A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Neeley comes home, he and Francie go to buy meat. Katie instructs them to get “a five-cent soup bone off of Hassler’s” and then go to Werner’s for ten cents’ worth of chopped round steak. She insists that the children not allow the butcher to give them the meat left over on the plate. She also gives them an onion to take with them. When they go to get the round steak, it takes a long time for the butcher to notice Francie and Neeley.
Due to having little money, Katie is careful about how much meat she asks the children to buy, as well as what kind. The butcher does not notice Francie and Neeley because they are children, which makes them easier to ignore than his other customers.
Themes
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Francie places the order. The butcher is furious when she demands freshly cut meat, despite there being plenty left over on the plate. He hacks off a piece and prepares to wrap it before Francie mentions that it must be ground. The butcher curses and shoves it into the chopper. Just as he prepares to slam it onto the paper, Francie pushes forward the onion for him to chop into it. “Jesus!” the butcher exclaims. Quickly, Francie asks for a piece of suet for frying and he spews more expletives. He slices off the fat, lets it fall to the floor in revenge, then slams it onto the mound of meat before snatching Francie’s dime.
This is one of a few instances in the book in which Smith finds moments of levity in desperate circumstances. Francie struggles with the cantankerous butcher so that she can remain faithful to her mother’s order. Meanwhile, the butcher, Werner, clearly hates his work, though the author never gives any indication about why. It’s possible that he inherited a business that he didn’t want.
Themes
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Francie and Neeley then go to Hassler’s for the soup bone. Hassler is a good butcher for bones but a bad one for meat because he grinds it behind closed doors, leading people to mistrust what he gives them. Neeley waits outside with the package from Werner’s because if Hassler sees that a customer has bought meat from elsewhere, he’ll proudly tell them to get their bone where they bought their meat. Francie orders a bone with some meat on it for five cents. Hassler tells Francie a “stale joke” then goes to the icebox to get “a gleaming white bone with creamy marrow.” He instructs Francie to tell her mother to take the marrow out and spread it on bread with salt and pepper to make a sandwich. He then slices off a piece of liverwurst, just for Francie. Francie is sorry to deceive such a nice man.
Hassler is Werner’s foil. Whereas the latter hates dealing with customers and ignores children, Hassler tells jokes and gives Francie a free piece of meat. He also provides a tip on how the Nolans can get an additional meal out of the soup bone. Francie perceives him as “nice” because he is more helpful than he needs to be, particularly to customers that do not entirely trust him.
Themes
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Francie then buys “two cents’ worth of soup greens” from the green grocer. She gets “an emasculated carrot, a droopy leaf of celery, a soft tomato and a fresh sprig of parsley.” These will be boiled with the soup bone. The pieces of meat will float away from the bone into the broth and fat noodles will be added to the soup. This, with the seasoned marrow spread on a slice of bread, would make “a good Sunday dinner.”
Smith vividly describes the condition of the vegetables. She writes “emasculated carrot” to indicate that it’s short and the celery is “droopy” because it is wilting. Smith’s language contrasts the family’s powerlessness, due to poverty, with their willingness to make the best of what they have.
Themes
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After dinner, which includes fried meat, potatoes, smashed pie, and coffee, Neeley goes out to play with his friends. Maudie Donovan then comes around to go with Francie to confession. The church is “smoky with incense and guttering candles.” When it is her turn, Francie pulls aside the curtain and kneels in the confessional. Quickly, she confesses her sins and the priest, Father O’Flynn, absolves them. Maudie is sitting outside on the steps when Francie emerges. Maudie buys an ice cream sandwich for a penny and lets Francie have a bite. They promise to go to confession again the following Saturday.
Francie’s religious faith provides her with some moral guidance and links her to her Irish and Austrian heritages. Faith sometimes gives desperate people the ability to endure. However, Smith presents the Catholic Church as a place whose strange rituals make little sense. Francie performs the rite of confession as though by rote, not with any sense of spiritual awareness.
Themes
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When Francie gets home, Aunt Evy and Uncle Willie Flittman are there. Uncle Willie is playing his guitar. After his last song, he goes out for a pitcher of beer and Aunt Evy treats the Nolans to pumpernickel bread and “a dime’s worth of Limburger cheese” for sandwiches. After Uncle Willie gets drunk, he confesses his sense of failure and his feeling that no one—not even his horse—respects him. He recalls how Drummer peed on him once while he was washing him. Katie, Evy, and Francie fight to suppress laughter. Evy insists that she loves Willie, but he no longer thinks this is true. Evy tells him that it’s time to go home.
