. And there was a boy who came to the forest, specifically to the tree, to play. The tree loved the boy. The boy would visit the tree every day. He would pretend to be the king of the forest by making a crown from the leaves of the tree. He would climb up the tree, swing from her branches and eat apples. He would play hide-and-seek and when he was tired from it all, he would sleep in the tree’s shade. The tree loved the boy and the boy loved the tree. Both were happy.

But then the time passed. The boy came by the tree less and less as he grew older. The tree felt lonely often. And then one day the boy returned. The tree was joyful and asked him to play with her as he used to. But the boy says he was too big to play and that he wanted money. The tree offers her apples to the boy to sell and make money. The boy gathers the apples and goes away. The tree was happy that she helped the boy for a while but the boy did not return again for a long time.

This repeats for two more times. The second time the boy comes, he says he wants to a house to keep him warm and house his to be wife and children; and the tree offers up her branches. The third time the boy returns, again after a long interval of time, he is too sad to play like he did. He asks for a boat so that he may go off to places far away. The tree again offers her trunk to make a boat and the boy takes it.

A long time passes and the boy finally returns, for the last time. He is now old and weak and he has neither the means to eat apples nor he has the energy to climb and swing from trees; which was well, for the tree could offer neither of those as it was but a stump now. But the stump was exactly what the boy needed in his present age and the tree happily offered him a seat. And finally, the tree was truly happy.


The Giving Tree Analysis by Shel Silverstein

The poem is a classic example of the relationship between nature and humans. The boy in the poem represents the whole of humanity and the tree, aptly described as ‘giving’, represents the nature. In his nascent stage, the boy loved the tree and peacefully coexisted with her, playing and enjoying her gifts. There were no expectations, no deep intentions; just pure, unconditional love.

But then the boy began to grow up just like the humans evolved. And he began taking things from the tree which damaged her. He took her fruits, her branches, and her trunk just like the current humans’ rob nature of its resources. The evolution of the boy sees him obtain characteristics of greed and selfishness. He doesn’t stop and think of what he does to the tree but just asks her of whatever he wants.

And when he finally becomes old and weak, he returns to his old self of his where just the presence of the tree was enough to satisfy him. The poem is a reflection of humans’ current actions. The materialism and the uncaring method of achieving that, the damage was done to the nature and the selfishness of the humans in just taking and taking things without giving anything in return; everything going in the current world is here in this poem.

This poem is a tale of how unconditional nature is in providing humans with what he wants. It is also a tale of how humans abuse this trait of nature. It is a tale of a complete cycle in which the human is free, but then clings to greed and materials, and he finally becomes free again. It is a reminder that what really matters at the end isn’t really substantial, but abstract; a sense of belonging with someone of true love.

But it is also a tale of caution. The way the tree sees the human as a ‘boy’ throughout his life shows her unchanging attitude towards him, and as a result allows him to go off on a wrong path of greed, of materialism and sadness (he wants to go to places far away because of this sadness). Had the tree acknowledged him as a ‘man’ instead of a ‘boy’, the result may have been different. As this poem is a children’s book, which is usually read out loud to the children by their parents, this poem can be said to be a cautionary tale to them.

Central Idea of the poem: The poem can be taken in either way; positive or negative. It can be taken as a celebration of natures’ ‘giving’. It can be taken as a lamentation of humans’ ‘taking’. Or it can be taken as a caution to the parents.

At its heart, the poem is a reminder that it is the little things in life that give us the most happiness. The happiness the boy experienced when he was playing with the tree or the satisfaction he felt when he just sat on the tree which was now just a stump, was not found by him when he was making money or building a house. It is the small moments of unconditional actions that give us the most joy.

Tone of the poem: The tone of the poem is happy and inspiring in the beginning. The boy loves the tree and the tree loves the boy. Both are happy. Then it turns to one of greed and sadness, of melancholy. The tree is sad that the boy is away and the boy is unthoughtful of the tree’s feelings and goes only after his desires. In the end, the boy is sad too.

The ending of the poem is again inspiring and thought provoking. The way the boy returns to the tree and the tree finds herself happy again; it just makes one think of what life is really about and how in the end, it’s the little things that matter.

Conclusion: Shel Silverstein captured an apt comparison of the relationship between nature and humans in this poem. The poem has multiple angles in which it can be explored. It is deep and melancholic and inspiring. Do not go run off after materials, instead look for someone who can love you unconditionally and stay with them, because at the end of the day, it’s all that matters – this is what the poet is trying to say through this poem.

Abhishek is a marketing research and social media consultant who developed a keen interest in blogging. He can be contacted at dey.abhishek99@gmail.com

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