A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Betty Smith

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The Brown Bowl Symbol Analysis

The Brown Bowl Symbol Icon

Francie admires the “little golden-brown pottery jug” filled with flowers that sits at the end of the librarian’s desk—a thing that the librarian hardly notices until Francie mentions it. The janitor—or “somebody”—has placed the bowl there and routinely fills it with flowers. The bowl is a “season indicator” that contains “a few sprigs of bittersweet” in the fall, holly at Christmas, pussy willow near spring, and nasturtiums in the summer. The flowers, in turn, symbolize Francie’s hopes for change and beauty, despite the constancy of her family’s circumstances, particularly the Nolans’ poverty and Johnny’s alcoholism. The bowl never changes, but the flowers do. Francie’s delight with the bowl of flowers suggests her ability to see beyond circumstances that do not change in favor of recognizing the occasional novelties that life can offer. This is reminiscent of Francie and Neeley’s ability to express gratitude for small pleasures, such as eating a banana with an oatmeal dinner.

Francie fantasizes about having her own home one day, in which she will have a desk like the librarian’s in her parlor, which will have white walls and many books. The brown bowl is the only decorative feature that Francie imagines in her future home, indicating a taste for beauty that reminds her of the natural world that eludes her in cluttered, urban Brooklyn. The librarian’s indifference to the bowl is also a reminder that what may be a relatively mundane object to one person can become something of immense significance to someone else. The brown bowl contains more hope for Francie than the entire city of New York, which she finds relatively disappointing. The bowl, on the other hand, always contains something fresh and beautiful; it alludes to the change and growth that Francie desires for herself and her family. Even when it seems as though her circumstances will not change, Francie can look to the bowl as an indicator of life’s cycles as well as its potential for novelty.

The Brown Bowl Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The A Tree Grows in Brooklyn quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Brown Bowl. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn published in 1943.
Chapter 2 Quotes

And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely's mysticism, her tale-telling, her great belief in everything and her compassion for the weak ones. She had a lot of her grandfather Rommely's cruel will. She had some of her Aunt Evy's talent for mimicking, some of Ruthie Nolan's possessiveness. She had Aunt Sissy's love for life and her love for children. She had Johnny's sentimentality without his good looks. She had all of Katie's soft ways and only half of the invisible steel of Katie […] She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard […] She was all of these things and of something more […] It was something that had been born into her and her only […]

Related Characters: Francie Nolan
Related Symbols: The Tree, The Brown Bowl
Page Number: 72-73
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Brown Bowl Symbol Timeline in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Brown Bowl appears in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Education and the American Dream Theme Icon
...door quietly behind her, as one should in the library. She looks at the little brown bowl at the end of the librarian’s desk. It is holding multi-colored nasturtiums. Francie decides that,... (full context)
Chapter 6
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 44
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Education and the American Dream Theme Icon
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
...she’s excited to work in New York. She figures that, if a tiny thing like the brown bowl excited her, surely the great city would. However, this proves not to be so.  (full context)
Chapter 56
Education and the American Dream Theme Icon
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
...old. The librarian looks at her for the first time. Francie then mentions how important the brown bowl has always been to her. The librarian barely notices what she is talking about and... (full context)