Like Katie, Evy is married to a vulnerable man who relies on her strength. Smith upends gender roles and expectations by portraying most of the Rommely sisters’ husbands as weaker and less reliable than their wives. Her purpose in illustrating this weakness is not to denigrate the men but, perhaps, to suggest that they, too, were hurt by traditional gender norms. Johnny is a nurturing man but not a good provider. Willie is a creative type who seems stuck in a job that doesn’t suit him.
Themes
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Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Before bed, Francie and Neeley have to read a page from Shakespeare and from the Bible, as rule. On Saturday nights, Francie is allowed to sleep in the front room. She makes a bed by pushing two chairs together and placing them beside the window so that she can watch people. At 2:00 AM, Francie hears her father singing softly and coming up the stairs. He’s singing “Molly Malone.” Johnny and Katie play a game in which she opens the door and lets him in before he finishes the song. Gamely, she opens the door before finishes the final lyric.
Katie hopes that, with this reading instruction, the children will develop imagination and facility with language. This works for Francie, who reads the lives of her neighbors as though they were books. Katie’s insistence on reading to her children to expand their imaginations mirrors Johnny’s belief that the world can become more accessible through imagination.
Themes
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Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Francie and Neeley get out of bed and everyone gathers at the table while Johnny pulls out the three dollars that he has earned. He gives each of his children a nickel, which Katie instructs them to put in the bank. Johnny also brings home some food from the wedding feast, including “half of a cold broiled lobster, five stone-cold fried oysters, an inch jar of caviar and a wedge of Roquefort cheese.” The children do not like the food much, but they are too hungry not to devour it. After eating, Francie realizes that she broke the fast that was supposed to last from midnight to next morning’s mass. She will not receive communion and will have “a real sin” to confess to her priest next week.
The Nolans have a late-night feast, consisting of the most elegant and expensive food they have ever had. The children do not know anything about the quality of what they’re eating. Despite her hunger, Francie feels guilty about eating and, thus, breaking her promise to God. This is an indication of how seriously she takes her Catholic faith. Johnny’s generosity with his tips, indicated by his gift of a nickel to the children, complements Katie’s pragmatism in this instance.
Themes
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Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Neeley goes back to bed and falls asleep immediately. Francie goes back to sitting by the window. Katie and Johnny sit in the kitchen, where they talk until daybreak. Johnny tells her about his work and all the people he has seen. The Nolans are so hungry for life that they fill themselves up, not only with their own lives, but with those of others. Francie looks out the window and sees a girl with her boyfriend. They stand pressed close together until her father arrives downstairs “in his long underdrawers” and chases him away. The girl runs upstairs, giggling. Then, Mr. Tomony arrives home in his hansom cab. He swings back his “white satin Inverness cape” to pay the driver. Francie loves Saturdays and hates to see it end by going to sleep.
Neeley is the only member of the Nolan clan who is satisfied after eating. This is one indication of how he differs from his relatives in his simpler approach to life. Neeley’s needs are more easily met, while his parents and his sister remain hungry for sensory experience. Johnny fills Katie up with others’ lives by telling her stories about people. Concurrently, Francie watches the stories of others’ lives play out on the streets of Williamsburg. These imaginative pleasures take their minds off of their hardships.
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During other nights in the week, Francie overhears “the indistinct voices” of “the childlike bride” who lives with her “apelike truck-driver husband.” The wife’s voice is always “soft and pleading” while his  is “rough and demanding.” Then, there is a short silence broken finally by his snores and her weeping. Thinking of the girl’s sobs, Francie’s hands instinctively go to cover her ears. Then, she remembers that it is Saturday; she won’t hear the sobs tonight. Sunday will be peaceful, too. She will think “long thoughts about the nasturtiums in the brown bowl.” Katie and Johnny reminisce in the kitchen, recalling when they first met. Johnny was dating Hildy O’Dair at the time. 
Francie relishes the peace of the weekend, when people seem to enjoy their lives and have some respite from the misery that visits them during most of the week. There is a contrast between the unhappy and unequal couple and Katie and Johnny, who are different but not ill-matched. Their memories bind them and give them comfort when they have nothing else. Francie’s awareness of the other couple, however, teaches her that not all unions are so peaceful. To forget this asymmetry in life, she thinks of the bowl.
Themes
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Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon