Betsy’s School

Literary Analysis

This was the paper I wrote 2 weeks ago that compared the two short stories “The Selfish Giant” (Oscar Wilde) and “Where Love is, God is” (Also known as Martin the Cobbler by Leo Tolstoy). 

Betsy 11-13-2006


Of all the character traits people strive for in their lifetime, the one that continues to be the most elusive is selflessness.  Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant”, and Leo Tolstoy’s “Where Love is, God is”, both address this desirable attribute, but approach it in two different ways.  “The Selfish Giant” is about a giant who expels some children from his garden.  After his heart is touched by a little boy, he reopens his garden to them.  Later, the Giant is invited to accompany the little boy to his garden of paradise.  The story of “Where Love is, God is” begins with Martin, a cobbler, who after the loss of his wife and son, finds his purpose in life by learning to following Jesus.  After having a vision in which he will meet Christ, he begins to help people, and meets Christ through them.  The primary theme throughout these two books is selflessness. 

          Published in 1888, Oscar Wilde’s, “The Selfish Giant”, illustrates the theme of selflessness through many elements, but primarily through the main character, a giant.  When the Giant realizes “how selfish I have been” (Wilde 3), he experiences a change of heart.  His awareness of a prolonged winter, and hoping that “there will be a change in the weather” (Wilde 2), helps this change to occur.  The Giant then knocks down the wall that had prevented the children from coming in, and reopens his garden to the children.  The conflict, which asks if the Giant will ever get rid of his selfishness, is answered by this act of selflessness.  This brings the theme to the surface, and is perhaps the most vivid example of his change of heart.           Leo Tolstoy’s story, “Where Love is, God is”, was published in 1885 and also deals with the theme of selflessness.  Martin, the cobbler, is struggling to find his purpose in life, and when an old friend comes to visit and urges him to live for God, Martin does so.  Like Christ, he began to selflessly provide food, tea, money, and shelter to the “unfamiliar boots” (Tolstoy 3) and friends around him.  “Come, friend, sit down and have some tea.”  (Tolstoy 3)  His selfless acts of hospitality and servitude reflected Christ, and gave God the opportunity to use Martin to touch other’s lives.  Through the conflict in wanting to meet Christ, Martin’s selflessness helps him to experience Christ through his acts of kindness towards others.  “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren even these least, ye did it unto me.”  (Tolstoy 7)  Martin unknowingly “met” Christ three times through the people he served.  Like Martin, Tolstoy became a Christian later in life.  Tolstoy at one point tried to selflessly give all of his property away, but his wife intervened.  Martin selflessly gave to the needy and touched lives through Christ.  In the same way, Christ was imitated through him. 

          In “The Selfish Giant” and “Where Love is, God is”, there are some similarities and differences in the themes of these two works regarding selflessness.  Both books start out with their main characters as being self-focused.  The Giant “was a very selfish Giant” (Wilde 1) and excludes others from his garden.  Martin approaches life from a selfish perspective because he didn’t understand why God had let his wife and son die.  He could only view his misfortune from his selfish point of view.  However, both characters were able to put aside their selfish ways, and were reborn through Jesus Christ, becoming selfless like Christ.  Wilde made his Giant’s conversion more metaphorical while Tolstoy’s cobbler was more straightforward.  The change to selflessness by these two characters was also a result of different motives.  The Giant was selfless in order to make both him and the children happier, whereas Martin was selfless out of his desire to serve God.             The unselfish acts performed by Martin and the Giant are something that anyone can attain, but there are flaws in the portrayal of the Giant’s selflessness that need to be addressed.  Wilde’s depiction of selflessness through the Giant is less praiseworthy because it was rooted in the desire to obtain personal happiness by making the children happy.  This approach was formed by Wilde’s worldview, which was influenced by two popular philosophies prominent during his lifetime.  The concept of the Giant sharing his garden (property) with the children represented Wilde’s socialistic ideas.  Also, Wilde’s depiction of the Giant’s motive to become selfless in wanting to be happy along with the children may have been influenced by the “it’s all about you” Decadent movement.  This is where Wilde went wrong.  You cannot become truly selfless by looking for your happiness along with others.  No matter what the Giant did to show selflessness, it would never be a true selflessness unless he did it through Christ.  True selflessness is serving others through Christ, without consideration of oneself.  Martin’s actions reflect this in the second story.  The cobbler understood the true meaning of selflessness and served others through and for Christ, and by His love.  The selflessness that Martin portrayed was only possible through Christ, a concept that continues to remain elusive for some, and one of the hardest yet most important ways one can live for Him.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  (New International Version, Philippians 4:13) 

Word Count: 889  

This is the critical essay I wrote about The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, published in 1964 .  Feel free to discuss this, write corrections, etc.  Tell me what you think!

Betsy 10/16/2006

When was the last time you climbed an apple tree, swung from its branches, and rested in its shade?  Even if you’ve never done this, would you have considered thanking the tree for what it gave?  This unusual perspective is taken even further by author Shel Silverstein who presents an extreme perspective of unconditional giving in his well-known book, The Giving Tree, first published in 1964.  Because Silverstein illustrates this theme so well, it compels the reader to re-examine how they, themselves, give. 

