Class and Poverty
Although Betty Smith denied every consciously writing a novel with sociopolitical motives, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cannot be separated from class issues. Nearly every anecdote, character, and chapter represents or addresses the problem of poverty in early twentieth-century America. Being poor means that the characters constantly must think of being poor—how they will buy the next loaf of bread, or what one's house or neighborhood looks like compared to another. Smith shows that poverty does not only imply the absence of food, heat, or comfort. Poverty results in Johnny's worthlessness and death, causes Uncle Flittman to run away, and means that Francie cannot attend high school. Every activity, game, action is planned around a li mited pool of resources. In addition to the Nolan's life, Smith presents an entire poor community, and shows the close connection between poverty and exploitation. Store proprietors take advantage of children's innocence to lure money out of them; piano t eachers beg for tea from their students. Smith's sympathetic treatment of her characters that poverty itself is the evil—not the people. Like the tree man, people just need to think first of their own families and children.
The author often juxtaposes the lower class with people of privilege to further develop this theme. Although having money makes for an easier life, in many cases, the most lovable characters in the book are impoverished, or come from a poor background. The rich doctor reigns as a villain in the book; the charity event is exposed as self-righteous and hurtful. By the end of the book, Neeley and Francie pity Laurie for growing up without any hardship, saying that she will never have as much fun as they did. Like the tree, the author seems to be saying, she "likes poor people."
Although Johnny, Katie, and Mary Rommely vary tremendously in personality, they all agree that education is the way out for the Nolan children. This theme goes along with the immigrant history of the Nolans and Rommelys. Mary Rommely does not even know when she moved to America that education was free; in fact, she still does not even know the word "education," but she rejoices over and over again that her daughters can read and write. Katie has an epiphany part way through the book when she looks at her children who believe that their life is good—who are happy with a Christmas tree and vulgar neighbors and a humble life. She knows that education will save them. This version of "education" is almost always synonymous with "schooling." Although the Nolans do think lessons in life are important, schooling will change their quality of life. Francie is said to have qualities of both her mother and father. Although education will be Francie's way out of poverty, it can also be ostracizing. She and Katie both reflect on different occasions how their relationship will change as Francie becomes more educated and refined; still, the novel privileges the discomfort this separation engenders over ignorance. In the same way, Francie cannot make friends because she talks like characters in Shakespeare, and books eventually replace friends for her.
Gender and Sex
Gender dictates many different social relations in this novel. Upon Francie's birth, Mary Rommely comments that to be born a woman is to be born into a humble life of pain. This abstract idea of life's pains is juxtaposed with the narrator's consistent reference to the pain of childbirth. At least in the context of this book, women of all faiths and all socioeconomic backgrounds are bound together by the pain of child labor. All in all, the women in the novel are more equipped to handle pain—both emotional and physical—than the men are. Oftentimes, strength is divided on gender lines: Katie is strong, while Johnny is weak; Evy is strong while Uncle Flittman is inadequate; and Katie even sends Neeley to school over Francie, because she is sure that Francie will find a way to go back. One may also think about this theme in terms of geographic spaces. Even in the first chapter, there are certain stores that Neeley enters, but Francie does not, and vice-versa. Women congregate in the kitchen sometimes without men, and the scene of childbirth is considered women's space. Men congregate at the barber or at McGarrity's. Setting and place play such a large role in this novel, that it behooves the reader to consider the way gender interacts with geographic spaces.
Although the novel may seem rather tame to modern readers, there are a surprising number of implicit references to sex and sexuality. The fact that one of the most warmhearted characters—Sissy—has a serious habit of promiscuity suggests that the author is challenging ideas about women and sex in this time period. Joanna's presence in Francie's neighborhood is a startling reminder of how the old world (the stoning women) conceive of women's sexuality. The book rectifies this perspective by showing Francie's reactions to Joanna. Francie sympathizes with her, offers her story for Joanna to read (symbolically offering her knowledge or education), and in general makes clear that the cruelty of the stoners will not be tolerated. Francie's youth implies that in the future women's sexuality will not be confined to narrow and hypocritical conceptions. The continual references to the pains of childbirth also makes visible the idea that women have few sexual health choices; a lack of sexual consciousness, birth control, and technological advances forces them into this experience of pain and suffering.
Perseverance through hardship
This theme relates closely to the American dream motif and the symbol of the tree. The strength of the Rommely women suggests that they can withstand any hardship. When Francie is born sickly, she perseveres like the tree; her mother never doubts her strength. Francie's sickness and persistence only foreshadows many other physical and emotional hardships. When Katie has children, she only becomes stronger, determined to make a better life for her children. Every time Katie could give up a little luxury, she puts the money she would have spent in the tin-can bank. This theme obviously relates more to the Rommely women than it does to the Nolan men.
