Johnny Nolan, Francie's father, arrives home singing his favorite ballad, "Molly Malone," as he always does coming up the stairs. Francie irons his apron, as he has a job singing and waiting tables that night. He wants her to sew the Union label on his apron, saying how much he believes in the Union, and that Katie Nolan shouldn't begrudge the wages.
Francie loves listening to him talk, and reminisces about visiting the Union Headquarters, where she saw how popular her father was, but also overheard two men talking about Johnny's drinking habit.
Everyone loves Johnny, who is Irish and sings sweet songs. His wife had not grown bitter toward him and his children "didn't know that they were supposed to be ashamed of him."
Back at their flat, Johnny talks and talks about his lack of a job and his family's growing up. His words make Francie alternatively happy and hurt. She agrees with her father that her mother is a very good woman, but then wonders to herself why she likes her father better. He talks to Francie about winning horse bets and going on trips, and calls her Prima Donna, a nickname he gave her when she was an infant when her crying reminded him of an opera singer's voice. He then sends her out for a dicky and a paper collar, two pieces to go with his tuxedo. He is clean, and dressed well—like an Irish lad, but not like a man who has two poor children, and a wife who scrubs floors. Francie walks him to the trolley and thinks him very handsome.
The first few paragraphs of Chapter 1 introduce the most important symbol in the book—the tree referred to in the title. The tree represents hope in the midst of hardship; the narrator writes that it "likes poor people." Specifically, it symbolizes the lives of the poor in Francie's neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. The fact that this tree also grows in Francie's yard suggests that it symbolizes her life as well. Just as the tree grows with no light or soil, Francie will grow up strong despite living with few material advantages.
The first few chapters (along with the title) establish the importance of setting in this novel. In fact, in just the first chapter, the narrator describes the entire neighborhood through Francie's eyes, on a typical Saturday afternoon, including many of the neighborhood personalities and places: Carney and his junk shop, Cheap Charlie's, and all the different food stores. In this novel, the setting is more than a mere backdrop for the action; it defines much of Francie's character development, and shapes her into the kind of person she is. These chapters also set the stage for a coming of age narrative by describing the world Francie lives in, and how she sees herself in that world.
Religious and national identity will also be major forces in Francie's upbringing. In the first chapter, she already observes the differences between pregnant Catholic women and pregnant Jewish women. The narrator notes that the Jewish delicatessen is filled with Christians buying rye bread. When Neeley and his friends go to play baseball, they harass the Jewish boy, and then embark on a theological discussion of whether or not "white Jews" exist. This religious marking suggests that religious identities are important differences to the characters in the story.
Francie's trip to the library allows the author to develop her character further. Francie sees the library as beautiful even though it is a shabby old building; she loves books so much that she wants to read every single one in the world, and is only a little discouraged that some take awhile to plow through; she notices with glee what kind of flora is in the old brown pot, and rejoices that the little nasturtium blossoms mean that it is summer. All in all, Francie is a character who will take great pleasure in the small material things in her life. Her childlike wonder is magnified by her economic status: because she is afforded few luxuries, she appreciates each tiny beautiful thing that comes her way. She is a keen observer. She reads her book on the fire escape so that she can observe her neighborhood below. Frankie coming home with Mr. Fraber's wagon is a big event; the absence of the boy who conducts mock funerals is reason for great rejoicing.
Flossie Gaddis, as a teenage girl, is a representation of adolescent life that Francie will one day enter. Flossie is one image of what Francie may become—her family lives in Francie's building, which suggests that their situation is similar. Already Francie observes different models of adulthood, when she compares Aunt Sissy to Flossie; whereas Flossie is "starved" for men, Sissy was "healthily hungry" for them.
The third chapter of the novel introduces Johnny Nolan. Johnny is not a conventional good father. Women think Johnny a dapper young lad—outfitted in his tuxedo and projecting a charming happy-go-lucky attitude—until they realize he has a hungry daughter and a wife who makes up for his drinking weakness. Johnny dramatizes the moral code in the book over and over again. He is both worthless when it comes to money and loving, both charming and weak. When all is said and done, Johnny is still a good person. The book shows that people can have faults and still be good; Francie loves him dearly, even when she grows older and knows her family has suffered as a result of his undependability.