Chapter 49

Francie finds her chemistry and Restoration drama classes easy, but has more trouble with French. She befriends a boy named Ben Blake who gives her good advice about buying books. A senior in high school, Ben plans to go to college in the Midwest, then to law school. He is a class leader, and works at a law firm. He offers to help Francie study for her final French exam, and takes her to an empty theater to study. Francie falls in love with the theater, but also learns enough French to pass the class. Ben does not have time for a girlfriend since he must take care of his mother in his free time. Francie is in love with him. With her job moved to daytime hours, her evenings are lonely.

Chapter 50

Katie and Evy refrain from talking about Sissy's baby with her, fearing another stillbirth, until one day Sissy announces she will give birth in a hospital, with a Jewish doctor. No Rommely woman has ever given birth in the presence of a doctor, let alone a Jewish one.

When the baby is delivered, Sissy sees its blue stillness and begins to grieve when all at once she hears a word she does not recognize: "oxygen." Dr. Aaron Arronstein gives the newborn oxygen, and it lives. Sissy names the baby Stepen Aaron after the doctor and her husband, Steve.

Uncle Willie Flittman tries to enlist in the army and is turned down. He begins to give up on life, quits his job, and tries to teach himself to become a one-man band. Steve gets him a job working at a munitions factory, but he still thinks himself a failure.

Chapter 51

This chapter gives snippets of many minor events and conversations. Francie enrolls in sewing and dancing classes. She studies to pass the college entrance exam. Sissy pays "endowment" insurance for her babies. Evy and Willie move to a house close to Queens on account of Willie's drumming. Mary Rommely begins to die. "Sauerkraut" changes to "Liberty Cabbage." Neeley is supposedly dating a wild girl, and also informs Francie that he overheard her sex talk with Katie years ago. Katie finds cigarettes in Francie's purse and refuses to lecture her. Katie decides the Nolans should buy food for the Tynmore sisters for Christmas since they do not have enough to eat. Francie decides to send Ben a Christmas card. To celebrate New Year's, Francie and Neeley want café au lait instead of brandy. Katie remembers that Johnny used to put butter in his coffee if they had run out of milk.


Francie's thoughts about chemistry show the religious underpinnings of the novel. She thinks of how wonderful it would be to have a religion founded on conservation of matter. Like Francie's approach to arithmetic, here again she humanizes the natural sciences, transforming them into something that seems more familiar to her. Not only does she show her bent toward humanities, but she also demonstrates she is a good learner. She thinks of new ideas in terms of what she already knows.

The introduction of Ben Blake signals that Francie will soon enter the world of romance and dating. Francie's close relationship with her father leads her to meet a man like him. Ben Blake is Johnny's polar opposite. He is extremely successful in a conventional way—he is the leader of his class, going to law school, and already making a considerable amount of money. Francie and Ben's study session in the theatre reveals much about the personalities of each. Francie in enchanted by the big empty space, the same way that large quantities of things used to excite her. She unapologetically tells Ben that of course she prefers playing around in the theater to studying French. She decides to give up all other ambitions and embrace again her first passion. Meanwhile, Ben tells her all the tricks of test-taking he knows after years of schooling. She is a romantic compared to him, who will succeed at all the practical things in life.

When Ben leaves Francie till the next summer, she finds herself lonely among the sad songs on the streets of Brooklyn. Like all the women in her family, Francie is strong in the way she can take care of herself, strong in the way she seeks a life for herself. Still, like her mother, Sissy, and Evy, in the evenings she feels lonely without a companion. The women in this book take care of themselves, but are not heartless. Like any human being, they wish to love and be loved.

Sissy's successful delivery represents the changing world beyond the Nolan household. The newest technologies of the time ensure that an unhealthy baby can live. This experience also shatters the old ideas about how birth should occur. Throughout the book, women give birth behind closed doors in the presence of other women. The birth also suggests that Sissy is breaking down suspicions about other ethnic groups. The trust she puts in the hands of a male, Jewish doctor is unlikely for her time and place. Sissy's thoughts right before she realizes her child will not die reaffirm the book's ideas about women and birth. She asks God how he could let a woman die knowing she has never given life. Giving life is the one experience that forever bonds women to each other, and reaffirms their female identity.

Willie Flittman's plunge into depression after he cannot enlist shows another example of a man falling short of the American dream. Willie "[grieves] because he [is] a failure" every evening. Willie's downfall parallels Johnny's downward spiral into death. His wife comforts him the same way Katie comforted Johnny when he was kicked out of the Union. In fact, Willie gets a job through Evy—that is, through her sister's husband. Also, one may remember how Katie once scoffed at Francie's dream of becoming an organ grinder; in general, a sadness pervaded over all the street musicians. Now, Willie is seeking out the same one-man band stint that Francie learned so long ago would not bring her glory or success.