The Giving Tree

‘The Giving Tree’ By Shel Silverstein

‘The Giving Tree’, published in 1964, is a minimalist American children’s book by Shel Silverstein, comprising of only 600 odd words, alongside simple black and white images drawn by the author. I was captivated by this book when I first encountered it, and it has continued to occupy my thoughts ever since. The book was the basis of the first service I ever gave here in the Meeting House, and ever since then it has been my intention to return to its pages and consider its rich imagery afresh. The story is written in a parabolic style, and as such it seems reasonable to posit we’re working in an allegorical mode. Whatever this story is about, it’s surely not about a boy and his tree. The trouble is, the author himself always denied this. Shel Silverstein maintained that the book had no message, it was not to be interpreted, and it simply is as it appears, a story ‘about a boy and a tree’. “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.” Despite the author being so matter of fact about this, I beg to differ.

When a piece of art is created, be it a movie, a painting, a rap song, or a children’s book, whether the artist likes it or not we are going to interpret the meaning of that art for ourselves. Although I don’t think the author’s personal interpretation is irrelevant, I don’t think it’s paramount either. It’s not even the case that what the artist claims concerning their own work is de facto his/her true perspective. Rather, a motivation for offering either no interpretation, or denying the legitimacy of interpretation, may be that in doing so one bolster the piece’s mystique. Likewise, I don’t think the author’s biography is irrelevant either, but again, nor do I think it is paramount. We should not underestimate the extent to which a piece of art stands independently from it’s author. I’m not here agreeing completely with the postmodernist position that the author is irrelevant, but I am saying it can be overstated. Shel Silverstein was a prolific womanizer; it strikes me as being erroneous though to allow that fact to unduly overshadow the work. ‘The Giving Tree’ is a piece of art that has an identity of its own. Its very form suggests a depth of meaning, and the author’s inability or unwillingness to recognise this is not the whole story. In fact, if indeed the author was truly unconscious of the depths herein, I might suggest that this in fact attests to the legitimacy of a psychoanalytical reading of the story. There is content present herein that the author is not even aware of! Beneath the surface of the text there is recurrent material of the collective unconscious coming to the fore and finding expression.

 ‘The Tree of knowledge’ in the Red Book by Carl Jung

‘The Tree of knowledge’ in the Red Book by Carl Jung

Let us begin then by considering a surface reading of the text. The story is apparently about a boy and his tree. The boy would play in her branches. The boy grew older and went away, which made the tree sad. He returned to ask for money - she gives him her apples to sell, she gives him her branches, she gives him her trunk, until there is nothing left of her but an old stump. The boy, now an old man, sits upon the stump, and we’re told the tree is happy. Let us suppose then, that the story is not ‘about a boy and a tree’, but rather that these two characters represent or symbolise aspects of the psyche. Not so much Silverstein’s psyche, but rather the psyche of each one of us. The boy represents the ‘ego’, the ‘I’ part of the psyche, which we experience mediating the conflicting impulses within our interior world, and the tree represents, in Jungian terms, the capital ‘S’ Self. Now, ‘Self’, in this context is a jargon term, so I’ll unpack it a bit. The capital ‘S’ Self can be thought of as God within one’s own psyche, the divine image, and so the person with the cultivated religious attitude is the one who has discovered the divine within the Self, and remains in tune with it, not allowing single minded drives to subvert our attention away from the God within. Furthermore, the ego, the boy, is represented as the masculine dimension of the Psyche, whereas the tree, the Self, is represented as the feminine aspect of the Psyche.

