Themes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Importance of Education
When Francie is born in Chapter 9, Mary Rommely tells her daughter Katie that it is important that she read to her children every night. Mary sees education as one way to escape poverty. Katie is told to read a page from the Bible and a page from any of Shakespeare's plays, and when the children learn how to read, they should read a page from each of the two books each night. This bedtime reading is the start of the children's education. The piano lessons in Chapter 17 are Katie's effort to expose the children to music and enhance their educations. In Chapter 19, when Francie starts school, it is an eagerly anticipated event. Although Francie is thrilled to finally learn how to read, her first school is a terrible place, where the children are beaten and mistreated. The school is overcrowded, and the teachers have no interest in teaching the poorer children. It does not take Francie long to find a school where she thinks she can get a better education. In Chapter 23, Francie learns that getting an education can be a wonderful experience. In Chapter 27, as she watches her children struggle to drag a large Christmas tree up the steps to their apartment, Katie suddenly realizes that education will be the only way for her children to have a better life. Johnny's death in Chapter 36 makes it more difficult for Francie and Neeley to continue in school, since the family is desperate for money; however, Katie is adamant that the children must stay in school long enough to graduate from eighth grade. The family can survive until the children receive their diplomas; then the children can work. Because they need the money from Francie's job, only Neeley is sent to high school. Francie, though, finds education in her job at the Model Press Clipping Bureau, where, in Chapter 44, the narrator describes how Francie reads 200 newspapers a day at work. She is able to enroll in college summer school in Chapter 48 because of her determination to get an education. Because she does not have a high school diploma, Francie must take the college entrance exam, which she passes. In Chapter 55, the narrator writes that Francie has been accepted by the University of Michigan. Through the determination of her grandmother Mary and her mother, Katie, as well as Francie's own tenacity and hard work, education becomes the means by which Francie is finally able to escape the poverty of her parents' lives.
Francie's Need for Love
When Katie's son, Neeley, is born in Chapter 10 of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she admits to herself that she will always love her son more than her daughter. Katie thinks that she can keep this disparity of love hidden from Francie and that, if she treats the children the same, Francie will never know that she is loved less by her mother. Of course, Katie is unable to treat the children the same. In Chapter 3, Francie wonders why she likes her father best, even though her mother is a good woman. The reason Francie likes her father best is revealed throughout the novel, as Katie's love of Neeley influences how she treats Francie. For example, in Chapter 27, both children give Katie a Christmas gift. Francie makes an elaborate hat pin holder for her mother and Neeley gives each member of the family a candy cane that he bought. Francie is hurt that her mother makes a greater fuss over Neeley's gift than the one given by Francie. However, although Katie does not provide as much love to Francie, Johnny makes up for the lack of extra attention. Johnny's death in Chapter 36 leaves Francie without the one person who loved her above all others. In Chapter 42, Katie chooses to attend Neeley's graduation, while Aunt Sissy attends Francie's graduation. Francie's grades, except for her English grade, are much better than Neeley's grades, but Katie makes a fuss over Neeley's grades and chastises Francie for her English grade, never mentioning all the As that she earned. The cumulative effect of Katie's obvious favoritism is that Francie is desperately lonely and in real need of someone to love her, especially after Johnny's death. She finds the evenings especially lonely, until she begins to work nights and is able to enroll in summer college courses during the day. Francie's need for love results in her falling in love with Lee Rhynor, a young soldier, who tells her that he loves her, after knowing her less than two days. Because she wants so desperately to be loved, Francie responds to Lee by giving him her heart and a promise that she will wait for him to return from the war. Even after Lee betrays her, Francie continues to think about him. In Chapter 56, Francie sums up her great need for love in her assessment of Ben Blake, who has given her a ring. He loves her, but he does not need her, and more than anything, what Francie has learned throughout her life is that she has to have someone in her life who needs her to love him, just as she needs to be loved.
The American Dream
The American dream was an important motivating factor in the immigrant experience. Many people left their homes and families and immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. Both Johnny and Katie are the children of immigrants. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie is able to fulfill the American dream that her father instilled in her in Chapter 25 when he took her to Bushwick Avenue and showed her the mansions and the opportunities for wealth that awaits all immigrants. Francie is able to use education as a way to escape the poverty of her childhood. Mary Rommely's comments to Katie in Chapter 9, when Francie was born, illustrate her hope that her children and grandchildren will be able achieve the American dream, which Mary believes is possible through getting an education and owning land. The universality of the dream is best illustrated in Chapter 43, when Francie and Neeley meet at the bank to have the first money they earn converted into new dollar bills. The tellers at the bank remember the first time that they earned enough money to take home to their mothers. The act of taking money home to give to their mother symbolizes the American dream and the expectation that children will have a better life than their parents. Johnny's failures, however, nearly prevent Katie from achieving the American dream. She will achieve the dream for herself and for her youngest child, Laurie, only by marrying McShane, who has already achieved the dream through his hard work as a policeman and as a politician. It is McShane, who, in paying for Francie and Neeley to attend college, opens the way for Katie's oldest children to achieve the American dream. The family's forthcoming escape from poverty is implicit in McShane's proposal of marriage to Katie in Chapter 54. In contrast, the American dream is never achieved by Johnny Nolan, who fails to achieve his dreams. Johnny has talent and might have succeeded, but early in the book, Johnny's love of drinking predicts his failure. Although Johnny is able to join the Waiters Union and become an active member of the Democratic party — both signs that he has the ability to achieve the American dream — Johnny is unable to move beyond the fear of the future that he experiences in Chapter 9 when Francie is born. Becoming a father and having a family to support sends him into such a state of panic that he drinks and ultimately dies from drinking. Achieving the American dream takes hard work, but Johnny is a dreamer, who dreams of a better life but who lacks the incentive and hard work to make the dream come true.
