Critical Essays Symbols in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Tree of Heaven

In the courtyard of the third apartment building in Williamsburg where the Nolan family lives throughout most of Smith's novel, a tree is growing out of the cement. The opening chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explains that the tree is a Tree of Heaven. It only grows in the poorest of neighborhoods and it grows no matter how poor the circumstances. It can thrive in cement and without water or fertilizer. The tree represents the tenacity and strength of the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood, who survive with little food or money. Like the tree that receives so little care and nourishment, the people of the Williamsburg neighborhood survive and often thrive in such extreme poverty that many people live without adequate food, working only the most menial jobs, earning a pittance, and wearing threadbare clothing, through which they feel the biting cold. The people survive with the hope that the next day, week, or month, their lives will be better. No matter how badly they are beaten down, they continue to survive and they continue to hope. In the final chapter of Smith's novel, Francie observes that the Tree of Heaven is still alive. It has been chopped down and the stump set on fire, but Francie notices that the tree is not dead. It has sent out a new branch and is surviving, just as the Nolan family has survived poverty and death and is now being given a new chance at a better life.

Tin Can Bank

When Francie is born in Chapter 9, Mary Rommely tells her daughter Katie to make a bank from a tin can. She is told to nail the bank to the floor of the closet and to put five cents in the bank every day. No matter how difficult it is to save money, Mary says it is important that money be put in the can each day. The money is to be saved until there is enough to buy land, so that the family can escape from the poverty of living in the tenements. In Chapter 1, when Francie and Neeley collect scrap metal to sell to the junk dealer, they put half the money they earn in the tin can bank. When the family moves in Chapter 12, they have only saved $3.80, and Katie must use $1 to pay the ice-man to move their meager belongings. In Chapter 14, when the family must move again, there is only $8 in the bank and Katie must use $2 of the money to pay for the second move. Finally, in Chapter 36, the tin can bank contains $18.62. It is not enough money to pay for a cemetery plot in which to bury Johnny. Katie must borrow $2 from her sister. After it has been emptied once again, Katie throws away the bank. For fourteen years, the family has used the bank to save money to buy land. Since the family now "owns land" — that is, the plot in which Johnny is to be buried — the bank has fulfilled its purpose. Francie and Neeley create another tin can bank in Chapter 43, in which they will save money to buy Christmas presents, which allows the family to have a better Christmas. For most of the book, the tin can bank represents the hope that the family can somehow escape their terrible poverty and start a new life in a home they will own. When Francie and Neeley create their own tin can bank, they are saving for a more immediate need, but the bank still represents their hope for a better future.


In Chapter 2 of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie visits the library to check out two books. She thinks the library is a beautiful place, although it is small and dingy. The narrator tells readers that Francie reads a book every day. Her desire to read and to learn about the world outside of her Williamsburg neighborhood is best illustrated by Francie's choice to read each book in the library, alphabetically. She does not choose to read only one genre of book; instead, she will read all of the books. Reading is one way for Francie to escape the poverty of her home and escape into a different world. Later, her love of reading helps Francie when she applies for a job at the Model Press Clipping Bureau, where she must read 200 newspapers a day. She is quickly promoted and earns enough money to help her family live more comfortably. The library, which she has long loved, has become a vehicle in which to improve the whole family's life, not just Francie's. In Chapter 55, when Francie is packing and preparing to leave the neighborhood, she walks to the library to return her books. She begins to turn in her library card, but at the last minute, decides to keep it. The card and the library represent both Francie's education and the means by which she was able to escape poverty.

Johnny's Pearl Studs

Katie gives a set of pearl studs to Johnny when they get married. She spent nearly a month's salary on the studs, and they are never pawned, no matter how much the family needs money. In Chapter 3, Johnny puts on the pearl studs before going to his job. They help to complete the image he longs to project. As a singing waiter, Johnny wears a tuxedo; the pearl studs help to create an image of affluence that will match Johnny's elegant good looks. No matter how far Johnny falls from the image that he projects, the pearl studs are not sold. To do so would be to admit that he is no longer deserving of what the pearl studs represent. They symbolize Katie's love for Johnny, but they also symbolize her expectation that he will use them as he supports his family. At the end of Chapter 36, after Johnny's funeral, the narrator states that Johnny was buried with the pearl studs. Except for his ring, shaving mug, and two aprons, there are no other physical reminders of Johnny remaining in the apartment. The promise of a better life that the studs symbolized died with Johnny and was buried with him.