Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 4–6
Chapter 4: Francie visits Flossie to see what kind of costume she will be wearing to Saturday evening's masquerade party. Flossie's brother, Henny, is dying of consumption. When Francie looks into Flossie's closet and admires all her lovely costumes, she also imagines that she sees a skull and bones peeking out from the costumes and understands that death is waiting there for Henny.
Chapter 5: Francie's mother, Katie, has spent this Saturday afternoon at the movies with her sister, Sissy. Aunt Sissy works in a condom factory, although the actual product made there is never so clearly explained. Instead, Francie knows that this factory makes some rubber toys and other rubber articles "which were bought in whispers."
The many loaves of stale bread that Francie had earlier brought home will feed the family for the next week. Katie is described as a wiz with stale bread, easily turning the bread into delicious meals. Francie also describes visiting the Jewish pickle seller, who always seems angry with her. She always asks for a "sheeny pickle" and does not understand that she is insulting the old man. The sour pickle, which Francie eats slowly and makes last all afternoon, helps to make all the stale bread even more delicious.
Chapter 6: Katie sends Francie and Neeley to buy the meat that the family will eat on Sunday. Francie is warned that she must watch the butcher at Werner's cut and grind the meat, so that he does not sell her old ground meat, which might not even be beef. Francie and Neely then go to Hassler's, to buy a bone with meat on it. The butcher gives Francie a thick slice of liverwurst, for which she is not charged, because she is so thin and in need of nourishment.
After Katie and the children eat dinner, Francie meets her friend, Maudie Donovan, and the two girls walk to confession. When Francie returns home, her Aunt Evy and Uncle Willie Flittman are visiting. He plays the guitar and also tells a story about his horse, Drummer. Willie complains that he is a failure, because even the horse does not respect him.
As Neeley and Francie prepare for bed, they read one page from the Bible and one page from Shakespeare. In the middle of the night, Johnny returns home from his singing waiter job at a wedding. He brings home $3, as well as a bag of leftover food. The children and Katie all sit around the table with Johnny and eat the food that he brought home.
The Gaddis children offer two sides of life. Henny is dying and sarcastically reminds everyone that he is dying, while Flossie is full of life and eager to embrace all opportunities. Henny's illness is a reminder of death. Death is all around, a constant companion for the poor who live in Francie's neighborhood. When Francie tells her mother how the old man at the bread store scared her, Katie's response is that everyone grows old. It is part of life and is no cause for alarm.
Although Francie's neighborhood is home to Jews and Catholics, the two groups do not mix, except for business dealings. When Francie uses the word "sheeny" when speaking to the pickle seller, she does not understand that she has insulted him because she does not know anything about his world. The two groups live so separately that they are ignorant of one another's customs and beliefs. All of Francie's friends are like her — Catholic. In part, they are her friends due to proximity and common beliefs.
Food holds an important place in the narrative. Francie spends a lot of time discussing the buying, preparing, and eating of food. In these first six chapters, Francie relates several trips to buy food, which she describes in great detail. She also provides thorough descriptions of her mother's talent for serving stale bread, as well as a description of the process of buying and eating a large sour pickle. The emphasis on food makes clear how deprived the family is, especially when it comes to food. They eat meat only on Sundays, and what they do have is artfully prepared so that it stretches as far as possible. Francie is often described as thin and with a thin face. When Johnny brings home leftover food in the middle of the night, the whole family eats it immediately, even though they do not like much of what he brought home.
In the last of the introductory chapters, readers meet Francie's two aunts, Sissy and Evy, and her uncle, Willie. It is appropriate that Sissy works in a condom factory, since she is very sexual and very fond of men. She is also a loving aunt for Francie. Aunt Evy looks like Katie and is described as being funny. Uncle Willie is unhappy. His self-esteem is poor, and he disparages himself. He feels unloved by his wife and even sees the horse as a tormenter. In this sense, he is not terribly different than Johnny. Although Willie lacks Johnny's charm, both men recognize their own failures and inability to succeed.