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 the intimate lives of women and girls to illustrate the everyday misogyny that exists in Francie’s world—a behavior that Francie and many other women internalize and perpetuate only to the benefit of men, many of whom mistreat them. Smith illustrates how gender and sexuality complicated the lives of poor, working-class women at the turn of the century, revealing the hypocrisy, misogyny, and shame that shrouded Americans’ attitudes toward sex.
The main concern among women in Francie’s world is pregnancy. In families that can barely afford to feed their existing members, the prospect of an additional family member, particularly from an unmarried daughter, is met with horror. Through Francie’s observations of Lucia, Joanna, and even Katie Nolan’s experiences, Smith depicts how, during a time without safe birth control, women often had to resign themselves to pregnancy and accept that they would be mothers, whether they wanted to be or not.
Joanna is a local teenager who gives birth out of wedlock. Instead of hiding herself and her child in shame, Joanna freely walks with her baby in the street. The local women are enraged by this and hurl rocks at her but hit the baby instead. Smith uses the classic trope of throwing stones to demonstrate how the women try to make themselves appear more honorable by declaring Joanna a shameful and undesirable member of their community. They had the “decency” to marry the men whom they wanted to sleep with, while Joanna chose pleasure over obligation.
Lucia, a sixteen-year-old Sicilian immigrant girl, does not face condemnation from the neighborhood but from within her own family after a married man impregnates her. Lucia’s father shuts her up in her room and feeds her only bread and water, as though she has committed a crime by having sex out of wedlock. Smith complicates Lucia’s “sin” by strongly suggesting that it was Steve, Aunt Sissy’s third “John,” the nickname that Sissy gives to all of her lovers and husbands, who may have impregnated Lucia. When Sissy then adopts Lucia’s baby, the public “sin” of illegitimacy helps Sissy to fulfill her desired, and socially acceptable, role as a mother.
Aunt Sissy herself is unapologetically sexual and defiant of social norms. Others perceive this attitude as an aspect of her naivete and lack of education. However, it is more likely a reflection of Sissy’s insistence on personal satisfaction, which eludes many of the Williamsburg women who feel shame in response to their bodies and their desires.
Sissy develops the body of a thirty-year-old woman when she is ten. Boys come after her and Sissy “[is] after all the boys.” She consequently develops a scandalous reputation. However, no one passes judgment on the men who take advantage of her sexuality. Thomas Rommely’s outrage over her courtship with her soon-to-be first husband, Jim, who is twenty-five when Sissy is fourteen, has less to do with the psychological damage that such a relationship could cause Sissy than it does with Thomas’s concern over the relationship’s impact on the family’s reputation.
Sissy leaves Jim (without divorcing him) when she becomes frustrated after giving birth to four stillborn children. Though they separate, Sissy visits him occasionally at the firehouse when she gets “lonesome for a man.” This “lonesome” feeling is unsatisfied sexual desire. Sissy takes sex from men when she wants it and leaves them after her desire is satisfied.
Though Sissy’s girlhood relationships with older men are not regarded as sexual abuse, the parents in Sissy’s neighborhood live in fear of their young daughters becoming the victims of sexual predators. Criminal sex is the only kind that parents will mention, though timidly, to their daughters, while “normal sex” remains a mystery. This attitude toward sex, which wavers between horror and secrecy, makes it difficult for girls to develop a healthy sexuality, leaving them to associate sex more with violence and shame than intimacy and pleasure.
One day, a seven-year-old girl from Francie’s block, remembered as “quiet and obedient,” is found dead, “lying across a busted-down doll carriage in the cellar of a nearby house.” Her dress and undergarments are torn, and her shoes and “little red socks [are] thrown on an ash heap.” The image of the dead little girl lying on the doll carriage goes further than evoking a sense of lost innocence; it shows the reader that someone believed that the girl’s life was disposable. Though the little girl’s death evokes sorrow from people in the community, that feeling is not extended to teenage girls, like Lucia, who get pregnant by older men. Instead, those girls are blamed. Though the community rightfully regards the child molester as a threat to their safety, he is perhaps partly a product of a general disregard for the lives of women and girls.
Though everyone suspects that the child molester who killed the seven-year-old girl has a preference for small children, he eventually attacks Francie, who is fourteen at the time, in her building. Katie thwarts him by shooting him between the legs, and the predator is soon sent to prison. The adults’ method of helping Francie cope with her trauma is to tell her that it is all a bad dream. The tactic succeeds in pushing the incident to the back of her mind, but it also makes her slightly mistrustful of older men, such as Jim McGarrity. The lie that the attempted rape was just “a bad dream” reinforces the notion that sexual assault is not something to be discussed and that mention of it will only cause the girl and her family to revisit a shame that should only belong to the perpetrator.
Smith’s exploration of sex criticizes Americans’ misogynistic and hypocritical attitudes at the turn of the century. A microcosm of the United States at this time, Williamsburg is a community that wishes to preserve an illusion of innocence while contending with the unavoidable problems of modern urban life—sex crimes, the lack of birth control, and women who are divided between their traditional roles and their growing wishes for sexual freedom and expression.
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability ThemeTracker
Gender, Sexuality, and Vulnerability Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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 […]
Feeling his arms around her and instinctively adjusting herself to his rhythm, Katie knew that he was the man she wanted. She'd ask nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life. Maybe that decision was her great mistake. She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her. Then her children would not have gone hungry; she would not have had to scrub floors for their living and her memory of him would have remained a tender shining thing. But she wanted Johnny Nolan and no one else and she set out to get him.
Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hearts and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman […] whether it was by throwing stones or by mean gossip. It was the only kind of loyalty they seemed to have. Men were different. They might hate each other but they stuck together against the world and against any woman who would ensnare one of them. “As long as I live, I will never have a woman for a friend. I will never trust any woman again, except maybe Mama and sometimes Aunt Evy and Aunt Sissy.”
If normal sex was a great mystery in the neighborhood, criminal sex was
an open book. In all poor and congested city areas, the prowling sex fiend
is a nightmarish horror that haunts parents. There seems to be one in every neighborhood. There was one in Williamsburg in that year when Francie turned fourteen. For a long time, he had been molesting little girls, and although the police were on a continual lookout for him, he was never caught. One of the reasons was that when a little girl was attacked, the parents kept it secret so that no one would know and discriminate against the child and look on her as a thing apart and make it impossible for her to resume a normal childhood with her playmates.
“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains—a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone-just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”
And he asked for her whole life as simply as he'd ask for a date. And she promised away her whole life as simply as she'd offer a hand in greeting
or farewell. It stopped raining after a while and the stars came out.
She liked Ben. She liked him an awful lot. She wished that she could love him. If only he wasn't so sure of himself all the time. If only he’d stumble just
once. If only he needed her. Ah, well. She had five years to think it over.