A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Chapter 29 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the late summer of that year, Johnny Nolan decides that his children must see the ocean. He plans to take them to Canarsie, and he also gets the idea of taking along Little Tilly, whom he has never met. Tilly’s brother is Gussie, a “tough little hellion” with “an overdeveloped underlip.” His mother tries to wean him off of her breast when he is nine months, but the boy insists on continuing to suckle. He deprives Tilly of milk after he is born and suckles until he is three. The neighbors find out about it and gossip. Gussie’s father refuses to sleep with is mother, saying that she breeds monsters. One day, his mother gets a can of stove blackening and paints her breast with the polish. With lipstick, she draws a wide, angry mouth with sharp teeth near the nipple. She offers her breast to Gussie, who comes over, crosses his feet, plants an elbow on her knee, and waits.
Johnny wants the children to see the ocean because, for poor children in Brooklyn, the beach is often inaccessible. Despite it being very close, their poverty makes it difficult for them to afford the trip and their parents don’t usually have the time to take them. In the context of this time, Gussie’s breastfeeding until the age of three is seen as unusual; now, it would be viewed with less judgment, based on what we know about the possible benefits of suckling toddlers. Smith, however, characterizes Gussie as a little man whose attachment to his mother is possessive and potentially perverse.
Themes
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Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Gussie’s mother rips open her dress and thrusts her grotesquely made-up breast at him. For a moment, Gussie is paralyzed with fear, then he runs away screaming. He hides under the bed and stays there for twenty-four hours. He drinks black coffee instead and shudders every time his eyes go to his mother’s bosom. Gussie’s mother reports her success to the neighborhood. Johnny, too, hears the story and feels contempt for Gussie for cheating Tilly out of something important. He thinks that she might grow up “thwarted.” He sends Francie to ask if Tilly can go to Canarsie, too, and her mother happily consents. 
Gussie’s mother thinks that her trick was successful because Gussie no longer demands to be suckled. However, she’s also traumatized him and possibly made it so that he can’t look again upon a woman’s breasts without envisioning something monstrous. When Johnny says that Tilly may grow up “thwarted,” he’s indicating that Gussie has cheated the girl out of establishing a solid bond with their mother.
Themes
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
The next Sunday, the three children set out for Canarsie. Francie is eleven, Neeley is ten, and Tilly is three years old. Johnny wears a tuxedo, a derby hat, and a fresh collar and dicky. Little Tilly’s mother, in honor of the occasion, dresses her in a “cheap but fancy lace dress trimmed with dark pink ribbon.” When they get off the trolley at Canarsie, they go to a tiny shack at a wharf. Johnny negotiates with the proprietor for a fishing pole and a rusty can full of worms. The friendly man unties the rope from one of the better rowboats, puts the rope in Johnny’s hand, wishes him luck, and goes back into his shack.
Smith focuses on how well-dressed Johnny and Tilly are to emphasize that, though these people are poor, they take great pride in their appearances. Johnny also refuses to allow poverty to prevent a group of children from seeing the sea and being able to enjoy a Sunday at the beach, just like children of higher classes.
Themes
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Johnny puts the fishing gear in the boat and helps the children in. While trying to show them the right way to get into the boat, he falls into the water. He is up to his neck in water but “his small waxed mustache and derby hat were in the clear.” Johnny warns them not to laugh. Francie doesn’t, but her desire to makes her ribs hurt. Neeley is afraid to look at her, afraid that he will laugh. Johnny climbs in. He strips off his dicky and paper collar, which have become “a sodden mess,” and throws them into the water. He rows out to sea then announces that he will “drop anchor.” The children are disappointed to learn that “the romantic phrase” simply means that one will throw a lump of iron attached to a rope overboard.
Just as when he tried to fix the Tynmores’ window, Johnny overestimates his abilities and makes a fool of himself. This time, he offers the children some comic relief; though, it seems that he hates to look the fool, especially when he makes a mess of his clothes. It’s unclear what the children thought “drop anchor” meant. Children, however, have a gift for making things more extraordinary than they actually are through the power of imagination, particularly things that they don’t yet understand.
Themes
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Horrified, Francie, Neeley, and Tilly watch Johnny impale an earthworm on a hook. The sun grows bright and hot. After what seems like hours, and to the children’s “intense relief and happiness,” Johnny announces that it’s time to eat. They return to shore. Johnny ties up the boat and tells the kids to wait in the boat while he gets lunch. He returns with hot dogs, huckleberry pie, and strawberry pop. They eat and continue to sit in the rocking boat, while looking at “slimy green water” that smells of decaying fish. Johnny had a few drinks onshore and now feels bad about yelling at the kids. He tells them that they can laugh now, if they want. However, the time for that has passed.
It seems like hours have passed because the children are bored with sitting in the boat and watching Johnny fish. The break for lunch also breaks up the monotony. Johnny’s mood has lifted as a result of having a few drinks, but it’s also made him unaware of the children becoming increasingly seasick. They’re no longer amused by the memory of Johnny having fallen in the water because they don’t feel well and they would probably prefer to go back home where there’s more to do.
