What is the symbolism of the tree throughout Speak?

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jdslinky eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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).



scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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).

caylarussell1 | Student

The tree symbolizes the development and growth that Melinda goes through throughout the story. A tree goes through stages as it grows from a bud to a full blooming tree. It even goes through different stages during different times of the year from cold and dead looking the winter, to beautiful and blooming in the spring. Melinda goes through something very horrible and it makes her feel cold and dead inside. But that does not define her, nor does it shape the rest of her life. She does make it through that stage and continues to grow and improve her life.