The story is a short moral tale about a relationship between a young boy and a tree in a forest. The tree and the boy become best friends. The tree always provides the boy with what he wants: branches to swing from, shade to sit under, apples to snack on, branches to build a house. As the boy grows older and older he requires more and more of the tree. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him anything he asks for. In the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut her down so the boy can build a boat in which he can sail. The boy leaves the tree, now a stump. Many years later, the boy, now an old man, returns and the tree says, “I have nothing left to give you.” The boy replies that all he needs is a quiet place to sit and rest. The tree happily obliges.
Ever since the book was published, it has generated controversy and opposing opinions for its interpreted messages, on whether the tree is selfless or merely self-sacrificing, and whether the boy is selfish or reasonable in his demands of the tree. The story clearly shows childhood as being a time of relative happiness in comparison to the sacrifice and responsibility of adulthood. The story only uses the word “need” at the end to describe the “boy’s”/old man’s need of a place to rest- all of his other desires are “wants.”
A review of The Giving Tree: A Symposium shows some academic readers describing the book as portraying a vicious, one-sided relationship between the tree and the boy: with the tree as the selfless giver and the boy as a greedy and never-satisfied being who constantly receives, yet never gives anything back to the tree; a selfish love that could be misrepresented and imitated by its children readers. Indeed, some of these speakers single the tree out as either an irresponsible parent whose self-sacrifice has left the boy ill-equipped to cope and make his way in the world (and therefore led to him ending up alone) or as hopelessly co-dependent. Other speakers, however, insisted that the book is a tale of unconditional love and generosity: the tree gives all it can to the boy because it loves him, and its feelings are reciprocated by the boy when he returns to the tree for a rest. In this way, the relationship between the tree and the boy as he grows up could be viewed as similar to that between a mother and her child; despite getting nothing in return for a long time, the tree puts the boy’s needs foremost, because it wants him to be happy. Indeed, the only time the tree ever seems to be sad is when it feels that it has nothing left to give the boy and that the boy might never return.