A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can help.
The Tree Symbol Icon

The tree with the umbrella leaves is a symbol of hope and endurance, as well as an indication that it is possible to dream and to be an individual in a setting that often demands conformity and pragmatism. It is the one tree in Francie’s yard that is “neither a pine nor a hemlock,” suggesting that these varieties are more common. Instead, it has a lot of “pointed leaves” radiating from the bough, which give it the appearance of “a lot of opened green umbrellas.” Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. Though it struggles to reach the sky, the tree grows “lushly” out of cement in the tenement districts. The tree resembles the people in its Williamsburg neighborhood, many of whom live full, complex lives that are limited by economic circumstances. They, too, seek to rise above their stations, or “reach the sky,” but this proves difficult in their crowded and impoverished setting. They, too, seem to struggle to grow out of the concrete of their tenements and into better lives. Francie reasons that the tree likes poor people. Its “umbrellas [curl] over around and under her third-floor fire escape,” providing shelter and shade on a summer day in 1912. When she sits there, she imagines that she is living in a tree, as though she exists in the lush natural world that is becoming increasingly elusive in Brooklyn.

Later, the landlord arranges to have the tree cut down because housewives complain that their laundry gets entangled in its branches. However, the tree does not die. Instead, a new tree grows from its stump “and its trunk [grows] along the ground until it [reaches] a place where there [are] no wash lines above it,” allowing it to grow freely toward the sky. The tree’s endurance parallels with that of Francie. Unlike the fir tree that she and Neeley bought as a Christmas tree and nourished “with waterings and manurings” until it got sickly and died, the tree in the yard can survive on its own. Attempts to cut it down only make it grow back more powerfully. Similarly, despite the ill-fortune that threatens to “cut her down”—poverty, mistreatment by teachers, an attack by a sex offender, and the grief that ensues after the death of her alcoholic father—Francie continues to flourish. The tree, like Francie, is a thing apart from its poor Williamsburg neighborhood, but it also belongs there. It is noticeably different, just as Francie’s ambition and love for books make her noticeably different. However, both the tree and Francie are rooted in Williamsburg. Thus, the landlord is unsuccessful in completely removing the tree and Francie, too, remains connected to Williamsburg, despite her family’s eventual move and her own plans to leave for Michigan.

The Tree Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The A Tree Grows in Brooklyn quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Tree. 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 1 Quotes

The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock […] Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded up lots and out neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.

Related Characters: Francie Nolan
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
Chapter 10 Quotes

“Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

“Aw, somebody ought to cut that tree down, the homely thing.”

“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie. "But because there are so many, you just can't see how beautiful it really is.”

Related Characters: Katie Nolan (speaker), Francie Nolan
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 56 Quotes

She looked towards the window. Yes, across two yards she saw a little

girl sitting on a fire escape with a book in her lap and a bag of candy at hand. The girl was peering through the bars at Francie […] She was a slender little thing of ten, and her name was Florry Wendy […] She looked down into the yard. The tree whose leaf umbrellas had curled around, under and over her fire escape had been cut down because the housewives complained that wash on the lines got entangled in its branches […] But the tree hadn't died […] A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again. Annie, the fir tree, that the Nolans had cherished with waterings and manurings, had long since sickened and died. But this tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down … this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it.

Related Characters: Francie Nolan, Ben Blake, Florry Wendy
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 493
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire A Tree Grows in Brooklyn LitChart as a printable PDF.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn PDF

The Tree Symbol Timeline in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tree appears in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
...be described as “somber,” the word “serene” more appropriately applies to Williamsburg. There is one tree in Francie Nolan’s yard. It looks like “a lot of opened green umbrellas.” It grows... (full context)
Chapter 15
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Class and Snobbery Theme Icon
...are called “railroad rooms” because they each lead into the other. There is also a tree growing in the yard. It only reaches the second story. There are four feet of... (full context)