Shel Silverstein in The Giving Tree tells the story of a boy and a tree who grow up together. When both characters are very young they play together. The boy gathers the tree’s leaves and makes a crown and they play hide and seek. As the two get older, the boy, now a teenager, wants to make money, so the tree gives him all her apples to sell at the market. Progressing further, when the boy is finally a man, the tree offers all her wood so that he can make a house for his family and a boat to sail away on. At the end of the story, there is only a stump of the tree left and the boy, returning as an old man, sits on the trunk to rest. The themes explored in this story reflect upon both modern and Enlightenment ways of thinkng about children.
As far as the form and imagery of Silverstein’s story is concerned, it is important for the understanding of a child to note that the boy is always referred to as “the boy”, even when he appears to the reader in the pictures as a teenager or an old man. This feature of the story brings about the idea that even as children get older and grow into adults and perhaps forget what carelessness there was in being a child, there is a sense of that child within them always. This idea speaks to both Enlightenment and modern ways of thinking about children, because most, if not all, people remember what ignorance there was as a child. Thomas gray, in his poem Ode Upon a Distant Prospect of Eton College, writes “Since sorrow never comes too late,/ And happiness too swiftly flies./ Thought would destroy their paradise./ No more; where ignorance is bliss,/ ‘Tis folly to be wise” (96-100). Gray’s passage suggests that even though it may be a blessing in childhood to be oblivious to adulthood and what pain or struggle it holds. This passage connects directly with the idea the old man is still a boy, in the sense that an “ignorant bliss” can be recalled and longing for that time will always be present.
While the boy is still young, he decorates the tree with carvings and the tree is fruitful and has many branches and leaves. At the very beginning and end of the story, the tree is completely bare. This imagery appeals to the idea that in childhood, imagination is very strong. A healthy imagination and creativity of a child is less explored or sought after in the Enlightenment period when compared to modern times. But, creative encouragement is being hindered in modern times, even when society places a greater emphasis on its importance. In Children, Adolescents, and Media, Victor Stasburg states, “In addition, children can form schemas about the social and physical world in which they live. In the social realm, for example, children develop templates for emotions that include information about expressive signals, situational causes, and display rules associated with each affect” (30). Children are learning how to interact within an adult world through media rather than spending time imagining or creating something that doesn’t necessarily have a real world meaning.
The last point I would like to make concerns the central theme of the book: virtue. It is virtuous to give to the ones we love. The Enlightenment placed much emphasis on the idea of virtue when trying to form decent children. John Locke illustrates this idea in Some Thoughts Concerning Education. He states, “A young man before he leaves the shelter of his father’s house, and the guard of a tutor, should be fortify’d with resolution, and made acquainted with men, to secure his virtues, lest he should be led into some ruinous course, or fatal precipice, before he is sufficiently acquainted with the dangers of conversation, and has steadiness enough not to yield to every temptation” (Part IV, Section 70). Locke, at least for this section of his article, could be in conversation with modern thinkers. Virtue is an ideal that is sought to be instilled in all children, whether in modern times or from the Enlightenment.