A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was Betty Smith’s most popular work. A playwright as well as a novelist, she later adapted A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for stage and screen. The novel explores the development of the protagonist, Francis Nolan. Francie is born as the twentieth century begins. Her story mirrors the times. For example, there are advances in medicine and technology (as evidenced by Aunt Sissy’s abandoning of the traditional midwife for a hospital birth and Francie’s learning to operate teletype machines). When World War I begins, Francie falls in love with a young soldier. These advances and events, however, serve only as a backdrop for the novel. Francie’s times are not an essential element of the plot, but a backdrop for Francie’s growth.
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith constructs a type of bildungsroman in which the novel centers on a hero who grows to maturity and finds purpose through experiences. In short, a bildungsroman is about growing up. Smith’s novel contains biographical elements. Like her protagonist, she was raised in Brooklyn and struggled to obtain an education. Smith’s tale chronicles Francie’s development as she learns about life from her mother’s family, the Rommelys. Her grandmother, an immigrant from Austria, grieved when her daughters gave birth to daughters because she knew that to be “born a woman meant a life of humble hardship.” Smith describes Francie’s mother and her aunts (Evy and Sissy) as slender, frail creatures, yet Smith asserts that the women are made of “thin . . . steel.”
The women are strong while often the men are weak. For example, Francie’s father drinks too much and lacks strength of character. He cannot assume responsibility for himself or for his family. His redeeming qualities are his singing talent and his passion for beauty. These qualities are not enough to sustain him or his family. Similarly, Francie’s Aunt Evy is married to Willie Flittman, an unstable, “whimpery” man. His ill-temper creates difficulty for him and his family. Even the horse that pulls Willie’s milkcart treats him with disrespect. At the close of the novel, Willie manages to “flit” away, deserting his wife and children to perform as a one-man band.
The female characters are responsible for the successful rearing of the children. Smith asserts that Johnny hailed from a family grown frail. His mother tried to keep her sons for herself. Consequently, all four Nolan boys were dead before they reached thirty-five. Unable to sustain itself, the Nolan family line collapses. In contrast, Francie’s mother, Katie, is confident that her son, Neeley, will not become a failure like his father, Johnny. She relies on the contribution of her own character and nurturing to produce a stronger son than her mother-in-law Mrs. Nolan raised. Unlike Mrs. Nolan’s, Katie’s motives are generous rather than selfish. She attempts to prepare her children for achievement. Francie’s grandmother Rommely sent her daughters to grammar school; Katie aims for high school diplomas for her children, knowing that education will provide opportunity for them to achieve a better life. The hope for future generations lies in the influence of the mothers rather than the fathers.
The theme of Smith’s novel is survival. Some characters are ill-equipped to overcome poverty and hardship; others thrive. A sense of pride is required for survival and independence, but the story suggests that additional resources are needed. Strength of character and the ability to love and nurture others are critical elements for those characters who succeed. Smith seems to suggest that people cannot prosper unless they are complete emotionally and psychologically, and “love instincts” contribute to making them whole. Consequently, Mr. McShane marries Katie at the close of the novel because he needs someone to love. When Francie ponders her relationship with Ben Blake, she longs for a reciprocal relationship in which she not...
(The entire section is 1,058 words.)