More main ideas from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Last Book I Loved: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
There is a passage in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where Francie Nolan, the book’s protagonist, is described as the sum of many parts. A genetic and experiential palimpsest, Francie:
was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely’s mysticism, her tale-telling….She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk.
There are books I love and books I fall in love with, books that catch me up in their language and envelop me in the world of their story, and books that do all that and also stay, books that lodge themselves inside me. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as its narrator describes Francie, a collage of experience and inheritance, and I am in love with it.
When I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I read about my grandparents, born in New York to Irish immigrants just a year after the book closes. I read about myself, a girl from a city who loved to look at trees from her apartment window and read as if her life depended on it. I read about the Williamsburg streets that I walk down today, then populated with pickle barrels and rag pickers. I read about women who have sexual lives, whose sexuality affects every aspect of their experience, whether they feel plain desire or mere curiosity, the fear of pregnancy or a longing for children, a weary awareness of unwanted attention or the terrifying reality of violence. I read about shame and class and loving people who hurt you as well as themselves.
It’s not a flashy book, though it is often beautiful, and it’s unafraid to tell you what it thinks. Betty Smith has no mercy to spare for the condescending doctor who talks about Francie like she isn’t there (“I know they’re poor but they could wash.”), or the patronizing teacher who informs her that her family’s story is sordid, unfit for consumption. But there is nothing romantic about the Nolan family’s poverty: it is grueling and it degrades. The grandchild of immigrants, Francie, 11 and then, ultimately, 17, feels a curious mixture of hatred and pride for the conditions she lives in. She tries so hard to escape them and when she finally does, she takes a last walk through the streets of her childhood.
The way it was now was the way she wanted to remember it.
No, she’d never come back to the old neighborhood.
Besides, in years to come, there would be no old neighborhood to come back to. After the war, the city was going to tear down the tenements and the ugly school where a woman principal used to whip little boys, and build a model housing project on the site; a place of living where sunlight and air were to be trapped, measured and weighed, and doled out so much per resident.
She has no illusions about the unloveliness of the soon-to-be-demolished school, of whipped children, but she also has no affection for the future project, with its precise stipends of air and light, that will be built in its place. This is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at its best—when it is ambivalent: Francie’s complicated relationship to the geography of her childhood, to a beloved father crippled by alcohol, to a mother who loves her brother best, to familial obligation, to her own body. Her grandmother reveals the value of these tugs of war when she explains why children should both believe in Santa Claus and also later discover he isn’t real: the glut of hope and then its loss “fattens the emotions and make them to stretch.” Both are necessary, belief and cynicism, and it will teach them to survive.
Everything happens. People are born and die, people get married and others don’t, people have kids, people take kids, abortions are offered, periods arrive, school is taken up and put on hold, jobs are acquired and lost, money is painstakingly saved and spent. (Did I mention there’s a serial killer? There is also a serial killer.) Most of all, there is Francie herself, so often brave and stoic and unapologetically literary. How can you not love a girl who writes in her journal, “Am I curious about sex?” The narrator goes on, “She studied the last sentence. The line on the inner edge of her right eyebrow deepened. She crossed out the sentence and rewrote it to read: ‘I am curious about sex.’” This book is so intensely about being a woman, being poor, being alive, and I have not read another one with its breadth or accuracy.
There is a beautiful passage toward the end of the novel, when Francie and her brother go up to their tenement’s roof on New Year’s Eve and they look out over their neighborhood. Francie sees “at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River,” and says aloud, “There’s no other place like it.”
“Brooklyn. It’s a magic city and it isn’t real.”
“It’s just like any other place.”
“It isn’t! I go to New York every day and New York’s not the same….It’s like—yes—like a dream.”
Brooklyn’s magic, for Francie, is as dreamlike as her grandmother Rommely’s Santa Claus, even though it’s “a dream of being poor and fighting.” Francie’s Brooklyn is all belief and cynicism, hope and loss, and it has fattened and stretched her heart and made it strong. Though she leaves it behind, Francie is better for having lived there.
Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not dreamlike—it is thoroughly real. Still, it’s the kind of story Francie’s grandmother would take up and tell, the kind of story that makes the heart bigger, the kind of story that sticks. It’s not always the subtlest of novels, but it’s one of the wisest. I am always carrying it with me.