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Literature / Tree

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"Who, then, lives? Who, then, triumphs when all others have succumbed? The balete tree — it is there for always, tall and leafy and majestic. In the beginning, it sprang from the earth as vines coiled around a sapling. The vines strangled the young tree they had embraced. They multiplied, fattened, and grew, became the sturdy trunk, the branches spread out to catch the sun. And beneath this tree, nothing grows!"

Tree is the third in terms of writing, and second in chronological order, of Filipino novelist F. Sionil José's five-volume Rosales Saga.

The entire novel consists of the reminiscences of an unnamed narrator about his childhood and youth in Rosales, the little rural town in Pangasinan province, where he grew up. The memoirs cycle through a diverse cast of characters, including the following: his father who works as a land administrator; his young and eccentric artist uncle; his older politician uncle; his Kissing Cousins and even the (figurative) ghost of his mother, who died giving birth to him. And that's just his extensive family to begin with; not yet mentioned are his father's servants, farm workers, community figures like teachers and priests and circus performers and so forth.

Hanging over this motley plantation society are two enormous, enduring, and immutable shadows: on the one hand, the largely unseen but incredibly parasitical landlord Don Vicente, whose vast landholdings it is the narrator's father's job to manage; and on the other, the gigantic balete (strangler fig) tree growing in the town plaza, for which the novel is named, seemingly invulnerable, deathless, and, owing to its biology of growing around host trees eventually to suffocate them, a monstrous predator in its own right.


Compare Without Seeing The Dawn, a 1947 novel set in roughly the same time period, but in the province of Iloilo to the south, and which basically gives A Day in the Limelight to the tenant farmers themselves, people like those who work for the Boy's father in this novel.

Tropes Appearing in Tree:

