Misunderstanding Shel and Why the Giving Tree is Not a Wooden Manic Pixie Dream Girl
I love Shel Silverstein, and reading Silverstein’s poems out loud to my three year old son Declanhas been a joyful and deeply satisfying experience as well as a wonderful bridge to some of the most cherished moments of my own childhood, when my dad would read to me. Yet somewhat surprisingly, I do not like The Giving Tree and when I choose books to read to Declan at bedtime each night I always gingerly skip over it.
I found it to be fundamentally sexist, an apology for the selfishness and self-centeredness of men both individually and as a gender. I thought it was a book that depicted women serving men selflessly as the natural order of things, as how things should be. In my mind, the Giving Tree was a Manic Pixie Dream Tree, one who just gave and gave and gave to some grumpy, demanding, impossible-to-please jerk who never stops thinking only of himself, just as she never ever starts thinking about herself or her own needs.
It seemed to me to be a hymn to masochism, to people pleasing, to the idea that a woman, whether human or made of wood, exists to serve the men who go out and do things and make the world work.
Then my wife read The Giving Tree to my son last night over my modest objections and my thinking changed. First of all, it broke my fucking heart. Sweet fucking Lord is The Giving Tree ever a heartbreaking, emotionally shattering exploration of aging, ambition, failure, need and mortality, and the ever-looming specter of death.
My screaming sentimentality can barely handle the prospect of my son growing a year older and this book forces you to contemplate pretty much the sum of aging, with all of its sadness and decay and loss. I’m also grateful that Declan is at an age now when he can’t possibly grasp the full, aching melancholy of the book, and particularly its ending.
My wife teared up while she was reading it. So did I. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I was on the verge of full-on tears. “What did you think, Dex?” my wife asked our son in the hushed aftermath of him hearing this seminal, borderline sacred American text for the first time. “It was good” he said softly, which, despite my earlier reservations, is the right answer.
I had an intense, almost overwhelming emotional response to The Giving Tree in part because it was such a big part of my childhood, and hearing those words again brought back such a flood of memories, many of them sad. No, scratch that, all of them sad. I got more out of the book as a 41 year old man who has lost a lot than I did as a three or four year old boy with his life still sprawled out ahead of him. Children’s books, sometimes, are wasted on children.
Listening to my wife read Silverstein’s words, and knowing and loving the man in all of his complexities and contradictions made me think that I was wrong in seeing The Giving Tree as an unambiguous ode to women serving men. I’m not sure Silverstein did anything unambiguously. He spoke the language of irony and sarcasm so fluidly and compellingly and expertly across multiple mediums (he was a damn fine country songwriter, for example) that it could be difficult to figure out what’s screamingly ironic and what’s sincere.
Looking at the book from an adult perspective, I’m not sure Silverstein didn’t mean for the Boy to be an asshole we’re supposed to look at with derision and contempt, as one of those greedy, rapacious little monsters that litter Silverstein’s work. But it can be hard to read subtle layers of irony and commentary and even criticism when you’re on the brink of bawling your eyes out and are overcome with sadness and regret and tenderness.
True, the most recent, anniversary edition of The Giving Tree, in which the Tree now plays a ukulele and looks disconcertingly like Zooey Deschanel, complicates the matter, but I do not think the Tree is a Manic Pixie Dream Tree anymore. And I’m not sure the book isn’t a critique of the idea that women should serve the ambition and drive of jerky, selfish men rather than a celebration of it, or an apology for it.
Silverstein was a complicated man, and The Giving Tree is a complicated, ambivalent book that only looks simple. To parrot my young son’s words, it’s good but more than anything it’s sad. And that’s okay too.
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