The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
These lines come from the first chapter of the novel, before the reader knows anything at all about Francie or the Nolan family. The author begins the book by describing the setting—and this specific tree—to emphasize the importance that place will play in the novel. The simile that compares the tree to opened green umbrellas is used a few times throughout the book, and describes the tree just as Francie would see it from an upstairs window, looking down. The quote also alerts the reader that class will be an important theme. Unlike almost all material things, the tree is something that poor people have that no rich person can ever attain. The tree grows "only in tenement districts," and the book will focus on the places where the trees grow, and the people who live close to it. The idea that poor people have something that no one else has suggests that there is something special about them. The author uses the Tree of Heaven as a symbol throughout the novel of the lives of poor people, and specifically, of Francie's growth from a child to a woman.
"Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it way rather than to drink it, all right. I think it's good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging."
Katie says this early in the book when her sister Evy chastises her for allowing Francie to throw away her coffee. Again, this quote addresses the book's class theme. The Nolans cannot afford to throw anything at all away, and yet, Katie allows this one exception. This quote demonstrates Katie's pride, and the pride she wishes to pass on to her children. Katie is almost always depicted as practical rather than romantic. She would never be one to waste bread, milk, or heat. This philosophical reasoning seems an anomaly in her character, and yet, in the long run, she is doing what is best for her children. She wishes that her children should have dignity as well as practicality. Katie has figured out meticulously exactly how much money this system wastes—and that it is almost nothing, even for the Nolans. Wasting almost nothing is worth it, if it means that her children feel one luxury.
The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? 'To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.'
These lines come at the end of the book, when Francie is saying her good-byes at work, and then around her neighborhood. Francie has always been a great observer; as a child she found joy in so many small pleasures. In fact, Francie all along has looked at the world around her as if seeing it for the first or last time. As a small girl, she loves the brass scales in the coffee and tea shop, the Chinaman's counter and lichee nuts, Flossie's closet filled with dresses. She and her father stop to look at skates, and she shows him the beautiful school she has found. These moments make life more than hard work, hunger, and suffering. This quote should also be thought of in terms of the moment when Francie hears that America is at war. Time seems to stop as she notices everything—the lining of her purse, the dates on coins, the textures of her cosmetics. Then she prays to God that He will let her "be something every minute of every hour of my life." Also, in a more general way, as a coming of age novel, this book is filled with firsts and lasts.
He had sung many a song about ships and going down to the sea in them with a heave ho and a heave to. He wondered why it hadn't turned out the way it said in the songs. The children should have returned exhilarated and with a deep and abiding love for the sea and he should have returned with a fine mess of fish. Why, oh why didn't it turn out the way it did in the song?
This quote comes after Johnny returns home from the sea at Canarsie with Francie, Neeley, and Little Tilly. As these lines come from Johnny's thoughts, they help to develop his character; they also symbolize his trouble with life in general. Johnny always wishes that life were like a song. Anytime he sees something beautiful, he starts singing. At night when he comes home, he sings on the stairwell. When Katie first met him, she fell in love with him for his singing and dancing. Johnny's life is a quest for a dream that cannot come true. Like his songs, his dreams have no grounding in reality. But without Johnny, Francie would have nothing beautiful. In a way, he always delivers the song to her, instead of to the sea. Katie sends her kids alone to get vaccinated, knowing that they must learn the ways of a cruel world. Johnny just wants to show Francie as much beauty as he can. In a life such as the Nolan's, a little romance goes a long way.
A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion in his heart for those has left behind him in the cruel up climb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way.
These lines he come right after the doctor administering Francie's vaccination makes his cruel comments about the filth of poor people. Francie sees the nurse as a mother-figure, and keeps thinking she will defend her. A classic fall from innocence scene, the vaccination chapter foreshadows who Francie will become. Francie will choose the second option—to keep compassion in her heart. Like the nurse, Francie will not live in the slums her whole life, but when she leaves Brooklyn at the end of the book, she refuses to forget her childhood, and her home. "Forgetting" comes up another time in the book as well, when Francie loses Lee to his fiancée. Katie tells Francie she will be happy, but will never "forget."