Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn The Tree of Heaven

By Betty Smith

The Tree of Heaven

Let’s say you never even read one page of this book and your teacher calls on you.

“Okay, student, name a symbol in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, please.” You squirm.

“Uhhh, ummm… the tree… that grows… in Brooklyn?” You anticipate giggling jeers from the rest of the class. But instead you are shocked with:

“Excellent work, Student.”

Score.

Yes—in this book, it is just that easy. Like we discussed in the section on writing style, Smith is not really trying to be all literary, poetic, and tricky. Instead, she tells it how it is. In case the title isn’t enough for you to think that this tree might be important in some literary way, one of the very first things described is the tree (the one that grows in Brooklyn). Smith might as well have said, “Listen, this tree is a symbol and a metaphor, so pay attention.”

Tree as Symbol

Okay, let’s get a bit technical for a second here. A symbol is something concrete, something you can touch, that represents something abstract, or something you cannot touch—like how the American flag symbolizes freedom to many people. You can touch the American flag, though you cannot touch freedom. So what does the tree symbolize?

Let’s look at some facts about the tree:

  • It needs very little to grow—wherever its seeds fall, a tree will grow.
  • Even in the most challenging and least fertile areas, it will thrive. It can even grow through concrete.
  • Francie loves pretending she lives in the tree when she sits on the fire escape that is surrounded by its leaves.
  • If you cut this tree down, another tree will grow up from its stump.

If you had to describe the tree as though it was a human, how would you describe its character? Might you say it is very determined? Hopeful? Your answers to this question are what the tree symbolizes. What do you think?

Tree as Metaphor 

A metaphor is a comparison between two things, and in this book, we see a clear comparison between the nature of the tree and Francie’s nature.

How can Shmoop be so sure? First, the author pretty much comes out and tells us that Francie is like the tree. Francie is very sickly during her first year. In fact, many people tell Mama that they don’t think she will live because she is so weak. Mama responds by saying that, just like the tree that grows strong out of the grating with little exposure to the sun, “my children will be strong that way” (10.35).

This line, combined with the fact that Francie just really likes the tree a lot and pretends to live amongst its branches shows us that this tree and our main girl are connected.

Before a single character is described in this book, the tree is. The claim is that, “No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky” (1.4). Does this remind you of a character in the book? It totally makes us think of Francie. Despite being born into a legacy of poverty, doesn't Francie reach the sky anyway? You might go so far as to say that this description of the tree foreshadows Francie's entire trajectory in the novel.

The tree is also one of the very last things we see. Francie looks out the window and notices that, “A new tree had grown from the stump” of the tree that was cut down “and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow toward the sky again” (56.147). Again, this reminds us of Francie. Do you agree? 

We think that Francie is determined to grow not matter what, just like the tree.