Themes
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After lunch, Johnny rows Francie, Neeley, and Tilly back out to sea. He sings as he rows. Eventually, his hands get so blistered that he no longer feels like rowing. Dramatically, he announces that he is going to row back to shore. The children are getting seasick. At the wharf, he leaps onto the dock, and the children follow his example. Tilly, however, falls into the water. Johnny fishes her out. Her dress is ruined, but she says nothing. Tilly hasn’t said anything all day. Johnny picks her up and soothes her with a lullaby, but Tilly doesn’t understand anything about the whole day. She doesn’t know why she was taken onto a boat or why Johnny is making such a fuss over her, but she remains quiet.
For Johnny, the day remains idyllic. Johnny’s lack of awareness about how the children are feeling suggests a kind of self-absorption that makes him oblivious. He’s so intent on realizing his romantic vision of having a day at the sea with the three children that he’s unable to see that the children aren’t really enjoying themselves. Tilly’s silence comes from being unable to understand why Johnny was allowed to take her to Canarsie and not yet having the language to communicate her confusion.
Themes
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Johnny says that it’s important that he bring home fish, even if they’re not fish that he caught himself. His children know that he wants Katie to think that he caught fish. He says that he isn’t asking them to lie, but just “not to be too fussy about the truth.” Francie and Neeley understand. The four of them board a trolley. They look strange—Johnny with his “green wrinkled salt-stiff pants” and an undershirt with big holes, Little Tilly “swallowed up in his coat” with saltwater dripping from her, and Francie and Neeley with “brick red faces,” sitting very rigidly and trying not to be sick. People stare at them curiously. Johnny pretends to study an Ex-Lax ad over their heads.
Johnny wants Katie to see him as a provider. If he brings the children home, not only happy after a day at the beach but also with a bunch of fish for the family to feast on, it’ll prove to her that he’s a better father than she thinks he is. By not looking at the mess that he has made with the children, Johnny can hold on to his romantic vision of the day and convince himself that, for once, he was able to provide the children with something that Katie couldn’t give them.
Themes
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Johnny sits with the fish in his lap. More people get on the trolley and it gets crowded, but no one will sit next to Johnny, Francie, Neeley, or Little Tilly. Finally, the fish falls out of “the sodden newspaper” and to the floor. One look into the fish’s “glazed eye” is enough for Tilly and she vomits. As if it were a cue, Francie and Neeley also throw up. Johnny takes Tilly home, prepared to explain everything, but her mother gives him no chance; she screams when she sees Tilly. She snatches Johnny’s coat off of the girl and screams at Johnny, calling him Jack-the-Ripper. Johnny finally edges a word in and mentions how Little Tilly doesn’t speak. Little Tilly’s mother blames Johnny. He asks her if she can make Tilly say something. She shakes Tilly, commanding her to speak. The girl opens her mouth, smiles happily, and says, “T’anks.”
No one sits next to Johnny or the children because they look frightful and the children look as though they may vomit at any moment. Tilly’s mother overreacts at the sight of her daughter and finds a convenient scapegoat in Johnny for avoiding her own missteps in the raising of Tilly. After getting Tilly back, dripping wet and smelling of vomit, Tilly’s mother suddenly feels like a more successful parent. Though Tilly hasn’t understood much of what happened that day, she seems happier. This is irrelevant, however, to her mother.
Themes
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When Johnny arrives home, Katie gives him a tongue lashing and says that he isn’t fit to have children. Katie cries when she sees the ruin of Johnny’s only suit, which will cost a dollar to clean and will never return to its original state. Francie and Neeley are suffering from fever, chills, and sunburn. However, they go to bed laughing hysterically at the remembrance of their father standing up to his neck in sea water.
Katie is determined to see only the negative result of Johnny’s trip to the sea with the children. She thinks of how she’ll have to work more to buy him a new suit and how she will have to tend to sick children for the next day. Like Tilly’s mother, she holds to this negative vision and refuses to ask the children how they felt about the day.
Themes
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Johnny sits at the window wondering how the day could have gone so wrong. He thinks about the songs he has sung about the sea. He hoped that the children would walk away from the experience “exhilarated and with a deep and abiding love for the sea.” He thinks that he should’ve returned with plenty of fish for his family. He wishes things could’ve turned out the way they did in songs. Instead, he has blistered hands, a spoiled suit, sunburn, rotting fish, and a feeling of nausea. He wonders why Little Tilly’s mother couldn’t understand the intention and overlook the result. He can’t figure any of it out. All he knows is that the songs of the sea have betrayed him.
Smith uses this scene to illustrate the difference between Johnny’s vision of the world and that of the other adults around him. He possesses a romantic sensibility that Katie and Tilly’s mother don’t have. This sensibility helps him see the best, even in dire situations. However, his romantic vision also blinds him to the possible consequences of doing things only with pleasure in mind.
Themes
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