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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
As a coming of age story, this motif recurs in almost every chapter and helps to develop the themes of the book. As Francie grows up, she learns more and more about the world—more about poverty, class status, gender, and sex. The older Francie gets, the less innocent poverty becomes. As a child, the scarcity in the Nolan house allows Francie to appreciate small material things. As she grows older, the ugly side of hardship becomes more real when her father dies and her ambitions are cut short. Often times, Francie expresses this "fall" in terms of dreaming. She sometimes thinks the sex prowler in the hallway was a dream, or her father's death, or Uncle Willie's leaving. Francie's falls, like any motif of lost innocence gain consequence as the plot escalates. For instance, her run-in with the girl with blackboard erasers is less severe than her vaccination experience. Henny's death is less severe than Johnny's.
The "fall" does not only refer to events that have brought her pain, but also events that have taught her knowledge. Indeed, one may also think of the Tree of Heaven as an allusion to the Tree of Knowledge. In the context of the novel, the tree brings only hope and joy. Likewise, for Francie, learning to read is her first step toward becoming an educated woman. The events of the outside world are another kind of acquiring of knowledge, and they parallel Francie's development into womanhood. Although the imminent war causes much anxiety, technological advancements such as hospital births make it possible for Sissy to give birth. While Francie's broken heart coincides with a man going off to war, this rite of passage allows her to fully appreciate Ben Blake. By structuring the book around a fall from innocence, Smith can address both the life of one girl, and the situation of the world in general.
The dream of a better life in America drives the Nolans to live life the way they do. This motif helps to develop the theme of education in the novel, since education is the way in which daughters and sons will one day live richer lives than their parents. When Mary Rommely gives her advice to Katie at the beginning of the book, she tells Katie how she should raise her children so that they will have more opportunities. Mary's optimism foreshadows Francie's ability to get an education; Mary already sees the dream taking form since Johnny and Katie can read and write. Johnny's love for the Union and staunch support of the Democratic party are examples of this motif's recurrence. Also, the successful characters in the novel ultimately are those who have made this promise a reality; the characters who do not make it—Johnny and Uncle Flittman—feel overrun by life precisely because they have not achieved the dream of a better life. This motif can also be thought about in terms of contrasting old world ways to life in America.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!