Loss of Innocence
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of a young girl's coming of age and, as such, it is inevitable that she will lose the innocence of childhood. As a young child, Francie is unaware of the family's poverty and of the devastating effect that her father's drinking has on the family. When Johnny promises Francie in Chapter 2 that he will use his winnings at the horse races later that day to take her on a trip, she never for a moment doubts that he will do so. Nor does Francie understand that her mother's ability to make six loaves of stale bread feed a family of four for a week is a necessity to keep the family from starving. Katie is able to turn the family's lack of food into a game, where eventually they will be rescued when food reappears. As a result, Francie innocently accepts the normalcy of starvation. Some of Francie's innocent trust is lost in Chapter 18, when she is humiliated by the doctor giving her a vaccination, who refers to her as filthy and poor. Francie is equally disappointed to discover that her dreams about attending school do not depict the reality of cruel and unjust teachers, who hate teaching and hate their poorer students. In Chapter 28, Francie begins to realize that her father's drinking hurts the family, although she continues to love him just as much. She also realizes that her mother is not always right about everything. Two experiences that focus on sexuality and sexual violence also open Francie's eyes to the cruelty that lurks within the neighborhood she loves. She witnesses the stoning of an unmarried mother in Chapter 30 and wonders how women can turn against one another. She is also nearly a victim of a sexual attack in Chapter 33 by a rapist-murderer. Both of these events occur just as Francie is making the biological transition from childhood to adolescent girl. Two other events in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contribute to Francie's loss of innocence. The death of Johnny in Chapter 36 breaks Francie's heart and causes her to reject God. She has never once considered that her father might die, so his death destroys the innocent expectation that her father would always be there to care for her. The betrayal of Lee Rhynor in Chapters 52 and 53 is another lesson about the loss of love, when Francie learns that someone she loves can deliberately deceive her and break her heart. In the first chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve's fall in the Garden of Eden occurs because they eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Francie's fall from innocence is, likewise, because she gains knowledge about life. Knowledge brings both a loss of innocence and occasionally disillusionment, pain, and grief.
Importance of Imagination
When Francie is born in Chapter 9, Katie's mother, Mary, tells her daughter that she needs to nurture her child's imagination. Mary says that it is important for Francie to have a world that is not real, in which she can escape when the real world becomes too difficult. Mary was right, since it is imagination that will help Francie to escape the poverty of Williamsburg. Before she enters school for the first time, Francie imagines how wonderful school with be; because of this expectation, the reality when it occurs in Chapters 19 and 20 is disappointing. The schools are overcrowded and her teacher is cruel, but then Francie sees another, much-nicer school, one without a fence surrounding it and one with grass and not concrete. Francie imagines that she can attend the new school. Her imagination allows her to see herself in a better world, and, as a result, she works to create that better world for herself. When Francie first begins working in Chapter 43, she works on an assembly line making tissue flowers, and she imagines a lifetime of factory work. She knows that she wants a better life because she is able to clearly imagine the drudgery of the life that awaits her in a succession of factories, if she is unable to escape. Francie's imagination allows her to imagine herself attending college, which will allow her to escape the drudgery of her impoverished childhood. In Chapter 44, she studies a map of the United States and imagines the world that exists beyond her own limited experience. On the day that America enters World War I, Francie carefully saves the front page from the newspaper, with its declaration of war in large letters. The narrator describes in Chapter 48 how Francie prepares a time capsule to memorialize the day. The ink on the headline of the newspaper is still wet and she places her finger tips on the headline to wet them with ink. She takes a large envelope and places the page from the newspaper in it, along with a piece of paper on which she has pressed her inky fingerprints. She includes a poem and a lock of her hair. Francie's goal is to save the memory of the day that the United States entered the war. She can clearly imagine the changes that war will bring, but more importantly, she can imagine that she will be alive in fifty years to open the envelope. In her young life, Francie has experienced her father's death and the deaths of all of Aunt Sissy's babies and the death of a neighbor boy. She knows about death, but she also imagines her own life extending past that of her father's thirty-four years. She visualizes her own future in her imagination. Imagination allows Francie to envision a world beyond the Williamsburg tenements where she lives and years filled with joy and the promise of a better life, rather than the exhaustion of spending each moment just trying to survive.