A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Betty Smith

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Themes and Colors
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
Education and the American Dream Theme Icon
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Theme Icon
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon
Class and Snobbery Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Poverty and Perseverance

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, whose family struggles with poverty in early twentieth-century Williamsburg. Francie is hardly alone in this: Smith describes how her protagonist attends school with a “great crowd of unwashed” children who, because of their poverty, are often discriminated against by the very people whose job it is to care for them, particularly teachers and doctors. These children are reminders of how…

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Education and the American Dream

Betty Smith’s protagonist, Francie Nolan, is an eleven-year-old girl who is curious about the world but shut out from much of it due to poverty. It is her grandmother, Mary Rommely, who insists that her own daughter, Katie, start a library for Francie. According to Mary, the most essential reading consists of the Protestant Bible, Shakespeare, and German fairy tales. Books, she says, inspire imagination, which will encourage Francie to think beyond…

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Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith explores the importance of sex in women’s lives but notes how sex also undermines women, due to social expectations that they comply with male desire while denying their own. Shame undergirds most sexual relations between men and women in Francie’s 1912 Williamsburg neighborhood. Shame also fosters an environment in which girls are routinely sexually abused and compelled to keep their violation a secret. Smith explores…

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Romanticism vs. Pragmatism

The protagonist of the novel, eleven-year-old Francie Nolan, recognizes herself as a combination “of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans.” The Rommelys are her mother’s Austrian family, and the Nolans are Irish. Unsurprisingly, she bears the most resemblance to her parents, Johnny and Katie. She has her father’s “sentimentality without his good looks” and her mother’s “soft ways” but just half of Katie’s “invisible steel.” From her father, Francie develops the ability…

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Class and Snobbery

It is at school where Francie Nolan, “huddled with other children of her kind,” learns about “the class system of a great Democracy.” Smith ironically uses language from the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, to depict the inconsistency between America’s promise of being a land without class distinctions—a place that supposedly welcomes poor, “huddled masses”—with the practice of excluding and segregating these groups from those who…

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