        In his book, Silverstein portrays this theme of unlimited giving through the plot, setting, and characters.  In every situation, the tree gives the boy what he needs.  Through the plot, you can see this unfold.  In every turn of the page the tree is giving, first with “… her leaves…. [then] her apples… her branches…. her trunk…”1, and when she thinks she has nothing left to offer, she is able to straighten herself up, becoming a place for the boy to sit.  She gives, and gives, and gives.  She is presented as a good example for anyone, anywhere.  No specific setting is implied because the author keeps the story simple and illustrates only the boy and the tree.  By doing this, people worldwide can relate to The Giving Tree and understand that giving applies anywhere.  This means the character of the tree could be anyone as well, thus showing that everyone can give.  The universal nature of this compelling story has enabled The Giving Tree along with Silverstein’s other books to be “… published in 30 different languages.”2 

        How does this worldwide story speak of the author’s perspective on giving?  He sees giving as a good, happy, positive force that has no limits.  Silverstein portrays giving as good, because the tree gives in order to supply the boy with what he needs.  This good deed is an act that can also make one happy.  The author states after every circumstance in which the tree gives, that, “…the tree was happy.”3  Silverstein also gives the impression that one can always give.  Everything that the tree could give, it gave, from its leaves to its whole self and finally, a place to sit.  She was a, “pure and selfless giver” 4 to the very end.  The tree’s unconditional, limitless giving presents Silverstein’s outlook on this theme and the goodness that can bring joy.   

        Can someone really attain this kind of giving?  Silverstein’s unconditional, limitless giving sounds magnanimous, but is it praiseworthy?  The Giving Tree, portrays giving as something that can make you happy, something you can attain.  Who can deny the joy in watching a child’s eyes as they open a Christmas present?  As Jesus Christ said,  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (New International Version, Acts 20:35)  It is definitely a blessing to give and experience the happiness it brings others, and therefore to you.  The tree gave numerous ‘Christmas’ presents to the boy and was happy, even though the boy didn’t give anything back in return.  This brings up the point that the true meaning of giving is to give with unconditional love and not expect anything back.  If one doesn’t keep this in mind, then one is giving with the wrong motive.  “…despite getting nothing in return for a long time, the tree puts the boy’s needs firstmost [SIC], because it wants him to be happy.”6  Although nothing during Shel Silverstein’s life appears to have had an influence on his book, the giving in his book was praised.  Maggie Reich, a survivor of the 60’s, commented, “The Giving Tree was a fad when I was in college.  Everyone thought it was really cool and gave copies to their friends.  The Hippie Generation seemed to think that people, regardless of how hard they worked for their possessions, should give to those who didn’t have as much.”5  The only downfall with this kind of giving is that the boy never learned.  Because of the tree’s unconditional giving, the boy was crippled.  As Marc Gellman, “…it is debilitating to the self-reliance of the recipient…”7  The boy never learned to supply himself with his own needs as shown by his continual returning to the tree for more and more.  Through all the situations, it is clear that the boy could not support himself.  In spite of the tree’s unconditional giving, it did not sustain the boy’s happiness for long.  Even though true giving is good, it can also cripple the receiver of this blessing. 

        With this in mind, did Silverstein effectively treat the theme of true giving?  Just by picking up the book, reading the few pages of well-written, concise words, and setting it down, one’s afterthought is about giving.  Thus, Silverstein did effectively illustrate the theme of unconditional giving.   

        In his well-known book, Silverstein portrayed The Giving Tree as the ultimate giver.  He also successfully depicted giving as good, something that makes one happy, and that one can always give more.  All of this is true, and can be done by anyone, anywhere.  So, the next time you hang out with an apple tree, don’t forget to thank the tree.Works Cited 

1 Silverstein, Shel.  The Giving Tree.  United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1964.2 Giving Tree.  Barnes and Noble. 11 October 2006. <>3 Silverstein, Shel.  The Giving Tree.  United States: Harper Collins Publishers, 1964.4 Gellman, Marc.  “The Giving Tree: A Symposium.”  First Things. January 1995.  11 October 2006.  <>5 Reich, Maggie.  Interview at Reich’s House.  13 October 2006.6 The Giving Tree.  8 October 2006.  Wikipedia.  October 11 2006. <>

7 Gellman, Marc.  “The Giving Tree: A Symposium.”  First Things. January 1995.  11 October 2006.  <>



  1. Hey there, I just wanted to thank you and let you know that I enjoyed your literary criticism on The Giving Tree! I’m using it as reference in my own.

    I especially like the connection about there not being a specific setting in the book, allowing anyone to relate to the story — and the idea behind the boy’s not being self-sufficient. Great conclusion too. (I always have the most trouble with conclusions so of course I admire that aspect!)

    Comment by TheOriginalPol — April 21, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

  2. I’m not sure I agree wholly with your analysis of the selfish giant. You say he only did it out of wanting to please himself and others but not Christ but the boy in the story depicts Christ. So while initially his motivations were for himself and his own happiness it was also grounded in Christ thus becoming selfless.

    Very interesting read, thanks for sharing

    Comment by Ruth Elkin — November 11, 2011 @ 2:06 am

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