A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Johnny celebrates his voting birthday by going on a three-day drinking binge. Katie locks him in the bedroom so that he can’t get more to drink, which causes him to start to get delirium tremens. Johnny wails, begging for a drink. The neighbors bang on the door and tell Katie to do something. By the late afternoon, Katie can’t stand it any longer and goes over to visit Sissy at the rubber factory, with her two babies in a buggy. Sissy agrees to come over later and fix Johnny up.
At this time, the legal age to vote was twenty-one. Smith uses the verb “celebrate” ironically because Johnny is clearly miserable and wants to forget that he is only twenty-one with a wife and two children. His experience with delirium tremens is an indication that he is thoroughly addicted to alcohol and has made it so that he can’t survive without a drink.
Themes
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Sissy consults with a gentleman friend who gives her instructions. She conceals a half pint of good whisky between her breasts, laces her corset, and buttons her dress over it. She goes to Katie’s and asks to be left alone with Johnny. Katie locks Sissy in the bedroom with Johnny. Johnny begs Sissy for a drink and she offers him one while undoing her corset. Johnny misunderstands and begs her not to go any further. She tells him not to be silly and pulls out the bottle, which he promptly grabs. Sissy lets Johnny take a long drink, then she pries the bottle from his fingers. He eventually falls asleep, and she lies awake, holding him in the darkness.
Katie appeals to Sissy for help because she will provide aid without judgement. Sissy also provides Johnny with the physical comfort and nurturing that he needs, though this is initially mistaken for a sexual come-on. Sissy’s maternal attention to Johnny is necessary. He can’t get it from his mother who is merely possessive of him and he no longer gets this physical comfort from Katie, who he knows regards him as too much of a disappointment to be affectionate toward him.
Themes
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Whenever Johnny wakes up and becomes afraid, Sissy gives him a drink of whisky. Whenever he jerks away from her, she opens her arms to invite him back and he rests his head against her breast. Towards dawn, he begins to relax and Sissy leaves him alone to sleep on a pillow. Sissy throws the whisky bottle down an airshaft.
Sissy alternates between giving Johnny drink and nurturing, realizing that he can’t live without either. Her breast substitutes for the love and security that he can’t get from either his mother, Ruthie, or Katie.
Themes
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When Sissy goes back into the kitchen, Katie looks at her disordered clothing with “swollen and suspicious” eyes and tells Sissy that she hopes that she has not forgotten that they are sisters. Sissy dismisses the accusation and Katie is reassured enough to focus on Johnny. Sissy says that he will be fine when he wakes up, but she warns Katie not to nag him. If Katie nags him, Sissy warns, she will lure Johnny away. Katie agrees not to nag then breaks down and cries.
Sissy is attracted to Johnny, but it’s highly unlikely that she would try to seduce him and even unlikelier that he would submit to her. Sissy threatens this because she knows that it is easier to reach Katie by saying something harsh than it is by being tender with her. Sissy knows that she has to handle Katie and Johnny differently.
Themes
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Katie wonders aloud why she married Johnny. Sissy says that Katie married him because she wanted to sleep with Johnny but did not want to take a risk “without a church wedding.” Sissy insists that sex is the most important thing in a marriage anyway, and if the sex is good, the marriage is good. Katie wonders about Sissy’s morality. Katie has no doubt that Sissy is “a bad girl” and that her soul will likely wander Purgatory. She says nothing but leans over and kisses Sissy’s cheek. Katie admits that, aside from Johnny’s drinking, she loves everything about him and will try to overlook what she doesn’t like. However, this is a lie; Katie is not the type to overlook things.
Katie doesn’t want to admit that there may be some truth in what Sissy is saying. To avoid that truth, she characterizes Sissy as “a bad girl”—that is, she accepts everyone else’s belief that Sissy is immoral because she is uninhibited in her desire for sex and her pursuit of it. Katie did “the right thing” by marrying Johnny but now realizes, too late, that he was never really equipped to be a husband.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon