For my reader-response theory post, I have chosen to analyze the children’s book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, a beloved book of my childhood that prompts mixed feelings for me: comfort and uncertainty, pleasure and melancholy. It’s a bittersweet story. The disparate positive and negative emotions leave me feeling a little weary, but cleansed, which I propose is part of the reading experience pre-structured by the text.
The Giving Tree reading
The book opens with a pleasant image, a tree and a little boy who spend every day together enjoying each other’s company. We aren’t given much information about the tree, save for her introduction on the first two pages: “Once, there was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” We aren’t told details, like what type of tree she is. (We find out later.) All that matters now is her unconditional love for the little boy, and readers sense a parental relationship between the two. There’s an atmosphere of joy. However, the terse writing style foreshadows some impending sorrow. The reader is led to sense that the present joy is fleeting.
Indeed, it is. The boy grows up to seek bigger and better things, leaving his friend. The boy returns a few times, yet he’s always somber. In contrast, the tree practically bursts with joy to see him. She says,
“Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy!”
“I am too big to climb and play” said the boy.
And he always proceeds to ask something of her, whether it’s money or a house or a boat for him to sail away. His answers to her suggestion “be happy” indicate that he is “too big,” “too busy,” or “too old and sad” to be happy, a hopeless attitude that sharply contrasts with the tree’s joyful generosity. She never refuses his requests, but offers up every piece of herself without hesitation. The boy takes her apples, branches, and trunk, and sets off to try to find happiness, until finally all that’s left of her is the stump, at which point she “was happy… but not really.”
Throughout the story, the reader is given images of the boy’s return and the tree’s joy. In my own interpretation, the boy seems to come with a heavy heart, disappointed in his failure to find contentment. Note that the reader isn’t told what he does when he leaves, and it’s left up to our interpretation to “fill in the gaps” regarding why the boy always return so unhappy.
Thus, there is perpetual conflict between the tree’s bigheartedness and the boy’s seeming brokenness. Despite his apparent heartache, he always returns to the tree, his mother figure. Only when he returns simply for her company is there a sense of peace.
Still, I personally feel weary when I finish this book, a little overwhelmed by the boy’s sorrow and only mildly comforted by the tree’s kindness. According to reader-response theory, this may be because of my psychological state. I am familiar with heartache, and it’s my coping mechanism to empathize with characters who are like me. Yet I am also a bit suspicious of the boy. After all of his coming and going, how do we know he won’t leave again? My automatic response is to feel a little uncertain about the book’s ending, and I think this somewhat reflects the book’s theme that material happiness is uncertain.
What is the implied reader of such a poignant text? Though it’s a children’s book, I think the complex readership experience may also anticipate a more mature reader, most specifically a parent reading to a child. The combination of a parent and child pair reading together mirrors the parental relationship between the tree and the boy, and it accentuates the pleasant ending for the readers, as tree and boy are at last content together. On the other hand, if a parent or child were to read the story alone, he or she may have a very different reading experience, noticing more the lonely aspect of the text when the characters were apart. Thus, readers can interpret it differently depending on their psychological state and relation to others.
As for me, I tend to identify with an interpretive community that relies on analyzing the emotions of a text, and this book is very emotional for me, and it’s for this emotion that I love it so much. What’s your interpretation?