What is the symbolism of the tree throughout Speak?

The symbolism of the tree throughout Speak is that it represents Melinda as she develops and moves through stages of grief.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Speak , the tree can be said to symbolize Melinda's growth throughout the book. Melinda starts painting trees as part of a school art project. At first, the trees are desolate, isolated, surrounded by darkness. This is an accurate depiction of how Melinda sees herself. Cut off from everyone...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and everything else, she feels all alone in the world, a wounded soul that no one can truly understand.

Over time, however, as Melinda begins to deal with her trauma, the state of her soul changes. These changes are reflected in her artwork. She increasingly sees herself as a strong, sturdy oak reaching out to the sun, a far cry from how she used to see herself.

To be sure, the final project isn't perfect but then neither is Melinda. And so it's not altogether surprising that her artwork should reflect her personality in this regard. Even so, Melinda is very pleased with the work that she's done, just as she's pleased with the progress she's made in dealing with life and all its many challenges.

Melinda has come a long way by the end of the story. But she knows full well that, like the tree she's painted, there's still considerable room for improvement.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Melinda is given the task of working with a tree as her object for the year in Mr. Freeman's art class. This is not coincidental, as the tree symbolizes Melinda's growth throughout the novel.

In the beginning of the year, Melinda has a difficult time working with the tree. She begins by using watercolors to present the tree as a depiction of herself-- wounded. "I try to paint them so they are nearly dead, but not totally," (30-1). Her trees are alone and surrounded by darkness, which represents the way Melinda feels about herself during this time.

As the novel continues, Melinda begins to identify and deal with her raw feelings, and it's reflected in her work with the tree. Following the Thanksgiving debacle with the turkey, she brings the bones in to art class as a way of memorializing it: "Never has a bird been so tortured to provide such a lousy dinner," (61). In the process of doing so, she is successful at expressing her feelings as Mr. Freeman's interpretation of her work illustrates:

I see a girl caught in the remains of a holiday gone bad, with her flesh picked off day after day as the carcass dries out. The knife and fork are obviously middle-class sensibilities. The Palm tree is a nice touch. A broken dream, perhaps? Plastic honeymoon, deserted island? (64)

Midway through the book, Melinda begins imagining what she'd like her finished tree to look like, and it's a pretty close comparison to how she probably sees herself, "a strong old oak tree with a wide scarred trunk and thousands of leaves reaching to the sun," (78). She has the ability to be strong again and to reach out to those around her, as soon as she accepts and deals with the scars the traumatic event she's suffered through has left her with.

Finally, when she explores a book on the art of Picasso, she gets it! The basis of cubism speaks to her: "seeing beyond what is on the surface," (119). Melinda's approach to the tree project takes on a different tone and Mr. Freeman rewards her attempts with a thumbs up (119).

Towards the end of the 4th marking period in the novel, the tree in her front yard gets pruned because it is sick. The dead branches are chopped off by the seasoned professionals as Melinda and the neighborhood kids look on in curiosity. Melinda's father explains this is to make room for new growth, "By cutting off the damage, you make it possible for the tree to grow again," (187). This tree symbolizes Melinda because she's going through the same kind of growth period. She just has to get rid of the "damage."

As the book comes to a close in the mini chapter "Final Cut," Melinda puts the finishing touches on her tree project, and she's pleased with the results. "It isn't perfect, and that makes it just right," (198). Mr. Freeman agrees and gives her an A+ on the assignment, realizing the growth she herself has undergone throughout the process, "You've been through a lot, haven't you?"

Just as she is pleased with her final tree, Melinda is also pleased with her life at the end of the book: she has her friends in her life again, things are better at home, she's done well in art class and finally exposed Andy for the beast he really is. In fact, she's ready to speak about it. "Me: 'Let me tell you about it," (198).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The tree symbolizes Melinda throughout Speak, especially her development and her stages of grief. When Melinda first chooses the tree from her art teacher's globe, she is stumped.  It seems like too simple of an assignment.  However, when she draws her first tree, it is simplistic and flat.  As Melinda develops as a human, deals with her rape and all its aftermath, and discovers who she is without other people to identify her, her trees also become more complex.  Some are dark and rather Gothic, but slowly they become more full of life.  A simple look at Melinda's trees reveals the literal seasons while also representing Melinda's budding hope fora new beginning(spring).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What do trees symbolize in Speak?

At the beginning of the year, Mr. Freeman assigns everyone in the art class a theme. All their art projects for the year must revolve around this theme, he explains. Melinda is assigned the theme "tree," which she is initially unenthusiastic about.

Eventually, trees become a powerful symbol of Melinda's personal growth and development, her maturity, her grief, and herself as an individual. As the novel progresses, Melinda slowly and gradually begins to deal with her emotions and to not only face, but also challenge, her trauma, and this personal journey is reflected by the trees in her art.

At the beginning of the year, Melinda draws trees that have been struck by lightning and are now dead and damaged, which reflects how she feels in the wake of her assault. Mr. Freeman urges her to "breathe life" into her trees: "Scar it, give it a twisted branch—perfect trees don't exist. Nothing is perfect." As Melinda slowly begins to heal, she starts to envision different types of trees, like "a strong old oak tree with a wide scarred trunk and thousands of leaves reaching to the sun."

From her father, she learns that trees need to be pruned when they have a sick branch; otherwise, the whole tree will be poisoned. Eventually, Melinda feels strong enough to return to the tree at the site of her assault. Thinking back to the tree her father pruned, Melinda realizes that her trauma is poisoning her and wonders whether it, too, can be excised:

I crouch by the trunk, my fingers stroking the bark, seeking a Braille code, a clue, a message on how to come back to life after my long undersnow dormancy. I have survived. I am here. Confused, screwed up, but here. So, how can I find my way? Is there a chain saw of the soul, an ax I can take to my memories or fears? I dig my fingers into the dirt and squeeze. A small, clean part of me waits to warm and burst through the surface. Some quiet Melindagirl I haven’t seen in months. That is the seed I will care for.

On the last day of school, Melinda finally finishes her last art assignment. She creates a picture of a tree that is imperfect, with lower branches that are sick but new growth at the top. This new growth is Melinda's favorite part. Comparing herself to the tree, she finally confronts what happened to her, concluding, "I'm not going to let it kill me. I can grow."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on