Smothering Love and Codependency in Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree"
Since its publication in 1964, Shel Silverstein’s picture book poem The Giving Tree has become a fertile ground for discussions based on the act of selfless giving. It is a parable that leaves the tree-boy relationship open to subjective interpretation. This analysis focuses on the parent-child angle, where the female tree is the symbolic mother and the boy is her son growing up into adulthood. What appears to be a story about the sacrifices a mother makes for her self-obsessed son will, instead, reveal a toxic relationship based on unconscious codependency that leaves both participants in emotional limbo.
At first, both the tree and the boy live in harmony, each giving the other love and attention: “Once there was a tree… And / she loved / a / little boy.” (1-5); “And every day / the boy / would come … and swing from her branches … and the boy loved the tree.” (6-8, 19, 28). The accompanying illustration further emphasizes their loving relationship, showing “M.E. + T” carved inside a heart on the tree trunk. Everything changes when Silverstein switches from “and” to “but” in his story and the young boy grows older and meets a girl. From this point on, the tree is no longer happy since she “was often alone” (33), the illustrations showing leaves falling from the tree’s branches, a substitute for tears. Another carved heart also appears on the tree’s trunk, illustrating how the boy’s love is now shared with someone outside the mother-son relationship.
With time, the mother and son create a cycle of codependency from which neither can escape. Having found love in another person, the older boy leaves his home and visits the tree in four different stages of his life. He is unhappy each time he comes back, the mother sacrificing parts of herself to cheer him up and possibly make him stay. The boy continues to return to take from the tree, and, every time, “[he] almost entirely disappears within those parts of the tree … as if he becomes one with her” (Kostiner and Ruddick 3). This mother-son relationship is no longer healthy for either of them but has become toxic and destructive. The carefree boy in the opening loses more of his identity with each new visit to the tree, while the mother blindly destroys hers.
The mother tree’s continuous attempts at keeping the boy near debilitate his sense of self. She makes it hard for him to find happiness outside her reach since she always assures him that it comes with her help, luring him back every time with her generosity: “Then you will be happy” (repeated three times). Her actions are motivated by fear of accepting change in 1) their relationship, 2) her son’s life, and 3) her new position as the child goes away from home. Instead of accepting the fact that the boy has grown and has other interests (“I am too big to climb and play … I want to buy things and have fun” (39-40) ), the tree continues to smother him and keep him close, juxtaposing her calling him Boy with the capital ‘B’ but still treating him like a kid. As he uses the trunk to make a boat so he can sail far away, the mother tree “was happy … but not really.” (99-100), which is another sign of the problematic dependency she has created with her son. Similarly, the boy has no self-reliance and fears the unknown world outside of his mother’s help, where worries abound and grow. He tries to fully adult: in the panel where he cuts the tree’s trunk, “he made the cut in between the two hearts … [signifying an] attempt at making a life for himself that embraces someone other than the tree: ironically still with the help of the tree” (Kostiner and Ruddick 3). Nevertheless, he always returns, continuing to take and succumb to his mother’s wishes, not once taking a stand and remedying the situation.
While the mother tree initiates the dependency, the boy supports it. The verse “And the tree was happy” appears five times in the text, but not once mentions the boy. His unhappiness with the outside world and himself does not make him want to change and mature; instead, it does the opposite. He complies with his mother’s desire to nurture him even as a grown man because he, too, fears change. This instance fuels the toxic relationship to its end, where the mother is but a stump, a shell of who she initially was, and the boy is a lost old man with no purpose in life, a stark contrast between that and “the king of the forest” (17).
Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a parable that invites many interpretations. The relationship between the tree and the boy could project an unconsciously toxic one between a mother and her son, where the mother’s love smothers the son’s individuality and breeds codependency as the son continuously takes from the mother, never pleased. In the end, this leaves both empty and devoid of happiness. Thus, the message speaks to establishing healthy boundaries even in a parent-child relationship; both participants should remember their autonomy outside of the parental relationship and understand that true love includes accepting change in the other and nurturing personal freedom.
Kostiner, Anne Neri and Lisa Ruddick. “The Not Good Enough Mother in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree”. 2010.
Silverstein, Shel. The Giving Tree. HarperCollins Publishers, 1964.