The tree is the central symbol in the novel. It represents the enormous fear in which Gene lived at school, from the summer of 1942 until the spring of 1943. When he was a student at Devon, the tree seemed "tremendous" to Gene, "an irate, steely black steeple beside the river." When Gene does climb the tree, he enters into "a mild state of shock." He jumps from the tree "[w]ith the sensation that I was throwing my life away . . . ."
When Gene returns to Devon after fifteen years, the tree is the main focus of his visit. Going to the river, Gene has trouble even distinguishing it from the other trees. When he does identify it, the tree seems smaller to Gene, "shrunken by age." It seems "weary from age, enfeebled, dry." The tree no longer looms over Gene as some kind of lethal threat. The tree has not changed; Gene has changed. As an adult who has survived Devon and its traumas, he no longer lives in fear.