Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Mama’s Hands

By Betty Smith

Mama’s Hands

Mama is a pretty woman whose hands are “beautifully shaped with lovely, curved, oval nails” (1.39); they are also, however, “rough and red and cut into with cleansing fluids” (24.66). She often looks down at them sadly and tries to cover them up, and when she notices Sergeant McShane looking at her, she puts on gloves even though it is a hot day. She says, “I work so hard, sometimes I forget that I’m a woman” (24.66).

Years later, when they are out celebrating the children’s graduation, Francie notices that Mama looks at her hands and then hides them under the table “as though she were ashamed of them” (42.90).

When Mama is very pregnant with Annie Laurie, Francie offers to help Mama with the janitor’s work and puts her hands in the soapy water. Mama sharply tells her no and takes Francie’s hands out of the water, saying “ I don’t want your hands to get [work-scarred]. I want you to have nice hands always” (39.113).

Why does Mama hate her hands? Why does she cover them up whenever she thinks of McShane? What does it tell us that she doesn’t want Francie to get the same hands?

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