Study Guide

Johnny Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Betty Smith

Johnny Nolan

Meet Johnny, but be careful or you just might develop a little crush on him. What’s not to like? He’s easy to talk to and super charming, in addition to being easy on the eyes and knowing how to dress. Oh—and he'll totally serenade you too, and afterward he'll probably tell you some interesting stories about local politics of something like that. Simply put, Johnny's really fun and will make you feel pretty great about yourself.

Francie, who completely gets that Johnny is not that great of a father, loves him anyway and even prefers him to her hard-working mother. Eventually Francie realizes that she prefers Papa because he loves her in a way that her mother does not. Johnny's got a good heart.

He wants the best for his children but doesn't always nail the execution. For instance, when Francie is attacked, he wants to help her get over the disgust she feels. His solution, though, is to chemically burn her leg. Yikes. And while it does help Francie feel a bit better, it leaves a scar, too. Johnny also wants the best for other people’s kids, which he shows when he takes a little neighborhood girl, Tilly, fishing with them because he feels bad for her.

The problem is that Johnny’s charm and good intentions are not enough.

Have you ever met one of those people who is always dreaming big, lavish, awesome dreams but does nothing toward actually achieving those dreams? That’s Johnny.

He listens to the lyrics of the songs he sings about a perfect world, and doesn’t understand why it can’t be this way for him. He just expects things to work out even though he puts no real thought into them, and when they inevitably fall apart, he feels betrayed, cheated, and defeated.

His drinking doesn't help much, either.

In fact, Johnny’s alcoholism destroys him. He is completely trapped inside a bottle, and even though he sometimes (painfully) gets every once in a while, he falls right back to his alcoholic ways quickly. A good chunk of his income goes to drinking, even though his family is literally starving.

The irony is that he spends a lot of his time at the bar talking about his wonderful family instead of actually being with them. And in an even greater irony, after Johnny’s death caused by his alcoholism, his alcoholism is kind of what helps the family when McGarrity, the saloon owner, misses Johnny and his stories and hires his kids in hopes that they will take their dad's place.

Johnny’s character doesn’t change much from the time we meet him until the time he dies. He is consistently a charming, good-intentioned, idealistic, unrealistic alcoholic who you can’t help but love. And become totally annoyed with. And then love again.

It seems like most people don’t get too mad at him ever. They think that’s just Johnny being Johnny, and while he's far from perfect, he is who he is. As Sissy says to Katie once, “‘all of us are what we have to be and everyone lives the kind of life it’s in him to live’” (11.30).

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