A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Life is good on Lorimer Street and the Nolans would have continued living there if it weren’t for Sissy’s business with the tricycle and the balloons, which later “ruined and disgraced the Nolans.” Sissy is laid off from work and, that day, decides to go see Francie and Neeley while Katie is working. She suddenly sees “a handsome tricycle.” It’s unattended and Sissy wastes no time in seizing it. She gets the children from the apartment and lets them ride it. Then, a woman comes along with a cop and comes at Sissy screaming, “Robber!” She tells the officer that Sissy stole the tricycle. Sissy sweetly explains that she was just borrowing it to give her niece and nephew a ride. The cop busies himself with staring at Sissy’s breasts, then turns to the outraged woman, whom he now accuses of being “stingy,” and says that he will ensure she gets the tricycle back safely.
The “balloons” may be a euphemism for condoms. In regard to the tricycle episode, the family’s shame seems to be a bit exaggerated, though it likely stems from Sissy’s willingness to use her sexuality to avoid trouble with the police. In her naivete, she sees no problem with allowing the children to use another child’s tricycle without asking. The general mistrust, as well as the poverty, that pervades the neighborhood makes the woman think that Sissy was trying to steal the tricycle. It’s interesting, however, that the Nolans blame Sissy for the officer’s attention, while it was his gaze that sexualized her.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
The thing that finally drives the Nolans from Lorimer Street involves sex, though one could also perceive the episode as quite innocent. On Saturday afternoons, Johnny is at Union Headquarters, waiting for a job, and Katie fixes sandwiches and coffee for shopgirls at Gorling’s Department Store. Sissy knows that the children will be alone, so she goes to keep them company. She brings along a sweet-smelling cigar box, some tissue paper, and paste for her and the children to make paper cups to decorate the inside of the lid. At 5:00 PM, Sissy has a chop suey date and gets up to leave. The children beg her not to go. She looks for something in her purse with which they can amuse themselves in her absence.
Smith equivocates between the Nolans’ reaction to Sissy’s behavior and Sissy’s likely perception. As the narrator, this is her way of maintaining objective distance and letting the reader decide about Sissy’s behavior. However, Smith is subtle in recounting the episode. The “sweet-smelling cigar box,” which Sissy uses for an innocent arts-and-crafts project with the children, contrasts with the “something” in her purse. Sissy brings with her, wherever she goes, elements of innocence and supposed corruption.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
While Sissy looks through her purse, Francie sees a cigarette box. On the cover, there is a picture of “a man lying on a couch, knees crossed, one foot dangling in the air and smoking a cigarette which made a big smoke ring over his head.” Inside of the ring, there is a picture of girl who is meant to be his fantasy. She is bare-breasted. The name on the box is American Dreams. It is produced at Sissy’s factory. The children want the box. Sissy gives it to them but insists that they not open it because it contains cigarettes.
Cigarette boxes during this time very frequently contained sexually suggestive illustrations. Sissy’s possession of this box signals that she would be perceived as inappropriate—both because the box contains what would have been considered an explicit picture at the time and because women did not smoke during this decade. A woman who did was regarded as being unladylike.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
After Sissy leaves, Francie and Neeley stare at the picture. They shake the box and imagine that there are snakes or worms inside, not cigarettes. When they open the box, they find the contents uninteresting. As it turns out, there are no cigarettes inside. The children then make up games to play with the box. Neeley ties the box’s contents to a string and dangles them outside of a window. They take turns jumping on the box, breaking it into bits. They forget about the string hanging out of the window. Johnny happens to be walking back home to get a fresh dickey and collar for an evening job. When he sees what is hanging outside of the window, his face burns with shame. He tells Katie about it when she comes home.
To Francie and Neeley, the picture of the partially nude woman means nothing other than what it is. To Sissy, who also possesses a childlike naivete that could also be regarded as a natural and direct approach to sex, there is also nothing wrong with the picture. However, Johnny and Katie, who have socially-ingrained ideas about sex, which teach them that it’s shameful, project their own sense that the cards are offensive.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
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Katie later questions Francie closely. Later, Katie talks with Evy and they both agree that, for the sake of their daughters, Sissy has to stay away because she is “bad.” They also agree not to tell Mary because Sissy is “her eye-apple.” When Johnny comes home, Katie tells him that Sissy is never again allowed into their home. In the morning, they make plans to move. 
Evy and Katie are particularly concerned about Sissy’s influence on their girls because they don’t want their daughters to be influenced by Sissy’s casual attitude toward sex, out of fear that they, too, will grow up to be promiscuous.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Katie finds another building where she can serve as janitor on Grand Street in Williamsburg. The new flat is not as nice as their old place on Lorimer Street. There is no stoop and there is no bathroom. They share a toilet with two other families. The only bright spot is that they have the roof to themselves. On moving day, while Katie argues with the movers, Johnny takes Francie up to the roof, where she can see the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
The new place is a step down from where they were. Unlike the place on Lorimer Street, the new apartment is a reminder of how poor they are. However, their view of the city, which they have all to themselves, makes them seem rich in another sense. The view makes the small world of their tenement seem larger.
Themes
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Johnny asks Francie how old she is. She says that she will soon be seven, which means that she will be starting school in September. Francie tells her father that Katie said that Francie must wait a year for school so that she and Neeley can start together and protect each other against bullies. Johnny muses at how he and Katie have been married for seven years and have had three homes. He says that the house on Grand Street will be his last home.
Johnny’s question about Francie’s age is an indication of what an inattentive parent he is. On the other hand, he is able to count how many years he’s been married and how many homes in which he has lived, using these as markers, it seems, of his personal devolution, which will ultimately lead to death.
Themes
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon