A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: Essay Q&A

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1. Consider the relevance of the tree in the title -- "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn"..

The references to the ‘Tree of Heaven’ in the first and final pages give the novel a frame. This eponymous tree only proliferates in the tenement districts and because of this it symbolizes those forgotten at the bottom of the class hierarchy. Through the symbol of the tree, this novel speaks up for those whose voices are not usually heard or listened to.

The final mention of the tree reveals that Francie’s has been chopped down as it was deemed as affecting the women’s washing. The spirit of pride and the need to adapt, which the tree also represents, continues, though, as a new tree grows from this original stump. This ability to thrive in hostile conditions is also alluded to by Katie when she uses the tree as a metaphor to argue that her children will similarly do well despite their environment.

2. Examine the relationship between Katie and Francie.

This mother and daughter relationship is for the most part one of reciprocated pride and care. This is demonstrated most fully when Katie shoots a man who is trying to molest Francie. However, it is also apparent from the time Neeley is born that Katie intends to invest most of her love in her son in a bid to shape him into the man Johnny should have been. Katie’s fear for her son’s future overshadows her concern for Francie.

As she grows older, Francie voices her suspicion that she is overlooked. This comes at the time when Katie insists Neeley, rather than Francie, will be returning to high school. This is contrary to the wishes of both children, but Katie remains firm on this decision. It is as though Francie is second in Katie’s thoughts. On a more abstract level, it is also possible to see that Katie’s preference for her son continues the unequal treatment of women, which is typical of a patriarchal society. Francie’s grandmother, Mary, is said to weep for her daughters when they give birth to girls, as she understands how women suffer in this world. As long as women continue to prefer their sons in favor of their daughters, this suffering will go on unchecked.

3. Analyze this novel’s criticisms of social inequality.

Various forms of social inequality are explored in this novel. The unfair treatment of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy is of the greatest concern here, but Smith is also interested in negotiating sexism and racism to a lesser degree. Through the experiences of Francie and members of her family, the reader is made aware of the devastating effects of snobbery and is also taught the importance of unions and collective thinking in the workplace. Johnny, for instance, is used as a mouthpiece to extol the virtues of unions in his job as a singing waiter. Without the union, we are told, workers are often paid unfairly.

It is possible to argue, however, that this novel is too sentimental in many places and this could be seen as diluting the strong political messages in other parts of the text. This mixture of sentimentality and political awareness is surprising as the combination may be interpreted as contradictory. If one is sentimental about a slum, for example, it is questionable if it is also possible to effectively demand improved housing.

On the other hand, the sentimental aspects of this work may be regarded as elements that demonstrate that a life in the slum is still a valid one. Fiction should not just be the realm of the middle classes and their understanding of life. When Miss Garnder criticizes Francie’s compositions for being ‘sordid’, she is actually telling her that a poor working-class existence is not fit for literature.

4. Consider the lives of women as portrayed in this novel.

Because Francie is the central protagonist, the reader is necessarily given a female perspective of surviving poverty. This is extended in the use of a strong female-dominated family of the Rommely sisters. The main male character, Johnny, is a caricature and a stereotype of a feckless alcoholic. The majority of the women portrayed are, by contrast, resourceful and independent. Katie’s depiction is particularly poignant as her resilience is maintained despite the manual work she must do to simply feed and barely clothe her family.

However, this tendency to describe women in more favorable terms is balanced somewhat in the scene where Francie witnesses the cruelty inflicted on Joanna (the young mother of an illegitimate baby). The taunts and violence inflicted on her by some local women are enough to dissuade Francie from ever truly liking or trusting women, despite her love for her female relatives. These women who are cruel to Joanna help to enforce the policing of patriarchal dominance, where women are regarded as whores for enjoying sex.

5. To what extent is education valued by Francie and her family?

Education is regarded as the only means of escape from poverty in this novel. Mary gives the equivalent of this advice to Katie shortly after she has given birth to Francie. It is through reading and writing that children will understand the world and, in addition, their aspirations will be extended beyond the district of tenement buildings. Even Johnny, who is mainly depicted as a feckless drunk, is keen for both of his children to learn of places beyond their neighborhood and is supportive of Francie moving to a new school.

It is a mark of Francie’s independent thinking that she chooses to move to this superior school. This decision also reinforces the didactic message of the novel, which constantly reiterates the value of a good education for all in the public school system. Her first school is criticized as ‘brutalizing’ and mismanaged and it is made apparent that the novel demands a fair education for all, regardless of a child’s position in the social hierarchy.

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