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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

What role does song and singing play in the novel?

The Nolans experience the world through singing and music. Singing does not costanything, which makes it a favorite pastime for poor folks such as the Nolans. Itrepresents different ideas at different times in the book. Songs are a part of Johnny'spersonality, as a symbol of an unattainable dream, and a community activity, and the wayone falls in love.

The old Irish songs best represent Johnny; when McShane mentions a "wild rose" at theend of the book, Francie immediately thinks of her father. Of course, the most frequentlysung song is "Molly Malone," which is a nightly game that Johnny plays with his family. If he finishes the verse before they open the door, he wins. The one time hesings the verse about dying, he foreshadows his own death three days later. Long after hisdeath, Neeley sings "Molly Malone" and Francie believes he is just like his father. Singing represents an unattainable dream in that Johnny will never makeit as a singing-waiter, or as a real singer, which is his true wish. The lyrics of Johnny'ssongs tell of an ideal world—such as the songs of the sea that diff er so much fromthe way Johnny and the children experience the sea.

For children, songs are a way of playing; poor children make friends singing games in thestreet. As they grow older, songs represent both American identity (the neighborhood singsAuld Lang Syne at New Year's) and ethnic identity. Songs are a way that a communityjoins itself together. Songs also mediate both scenes of love-at-first sight, first betweenKatie and Johnny, and later, between Francie and Lee. Songs are both a way for poorpeople to escape the meanness of their lives for awhi le, and a way to communicate the lifethey are living or imagining.

What is Francie's relationship to reading and writing? Why is it important?

Francie's relationship to reading changes throughout the novel. Reading and writing are thegifts that Katie can give her children as the first step toward a better life. She is readto before she even knows what words are, from the Bible and Shakespeare.

The beauty of language is always inside of her, making her different from other kids, asdemonstrated when she starts quoting passages in the street. At a very young age, Francielearns to read, and decides she will read every book in the world starting in alphabeticalorder. Books take the place of childhood friends for her.

Reading and writing are both outlets for Francie. After she tells her first lie, Franciedecides to write down her imaginative thoughts—the things she thinks should happeninstead of the things that do happen. In this way, writing teaches Francie to tell the truth without stifling her creative spirit. Like songs are to Johnny, writing isto Francie—she can escape her life and also express her feelings through this medium. Writing is also therapy for Francie, as she writes of her father when he is dead. It is also the way she learns to have pride in her background. She refuses herteacher's advice to only write about pretty things. She keeps the compositions that showher own life on paper.

Writing also becomes the way Francie connects herself to the outside world. As a reader atthe Clippings Bureau, she learns of the world everyday through the newspaper. When warbreaks out, she realizes that she must capture every moment of her life, so t hat she willnot regret anything. She keeps a Walt Whitman poem in her purse; it symbolizes the Americanexperience captured by the English language. This American experience is what awaitsFrancie when the book ends.

How does Johnny's death serve as a structuring device for the book? In what way does itinform what happens after? How do things change?

Johnny's death marks the most significant fall from innocence of the novel. After he dies,Francie takes on more responsibility, Katie plays the role of both father and mother, andboth children ultimately learn which of his traits they will emulate, and which they willnot. Johnny's death marks the beginning of the working world for Francie and Neeley,beginning at McGarrity's and then real summer jobs. Working requires that Francie grow up agood deal, pretending that she is sixteen, and doing the work of women twice her age.Johnny's death symbolically leaves his children free to live life differently than he did.They both have steady jobs, with steady paychecks that they joyfully bring home to theirmother. Francie also grows closer to Katie, even wh ile Neeley is still her favorite.Francie helps her Mama deliver the new baby, and in this way, they share a bond only twowomen can. One day, Katie kisses her children good night; she also makes hot chocolate. Insome ways, she seems to be compensating f or their romantic father's absence. Francie andNeeley also learn that they do not need to become alcoholics like their father. While theymiss him dearly, Neeley does not like to vomit, and Francie finds that she can get drunk onlife itself. This last d reamlike quality of Francie's is Johnny's legacy. As for Neeley,he looks like Johnny and has a remarkable singing voice.

Suggested Essay Topics

How is the book's historical time period significant to the story? Think aboutFrancie's stage of development when America enters the war.

The narrator writes that the Rommely women are "made of invisible steel." How dothe character developments of Johnny and Katie parallel the relationship between Evy andWillie?

Although people look down on Sissy's promiscuity, Francie adores her, and Katiebelieves she is good and generous to everyone she meets. What makes Sissy good, and howdoes her character reflect on the morals of the book in general?

Immigration and ethnic identity are important themes among the people ofWilliamsburg. How does ethnic and religious identity play itself out in the community? Howdo the groups live side-by-side, and how does their background shape their values? How does Francie's family fit in?

Brooklyn is a dreamlike place to Francie. How does the time and place in whichFrancie grows up shape the person she is? Think about all of her favorite stores andcelebrations in her neighborhood.

How does Joanna's stoning shape the way Francie thinks about sex and the role ofwomen in general?

Find three instances in which the tree is discussed, and read them carefully.Although the tree always represents hope and perseverance, its use at different points inthe novel suggests it also has more specific significations. How is the symbol used differently each time? How does it still represent the same idea?

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Character List

by jessiedude64, July 22, 2012

Mr. Seigler
-owns a cheap, dry-goods store

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