  • The All-Concealing "I": The narrator remains nameless, and is simply referred to as “Boy”. See No Name Given.
  • Black Sheep, Cool Uncle: The fairly unconventional artist, “Cousin” Marcelo, Espiridion’s younger brother.
  • Buy Them Off: When Baldo begins his campaign to redraw Don Vicente’s lands to return them to their original owners—the smallholders-turned-tenants of Carmay—Don Vicente attempts to buy him off by giving money to Espiridion to pass on to Tio Baldo. The latter refuses the bribe, however.
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  • Career-Ending Injury: Child circus artist Hilda falls off the tightrope.
  • Character Filibuster: Tio Benito launches into one at the dinner table, explaining why, for the first time ever, he refuses Sepa's dinardaraan.
    "But Tio Benito ignored her; he stood up abruptly, and in sudden inspiration, he began the best speech — or sermon — I ever heard on the importance of eating the right food so as not to pollute the body or offend God. He spoke with power and conviction, and we stopped eating; even the maids paused in their chores and crowded in to listen to the words of wisdom that now poured from his lips. He spoke of the growing evil in the world, of the need for brotherhood, community, kindred spirit that would not only allow us to enter the kingdom of God but also banish the usurpers of His word in this land. He railed against the friars who established a church subservient to Rome: look at the money collected in the Catholic churches — it is sent to a foreign land to fatten foreign priests. The Americans were no better; they also sent their own missionaries to perpetuate the subservience of Filipinos to them. The Catholic priests, the Protestant pastors — they talk in a foreign language, they are ashamed of their own, of Ilokano or of Tagalog, which are the languages of the people. And then he spoke of the reasons why he could not eat dinardaraan or anything with blood, for such food was not fit for anyone who believed in the true God, for anyone who could read the Bible and regard it as sacred, for it is right there — and he proceeded to quote from memory the particular chapter and verse. It was my first experience with a convert of the Iglesia Ni Kristo. Sepa was very pleased, although her particular sect was Protestant; what was important was that Tio Benito finally believed."
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Even in this bastion of Roman Catholicism in Asia, the trope is notably averted, with Sepa (the family cook) being Protestant, and a plot point about the Boy's uncle Benito converting to the uniquely Filipino Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). Justified since the novel is set in the U.S. colonial era, a time when non-Catholic Christian sects first made their mark on the population, with American Protestant missionaries arriving in considerable numbers.
  • Death by Childbirth: Nena, the Boy’s mother and Espiridion’s wife.
  • Double In-Law Marriage: Something of this sort happens with the Boy's cousins, Pedring and Clarissa, who are from opposite sides of the Boy's family—Pedring is a cousin on his father's side, Clarissa on his deceased mother's.
  • Down on the Farm: The Filipino, Latinesque plantation-society version of the genre, centring around a plantation manager and his family, servants, friends and colleagues.
  • Driven to Suicide: Tio Baldo hangs himself. In his case it also overlaps with Face Death with Dignity.
  • Fat Bastard: Don Vicente, the corpulent and domineering absentee landlord, is widely seen as this, especially in Cousin Marcelo’s portrait of him, and in his photographs.
  • Fat Sweaty Spaniard In A White Suit: Don Vicente, basically—certainly he's enormously fat, and white suits were essentially mandatory in the tropical heat, in the days before air-conditioning.
  • Femme Fatale / The Vamp: In some ways, Nimia fits the bill for this. An old acquaintance of Espiridion’s, Don Vicente sends her down to Rosales to reason with Tio Baldo after the latter attempts to retake the tenants’ old lands. The way the Boy describes her—pretty, smiling and sashaying—it seems reasonable to assume that she would use her feminine charm among other things on Tio Baldo to get him to change his mind. In the end though, judging from her quick and huffy departure, he clearly turned her down.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting / The Great Depression: Most of the novel takes place roughly in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • The Ghost: Don Vicente personally shows up exactly once in Tree, but as The Narrator’s family lives on his land, with the Boy’s father as administrator of the farm estates, his influence is outsized and keenly felt in-story.
  • Go Out with a Smile: The Boy’s grandfather dies happy and of old age out in the fields of Carmay, after he claims to hear Christmas church bells for the last time. This instance of the trope isn’t treated “negatively”, however—i.e., it wasn’t a release from misery or torment, but simply the conclusion to a long, happy and blessed life.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Real Life Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon is a frequent guest of Don Vicente, particularly during town fiestas and election season.
  • I Am the Noun: Spoken by the boy’s father to the tenants: “Don Vicente’s word is law and I am that law!”
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Ludovico's mother Feliza develops one from overworking herself around the farm; it's likely she will meet the same fate as her son, who dies ahead of her.
  • It Runs in the Family: Discussed by the Boy; other townspeople claim this of his family’s insanity.
  • Magic Realism: Considerable influence of this, especially in the traditional Hispanic/Latino plantation setting, as well as the way the ever-changing land and seasons appear to influence family events—from the Boy’s perspective, anyway. Some good examples of magical-realist-inspired scenes include the Grandfather’s preternatural longevity and the seemingly Empathic Environment, which drives many of the townsfolk to continue the old traditions of making offerings at the balete tree, despite the long colonial sojourn of Christianity into people’s lives.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Exactly how did the Boy’s grandfather live to be a very old man? The Grandfather himself claims, as do certain superstitious townspeople, that he once heard church bells on a Christmas midnight long ago in his youth, which blessed him with incredible longevity.
  • No Name Given: The Boy himself, and his grandfather (however, the later-written Prequel Po-on (Dusk) reveals that he was once the town chief named Don Jacinto, who sheltered the Real Life Revolutionary leader Apolinario Mabini). Subverted with the narrator’s father—his name is seldom mentioned, but people his age or older call him Espiridion.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Tio (Uncle) Baldo is not the Boy’s uncle. Cousin Marcelo, on the other hand, is the boy’s uncle.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Tio Benito, normally a happy, spendthrift, carousing “heathen”, who lost his religiosity in money-obsessed America, suddenly becomes very religious when he gets his money back. He converts to the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), and thereafter swears off dinardaraan (dinuguan to Tagalogs), as it’s cooked with blood, which INC members consider unclean.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Ludovico the farmhand dies of typhoid fever and overwork on the farm, survived by both parents, although his mother, herself very frail and ill, is very likely not far behind.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The father, who has to run Don Vicente’s estates and thus has to deal roughly with the tenant farmers if need be.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Dinardaraan (a pork-blood stew, known to Tagalog speakers and Manileños as dinuguan) for Tio Benito—at least until he becomes an INC member, upon which he stops eating it, as blood dishes are taboo to the Iglesia ni Cristo.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Tio Benito goes chasing after white American skirts while labouring on American plantations, to the point that the Boy can clearly imagine him with tall, white blondes on his hand. The image appears to upset the Boy for unspecified reasons, however.
  • Windbag Politician: Tio Doro, the outspoken nationalist candidate of the town.

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