Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Society and Class

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Society and Class

The stable was finer than any house in the neighborhood and the yard was the prettiest in Williamsburg. (2.27)

Things must be pretty bad when the best house around belongs to animals.

Mr. Tomony who owned the pawn shop came home in a hansom cab from his spendthrift evening in New York […] Some day she would go across Williamsburg Bridge […] and find her way uptown in New York to where these fine places were and take a good look at the outside (6.56-58).

Mr. Tomony, oddball or not, exposes Francie to a different lifestyle. Not everyone is poor, so maybe she doesn’t have to be, either.

She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. “You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.” (10.37)

Katie believes there are no real differences among the classes. Scrub up a dirty kid, and bam—you’d never know she was poor.

“Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm, nurse.” (16.16)

Ok, doc, let’s take a little look at where you went wrong here. First of all, poor kids aren’t dirty because their parents are too lazy to wash them; they are too busy working several jobs, so they don’t always have time to keep kids from making mud pies. Secondly, don't say all this right in front of your patient. We assume that you only did so because you assume that poor = stupid, but we're here to let you know that Francie is one of the smartest kids in all five boroughs. In short, we don't like you or your classist attitude.

A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen from his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. (16.22)

People forget what it is like to be poor. Those who leave poverty are often quick to lose any kind of compassion or empathy for those who still struggle, which is too bad because these are people who are in a great position to help.

When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of hurt stated by the doctor’s words were racking her body and drove out all other feeling. (16.23)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. What kind of schmoop is that, huh? Fact is, words hurt, and they hurt even more coming from someone who is in a position of authority.

She had been in school but half a day when she knew that she would never be a teacher’s pet. That privilege was reserved for a small group of girls [. . .] They were the children of the prosperous storekeepers of the neighborhood [. . .] Miss Brigg’s voice was gentle when she spoke to these fortune-favored few, and snarling when she spoke to the great crowd of the unwashed. (19.3)

School, like life, can be an unfair place. Francie isn’t going to have an easy time getting what she wants here either because of her poverty.

“They think it’s good—the tree they got for nothing and their father playing up to them and the singing and the way the neighbors are happy. They think they’re mighty lucky that they’re living and that it’s Christmas again. They can’t see that we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren’t much good. (27.35)

More than anything, Mama wants her kids out of this place. She is afraid that they will settle for this life because the people around them have settled for it.

[Miss Jackson] can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean and like an actress in a play; someone you can look at who is too fine to touch. There is that difference between her and Mrs. McGarrity who has so much money but is too fat and acts in a dirty way with the truck drivers who deliver her husband’s beer. So what is this difference between her and this Miss Jackson who has no money? [. . .] Education! That was it! It was what made the difference. Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt. (27.35-36)

Do you think that if everyone has the same amount of education, there will no longer be any poverty?

He missed Johnny. That was it. And it wasn’t the money, either, because Johnny always owed him. He had liked having Johnny around because he gave class to the place. (38.50)

This is a bit ironic, isn’t it? Mr. McGarrity is a rich guy and Johnny is a poor guy, and yet the poor guy is the one who brings the class to McGarrity’s bar. It is usually assumed that only rich people have class, so this is pretty ironic—and might show how the author believes that class stereotypes are often wrong.

“The difference between rich and poor,” said Francie, “is that the poor do everything with their hands and the rich hire hands to do things. We’re not poor any more. We can pay to have some things done for us."

“I want to stay poor, then,” said Katie “because I like to use my hands.” (45.88-89)

Different classes sometimes value different things. What else do you think Mama might have a hard time with now that she is a wealthier woman?

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