Katie insists that Francie will live, but she worries over how fragile she is. This is complicated by her inability to nurse her daughter. Katie believes it when Mrs. Gindler tells her that an old woman named Nelly Grogan put a curse on her to prevent her from nursing, so she asks the midwife how she can get her milk back. Mrs. Gindler tells her to wait until the moon is full, make a doll named Nelly Grogan, and “stick three rusty pins in it.” Then, the midwife promises, Katie’s milk will flow “like the River Shannon.” Katie follows the instruction, but her milk doesn’t flow. Sissy tells Katie that her lack of milk comes from her being pregnant again.
Though Sissy is less educated than Katie, she is more attuned to all things corporeal and, for this reason, is able to deduce that Katie is pregnant again. Katie’s lack of understanding about her body convinces her that superstition can solve the problem of her inability to nurse. This is the first time in the novel that Katie has expressed any belief in superstition. It leads one to wonder if she’s convincing herself to believe in superstition because she doesn’t want to face the truth.
When Katie tells Johnny, he worries again. The idea of a second child makes him feel “trapped.” He is twenty and Katie is eighteen. He goes out and gets drunk in response to the news, feeling too defeated to do anything else. Mrs. Gindler comes around later to see how the charm worked. Katie tells her that she is pregnant. The midwife offers Katie “a bottle of evil-looking dark brown stuff,” which she pulls out of a petticoat pocket. Katie is reluctant and, ultimately, tells the midwife that she doesn’t want the concoction. Mrs. Gindler warns Katie against her choice, reminding her of her youth, her difficulties with Francie, and Johnny’s unreliability. Before she leaves, the midwife offers her services for when Katie’s time comes. She also offers the “optimistic advice” that, if Katie keeps running up and down the stairs, she may have a miscarriage.
Johnny is worried that another child will mire them even more deeply in poverty. Mrs. Gindler’s potion is intended to induce a miscarriage. The midwife’s belief in the supernatural coupled with Katie’s vision of the concoction as “evil-looking dark brown stuff” conjures up the image of a witch offering a princess an evil potion. Katie makes a choice that is the opposite of that of the protagonist of fairy tales by refusing the potion. It may be Katie’s Catholic beliefs that keep her from terminating the pregnancy; there’s also the possibility that she wants the baby, viewing it as a second chance to have a healthier child.
Francie’s brother is born one week after her first birthday. Unlike Francie, he is born strong and healthy. Katie suddenly feels “a wild tenderness for him” and “a flash of contempt” for the weak child she bore a year ago. She is ashamed of this contempt because she knows it isn’t Francie’s fault. However, Katie also knows that she will love the boy more. She will simply do her best not to let the girl see it.
Katie loves the boy more both because he is healthier and because he is a boy, meaning that his existence will give Katie a chance to fashion him into the kind of man that she hoped Johnny would be. Katie has contempt for Francie’s weakness because it reminds her of her own feminine weakness.
Katie names the boy Cornelius, after a noble character she once saw an actor portray on stage. As the boy grows up, he adopts the Brooklynese nickname Neeley. Neeley becomes Katie’s entire world, with Johnny taking second place and Francie going somewhere in the back of her mother’s heart. Katie is determined to turn her son, who looks identical to his father, into the man Johnny should have been.
Katie’s name choice signals her belief that her son will achieve some greatness. By taking inspiration from a stage star, she foreshadows Neeley’s future career as a singer and piano player. She is also demonstrating her admiration, however inadvertently, for men in the arts.
As the children grow up, Katie loses her tenderness and develops what people call “character.” She still loves Johnny dearly, but she is no longer wildly in love with him. She loves Francie because she feels sorry for her. By the time Neeley is a year old, she stops depending on Johnny. He drinks heavily and only works when he is offered one-night jobs. He brings home his wages but keeps his tips for liquor. Johnny accepts that he’s doomed, while Katie refuses to accept this fate. Her “fierce desire for survival” makes her a fighter who gives up her dreams in favor of harsh realities. Johnny, on the other hand, holds on to his dreams, particularly his “hankering after immortality.”
Katie settles into the life that she has made for herself. She is no longer madly in love with Johnny because she sees his weaknesses too clearly. Her sorrow for Francie is a projection of her own realization that being born female means that one will suffer because of men. Despite this suffering, Katie insists on getting through life. Johnny, on the other hand, cannot content himself with his life and gives up on it. When his dreams no longer sustain him, he turns to liquor.