So now, back to the story. In the beginning, the boy and the tree, the ego and the Self, are in harmony. This is the Edenic state of being, the intuitively held sense that in a bygone age we were in harmony with nature and the cosmos. We all have this inbuilt sense that we must recover this once lost oceanic oneness with the cosmos. So the alienation begins. It starts with the ego recognising that it is distinct from the Self. We get the first hint of this in ‘The Giving Tree’ on page twelve; we see in the black and white picture that the boy has carved into the base of the tree a heart, with the words, ‘Me + T’  (‘Me + The Tree’), hinting at the beginning of disharmony within the psyche, for now the Self is an objectified other. As the boy’s masculine ego asserts itself further, the alienation deepens. A couple of pages after the first carving, a second carving appears, this time reading ‘Me + YL’. The now adolescent boy lies beneath the tree with his girlfriend, initials ‘YL’. Here we get then the classic folly of adolescent boys, having been alienated from their original sense of wholeness, their ‘Self’, they seek to fill that void with a female companion. A betrayal of the ‘Self’ literally carved into the bark, marking the spiral of estrangement to come. As his masculinity still asserts itself further, the ‘hero’s journey’ archetype takes hold of him. He feels called to leave the tree, and as a result the possibility of spiritual wholeness, behind him, to pursue worldly ends. “I want to buy things and have fun, I want some money.” Three times the boy, who is now a man, returns to the tree to ask something from her, first taking her apples, then her branches, and then ultimately her trunk. Though we see this playing out in literalised terms, I see it more as a metaphorical estrangement playing out as the boy seeks wholeness everywhere apart from at the core of his own being. First in shallow fun, secondly in creating a home in disharmony with his own spiritual centre, and thirdly as a seeker, as a traveller. It is as if he is seeking harmony with the divine image outside himself, seeking the sacred out there, as opposed to within. There is also a sense that as time passes, his search for what matters intensifies, and becomes more frantic. “I want a boat that will take me far away from here. Can you give me a boat?”

 Representation of the ‘Self’ in Jungian analytical psychology.

Representation of the ‘Self’ in Jungian analytical psychology.

One of the key concepts within Carl Jung’s work is the idea of ‘individuation’. The idea being that within the psyche, within one’s inner world, there are a multitude of dormant components that rear up and cause one to become alienated from the ‘Self’. Because of their single driven nature they lead us away from the divine image within. The process of ‘individuation’ is recognising the force of these dormant components that we might defuse their effect upon us, by recognising their presence, and thus allowing us to return to the ‘Self’. In ‘The Giving Tree’ these dormant components are found in the outworking of the ego’s masculinity, which leads the boy into his hero’s journey, and his call to adventure, which in turn estranges him (probably inevitably estranges him) from his true ‘Self’. The boy must face up to what it is within him that draws him away from the tree, so that that force might be neutralised, and thus allow for the possibility of reintegration. This process of ‘individuation’ plays out naturally within each person over the course of our lives, though Jungian analysts would maintain that by turning our attention inwards and becoming more conscious and proactive towards our inner world, we expedite the process. They would therefore advocate for a conscious individuation. This process of conscious individuation begins by ceasing to identify with our exterior persona, our social mask (which some people find very difficult to dissociate from, particularly if their social mask places them high up within a social hierarchy), and rather look to the interior world, and ultimately to the ‘Self’ within.

 And the tree was happy…

And the tree was happy…

As this estrangement between the ego and the Self reaches its apotheosis in our story, the divine image, the tree, is said to feel sad. The divine image within actively doesn’t want to be estranged from our ego, and when that estrangement does occur, we often feel a deep sense of disharmony within our psyche. This disharmony attests to the need for the spiritual journey, this process of ‘individuation’ - and this is an important point to emphasise, as within liberal religious communities such as ours there is often a misconception that arises, that because we desire to accommodate and embrace every individual, we do not therefore encourage a process of spiritual renewal. This mistake has led many liberal religious communities to abandon the fostering of spiritual renewal and spiritual discovery, instead focusing upon community for community’s sake, or social action to the detriment of religiosity. This individuation process, the need to harmonise the ego with our Self, is of universal concern.

So we’re seeking that wholeness once more, to return to that Edenic state, the Garden of Eden. As we conceptualise that for ourselves it’s worth noting, however, that the boy in our story never returns to that ideal state. He is never the boy playing in the tree again. However, in this unfolding spiritual journey, he does reach a state of completion, but he does not reach a state of perfection. And that is an important lesson, that though we should aim for spiritual completion in our lives, we should not, and indeed cannot, reach for spiritual perfection. The psyche has gone through a complete process, the ego is not who it was, and the Self is not who it was. Both have undergone transformation; the masculine dimension of the psyche had been reconciled with the feminine. They now sit in peace with each other, and the tree was happy.

Amen.