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.
Romanticism vs. Pragmatism Theme Icon

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 to dream, while her mother bestows in her a commitment to hard work as a means to achieve one’s goals. Francie is made up of individually cultivated qualities, too, derived from the books that she reads and the material objects that she relates to, including “the flower in the brown bowl” at the library and “the tree growing rankly in the yard.” Francie is both delicate and strong, rooted in a particular place yet broad-minded. Francie’s mutual expressions of romanticism and pragmatism show how she has more successfully combined these qualities from her parents, which were overly present in each of them, to achieve greater balance in her own life. 

Despite being an alcoholic and an unstable wage earner, Johnny remains a loving and attentive father and husband. Unlike his wife, he has little interest in generating steady income and is not averse to taking risks with money that Katie would never take, such as by gambling on horses. Though he is irresponsible, Johnny is instrumental in helping Francie to understand that her dreams are largely attainable, even without the benefit of money.

It is Johnny to whom Francie appeals when she discovers the school of her dreams. She knows that Katie will not agree to move “just because she [Francie] felt like going to another school.” The emphasis underscores Francie’s awareness that her mother does not favor her enough to make such an adjustment, though she might be inclined to do so for Neeley. Francie is too young to understand that her family doesn’t have the means to move her to another neighborhood, but her father is willing to tell “a lie that helps someone out” by faking Francie’s address so that she can attend the school. Not only does Johnny’s trick provide Francie with a better education, it also helps her understand that morality is not always so black-and-white, and that one can occasionally bend the rules while chasing their dream.

Regardless of this ability to inspire hope in his daughter, Johnny has little for himself. He lives very much in the moment, enjoying hot coffee and a sunny day more than most would, due to his sense of being “doomed.” He admits to Francie that he is not “a hard-working man” and “never wanted a family,” which is why he drinks—he cannot handle his responsibilities and wishes to forget that he will never fulfill his dream of becoming a professional singer. Johnny’s inability to accept his life lends him an aura of romantic fatalism—that is, he accepts that he is powerless to a fate that determines he will die young, tragically, and unhappy, despite being loved.

Katie, on the other hand, refuses to accept defeat. Her steadfastness and practicality contrast with her husband’s whimsy. She is careful with money and takes no risks with it. Her pragmatic example demonstrates to Francie that hard work and thriftiness are also helpful values in life, which she retains even after the family’s finances improve.

Katie works as a janitor in tenement houses to ensure that her family will always have a roof over their heads, due to her agreement to keep the buildings clean in exchange for shelter and a wage. Katie carefully saves money, following the example of her mother, Mary Rommely, in making a bank out of an empty can of condensed milk, in which she saves five cents per day. It is she who ensures that the family has the means to pay for emergencies and Johnny’s carfare to jobs.  

Due to being a poor cleaning woman, Katie pays little attention to her appearance. Katie tries to convince herself that fulfillment comes from knowing that her work can support her family. However, she looks sorrowfully at how her well-formed hands have become worn from the soda and lye that she uses to scrub floors. When Sergeant Michael McShane expresses an interest in her at the Mattie Mahoney picnic, she remembers that she is still a young and attractive woman, something that she has forgotten as a result of working “so hard” and becoming too ensconced in her role as a caretaker.

Francie ultimately learns that she needn’t choose between her parents’ values. Each had been right in their individual values but wrong in their extreme commitments to those values. In her own life, Francie is neither obsessively concerned with money nor careless with it. She rejects her mother’s abandonment of her femininity as a result of becoming the family’s main wage earner, insisting that taking on a more traditionally masculine role does not make one less of a woman. Additionally, Francie rejects her father’s sense of doom by never giving up in the face of life’s disappointments, while retaining his ability to create a path out of what seems like a dead end.

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Romanticism vs. Pragmatism 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 Romanticism vs. Pragmatism.
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:

Life was going too swiftly for Johnny. He had a wife and two babies before

he was old enough to vote. His life was finished before it had a chance to begin. He was doomed and no one knew it better than Johnny Nolan. Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger. It might be said that she, too, was doomed. Her life, too, was over before it began. But there the similarity ended. Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it. Katie wouldn't accept it. She started a new life where her old one left off. She exchanged her tenderness for capability. She gave up her dreams

and took over hard realities in their place. Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well.

Related Characters: Neeley Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26 Quotes

Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn't tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been […] Katie was annoyed at this tendency and kept warning Francie to tell the plain truth and to stop romancing. But Francie just couldn't tell the plain undecorated truth. She had to put something to it […] Although Katie had this same flair for coloring an incident and Johnny himself lived in a half-dream world, yet they tried to squelch these things in their child. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they knew their own gift of imagination colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it. Perhaps Katie thought that if they did not have this faculty they would be clearer-minded; see things as they really were, and seeing them loathe them and somehow find a way to make them better.

Related Characters: Francie Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 198-199
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 30 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Francie Nolan (speaker), Katie Nolan, Aunt Sissy , Aunt Evy, Joanna
Page Number: 237-238
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 52 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Francie Nolan (speaker), Johnny Nolan, Corporal Leo “Lee” Rhynor
Page Number: 457
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 460
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 56 Quotes

He buttoned up his coat jauntily and Francie saw that he wore their father's signet ring. It was true then—what Granma had said: that the Rommely women had the gift of seeing the ghosts of their beloved dead. Francie saw her

father.

Page Number: 490
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 492
Explanation and Analysis:

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: