A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

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.
Class and Snobbery Theme Icon

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 have money and are more solidly established. Francie sees how middle-class Americans are not only treated with more kindness and humanity, but how they also have access to better schools and live in neighborhoods that are greener and more spacious. Smith uses the subject of class to show how the United States, despite its presumed commitments to equality and opportunity for all, repeated the class divisions of the old world, in which upper classes subordinate lower classes and lower classes perpetuate the classist attitudes of those who dominate.

In the novel, class discrimination is particularly pronounced among those whose job it is to care for others—teachers and doctors. When Francie experiences contempt toward from these people as a child, she learns that society expects her to feel shame for her poverty when the true shame is that many people are destitute in a prosperous nation.

Miss Briggs, Francie’s teacher at her first school, smiles at the children of “the prosperous storekeepers of the neighborhood” and seats them “in the choicest places in the front row.” Her voice is “gentle” when she speaks to them. Conversely, she snarls “when she [speaks] to the great crowd of unwashed.” The poor children do not form solidarity against her because they are young and crave her love and approval. Instead, they adopt Miss Briggs’s “snarling manner” when they speak to each other. The poor children’s attitude comes from thinking that one of them might be lucky enough to win favor with Miss Briggs if they mimic her hatred of the poor. They cannot hate the prosperous children because they want too badly to be a part of their class, where one is not only promised cleanliness, in contrast to the “unwashed,” but also respect and kindness.

When Francie goes to the doctor for a vaccine, he reacts with disgust at Francie’s dirty arm, which he thinks results from not washing, though it is actually the result of Francie and Neeley making mud pies and not having enough time to wash, as Katie told them to, before their appointment. It never occurs to the doctor that the children may have been playing outside. His attitude suggests a general contempt for poor immigrants. When the nurse, a child of poor Polish immigrants, sympathizes with his view, Francie is doubly heartbroken, assuming that a woman would have a warmer attitude toward children. She does not realize that, like her classmates who side with Miss Briggs over each other, the nurse aligns with the doctor and echoes his contempt for the poor to attain some of his power.

Similarly, even those with limited means seek proximity to those with wealth. Aunt Evy, for example, is a snob and a social climber who believes that, if she mimics the manners of wealthier and more established Americans, then she, too, will acquire some of their advantages. She and her depressed husband, Willie, live “in a cheap basement flat on the fringes of a very refined neighborhood.” She is willing to live in substandard conditions simply for the privilege of being near her so-called betters. In a way, Aunt Evy’s attempts at social climbing are quintessentially American—she believes that she can obtain a higher social status through personal effort, despite lacking money or a distinguished lineage.

Evy also makes some adjustments to her cultural heritage to help her and her children better fit in to the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant world. She leaves the Catholic Church in favor of the Episcopalian Church to aid in her social climbing. She regards Protestants as more “refined” than Catholics and decides that this change will be her “first step toward refinement” and being “somebody.” For Evy, being “somebody” means distancing oneself from Brooklyn’s immigrant communities, many of which belong to the Catholic Church.

In the early-1900s, those with less money and status felt compelled to look down on those within their own class, while looking up to those in higher classes, due to the internalized belief that there was something contemptible about being poor. By regarding the problem of poverty as inherent instead of social, poor people believed that they could overcome their statuses by mimicking “their betters,” which included expressing contempt for the poor. Instead, Francie embraces her sense of belonging to two worlds—that of her lowly origins and the more privileged world that opens up to her due to her talents. In this regard, she is more quintessentially American than any of the classist people she knows, due to her ability to achieve success through merit and self-reliance and not by ingratiating herself to any particular group.

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Class and Snobbery Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Below you will find the important quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn related to the theme of Class and Snobbery.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Francie, huddled with other children of her kind, learned more that first day than she realized. She learned of the class system of a great Democracy. She was puzzled and hurt by teacher's attitude. Obviously the teacher hated her and others like her for no other reason than that they were what they were. Teacher acted as though they had no right to be in the school but that she was forced to accept them and was doing so with as little grace as possible. She begrudged them the few crumbs of learning she threw at them. Like the doctor at the health center, she too acted as though they had no right to live. It would seem as if all the unwanted children would stick together and be one against the things that were against them. But not so. They hated each other as much as the teacher hated them. They aped teacher's snarling manner when they spoke to each other.

Related Characters: Francie Nolan, Miss Briggs
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

As she was about to touch this soft beautifulness, the little girl snatched it away and spat full in Francie’s face. Francie closed her eyes tightly to keep the hurt bitter tears from spilling out. The other girl stood there curiously, waiting for the tears. When none came, she taunted:

“Why don't you bust out crying, you dockle? Want I should spit in your face again?”

Francie turned and went down into the cellar and sat in the dark a long time waiting until the waves of hurt stopped breaking over her. It was the first of many disillusionments that were to come as her capacity to feel things grew. She never liked blackboard erasers after that.

Related Characters: The Teacher’s Pet (speaker), Francie Nolan
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap

route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can

forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion

and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the

cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. Yet, as she stood there, she knew that years later she would be haunted by the sorrow in

the face of that starveling child and that she would wish bitterly that she

had said a comforting word then and done something towards the saving

of her immortal soul. She had the knowledge that she was small but she

lacked the courage to be otherwise.

Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 39 Quotes

One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer,

like the artist, must strive for beauty always […] Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.

Related Characters: Miss Garnder (speaker), Francie Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 321-322
Explanation and Analysis: