How does the symbol of a tree represent Melinda's growth and experiences?  

Expert Answers
mlsldy3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Melinda Sordino is starting her freshman year at Merryweather High School. She is withdrawn and doesn't get along with her old friends anymore. Over the summer they had all been at a party, and she ended up calling the police, so now her friends shun her. She spends most of her time in the janitors closet. The only class she seems to enjoy is her art class. She picks a piece of paper out of a globe for her project, and she has to draw a tree.

Melinda thinks the project is too easy at first, but the more she tries to draw a tree, the more she sees that she can't. Melinda is hiding a dark secret. She won't talk to anyone about it, and the more her feelings overwhelm her, the more she draws trees. Trees represent life and death. They are a constant source of renewal. The symbol of the tree, is a symbol for Melinda, herself. She is having to come to terms with what happened to her. She is realizing that she has to talk about what happened.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to feel. My fingers fly up and cover my mouth. What am I doing?...When people don't express themselves, they all die one piece at a time." 

Melinda realizes that she is slowly dying on the inside. Once she comes to terms with her rape, she is truly in control of her life.

"Those branches were long dead from disease. All plants are like that. By cutting off the damage, you make it possible for the tree to grow again."

Melinda knows that the silence of the rape is the disease that is destroying her, so she finally speaks about the trauma. Once Melinda does this, the tree, which is really herself, can finally grow into the full beauty it is supposed to be.

mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the best way to write this essay on symbolism is to focus on the archetypal aspects of trees and how Laurie Halse Anderson plays on your preconceived ideas about trees' symbolism in literature.

Throughout all of literature, trees play significant roles. In literature, the tree is almost always a symbol of life or growth, or something positive. The trees in  The Giving Tree and the tree in To Kill a Mockingbird are two quick examples, but one of the first examples of trees in literature is the tree of knowledge from the Biblical Adam and Eve story. In all of these instances, the tree is something positive (even though Eve eats the apple).

However, at the beginning of Speak, Melinda paints her trees "that have been hit by lightning" and "are nearly dead, but not totally." As readers, the idea of a "nearly dead" tree should be an obvious symbol. But, to Melinda, the tree is much more than a symbol for her emotions. She goes through a process of making the trees practical stand-ins for her at one point asking, "Could I put my face in my tree, like a dryad from Greek mythology?"

As suspected, these trees grow as Melinda grows. When Melinda's healing is "stunted," her ability to progress on drawing a tree "is frozen." When she accepts what has happened to her, Melinda realizes "perfect trees don't exist. Nothing is perfect. Flaws are interesting. Be the tree." By the end of the book, after Melinda confronts her rapist and saves her friend, her tree is an "A+."

Overall, Anderson introduces a familiar symbol that should help the readers understand the depths of Melinda's depression. As Melinda grows, so do her trees. 

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can take the tree to represent a new form of growth, something that is pure and wholesome in a world that is far from it.  When Melinda goes back to the scene of the rape and wishes to replant herself in the dirt, it is a belief that the tree and the notion of being "reborn" or "replanted" can represent a new start, a new commencement.  This is certainly a part of Melinda's growth and her own rebirth.  The tree also represents the struggle to find oneself.  Just as Melinda struggles with drawing the trees, she struggles to find her voice.  Both processes involve frustration and do not come with a wealth of ease.  In this light, the tree is a symbol of that growth and strength that Melinda seeks to find in her own life following the rape.  When seeking to identify symbols that help Melinda understand what happened to her and the need to make sense of it, the tree becomes a type of towering symbol that provides structure to Melinda in a world devoid of it.