Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Themes

  • Perseverance

    “If at first you don’t succeed (we all know the ending here, right?) try, try again.” That could be the mantra of many characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Those with the most determination and perseverance are the biggest winners overall—the ones who reach their goals. Look at Mama; she works through so many obstacles to get her children educated and off to a better life. It’s the same for Francie, too—she is determined to meet her goals even when it seems like she just can’t catch a break. Maybe the author wants us to consider the role that perseverance plays in a person’s ability to get away from poverty.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Would you say that Grandma Rommely has perseverance even if she didn’t achieve her goal? Why or why not?
    2. Things definitely don’t go easily for Mama in achieving her goal for her children. How does she respond to the conflicts that get in her way?
    3. Does Mama set goals for herself? How does she handle her own personal stumbling blocks?
    4. Francie has a tough time reaching her goals, too. What are the things that set her back when she wants to get a good education? How does she overcome obstacles?
    5. How does Sissy show the importance of perseverance?

    Chew on This

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, perseverance is the key to getting out of poverty.

    Persevering though challenges makes people appreciate their achievements more than if things come easily.

  • Gender

    When she is little, Francie knows the girls who get pinched without saying anything will get an extra penny from the junk guy. She witnesses the disgrace that Sissy’s promiscuity causes the family, and she sees the nasty reaction women have to Joanna, the unwed mother. Francie is attacked by a sexual predator, and later she is groped on a crowded train on her way home from work. As we watch her grow up in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it becomes more and more apparent that being a woman comes with its own set of hurdles to jump.

    Questions About Gender

    1. There are several examples of physical violence against women that most characters blow off as no big deal. Can you name at least two? How do the women respond?
    2. What is the biggest lesson that Francie learns in the encounter with Joanna? What are Francie’s overall feelings about women after this encounter?
    3. Are there any women who break some gender expectations in this novel? Which characters do this and what are the results?

    Chew on This

    Women can be just as guilty as men when it comes to perpetuating gender inequalities.

    Because of biological differences between men and women, gender equality won’t ever been achieved.

  • Society and Class

    Being poor is the ever-present backdrop for the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie’s neighborhood school is overcrowded, and the teachers don’t even think the poor deserve an education. They live in buildings that are barely up to health codes, and the children get little parental supervision because the adults have to work so much to make ends meet. They are undernourished and constantly hungry, but the author doesn’t seem to think these are insurmountable hurdles. They are real and difficult problems, but the Nolans are able make it out of their poverty.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why do the poor kids collect scrap and go to the “junkie” every Saturday?
    2. What is unusual about Mr. Tomony? Why do you think Smith included him in the book?
    3. Who is crueler—the doctor for saying the awful things about Francie, or the nurse for not sticking up for her or comforting her?
    4. What is the hardest thing about being poor for Francie? How does she overcome it?

    Chew on This

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, once someone is out of poverty, they usually lose all compassion for the poor.

    If everyone had the same amount of education, there would be no poor people.

  • Education

    How the heck does Francie do it? She starts A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of so many poor kids who have little hope for ever leaving Williamsburg, yet ends the novel as a young lady about to head off to college. This must be in large part due to how important education is in the Nolan household. From early on, “education is the only way out” is a quiet and constant refrain in Francie's home. This alone wouldn’t have been enough, though, if it only came from the people around Francie; it has to come from within her, too, and that it does. She goes above and beyond the minimum requirements in school, reads at least one book a day, and stays the course to get herself into college no matter how many obstacles leap into her path.

    Questions About Education

    1. What did Francie expect to learn on the first day of school? What does she learn instead?
    2. Sometimes some important lessons are learned outside of the classroom. What are the most important lessons Francie learns outside of school?
    3. Besides Mama and Francie, who else values education in this novel?
    4. Why does Mama choose to send Neeley to high school and make Francie wait a year to start?
    5. How does Francie get into college without ever going to high school?

    Chew on This

    Many believe that if you have enough money, you don’t really need an education.

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Education is the way to move up in the world.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    What gets the Nolans out of poverty at the end of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? What gets Francie into college? While it's partly due to having big dreams, hopes, and plans (you can't really achieve something that you can't even conceive of), they don't exactly sit back on the couch daydreaming about what they want while eating Doritos. Sure, they dream and plan—but then they work, work, and work some more until they get what they want. Sometimes they don’t achieve their dreams exactly how they expected, but they do get there. The dreams, hopes, and plans keep their minds from getting trapped in the crummy present, keeping them afloat by imagining a world that is better than their current one. It gives them something to work toward.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Besides reading and saving for land, what else is part of Mary Rommely’s plan? List at least two other things and explain whether or not you think they are important to creating a good life for the children.
    2. Sissy is a character who dreams big despite suffering failure after failure. What is her dream? What steps does she take to achieve it? What works and doesn't work?
    3. Francie’s goal to attend high school has to be modified. Is this a blessing in disguise?
    4. Why don’t Papa’s dreams come true?

    Chew on This

    Dreams, hopes, and plans are essential in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They motivate the Nolans to do great things with their lives.

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, dreaming big dreams is not enough. Work ethic is much more important.

  • Family

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Nolan family is not your picture perfect, made for TV family—well, unless the TV show is more like a reality show, Meet the Nolans or something like that. They’ve got enough drama, for sure. Papa's the one with the heart of gold, but you can’t count on him for anything. He lives his life in the bottle and it totally trapped in there. When he manages to escape for a while, he does his best to be a good dad, but it is never for too long. Mama does her best to love him through the worst like she vowed to do, but she works too hard and as a result becomes pretty hardened. On top of this, we’ve got an interesting cast of extended family around them. There is scandalous yet kind Sissy who comes in and out of favor with the family, Evy and her odd husband, saintly Mary and evil Thomas Rommely… the list goes on. Beneath it all though, they love each other very much and count on each other to make an often challenging life much more bearable.

    Questions About Family

    1. What happens to all of Johnny’s brothers? Why?
    2. Who brings news back and forth from different family members even when they are not all talking?
    3. What does Sissy want more than anything? How does she accomplish her goal? What do you think of the way she does this?
    4. Why does Mama have Francie wait a year to start school?

    Chew on This

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, family members accept the bad along with the good in each member of the family.

    Sometimes it is essential to sacrifice the wants of an individual in favor of the needs of a family.

  • Coming of Age

    Francie starts A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an eleven year old girl, and then through a flashback, we go even farther back in her life than that. Actually, we go all the way back to when her parents first meet. When the book ends, she is a young woman preparing to go study at the University of Michigan. So, not surprisingly, a whole lot changes for Francie during this coming of age story. She not only transitions from child to adult, but also out of poverty and into a new class, plus her immediate family looks a lot different at the end than it did at the beginning, too.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. In what ways is Francie like her Father? Why?
    2. In what ways is Francie like her Mother? Why?
    3. What are two things that Francie values most in her life? How do you know?
    4. When does Francie realize that she should be a writer?

    Chew on This

    At one point, Francie wonders if growing up is just disappointment after disappointment. She is right.

    Growing up is painful at time, but ultimately it leads everyone in the book toward happiness.

  • Visions of America

    There are so many cool details about life in the early 1900s that you learn about when you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Shmoop thinks learning history when you aren’t even trying to is a totally excellent way to learn, too. The details about how the Nolans shopped around for the best price on a soup bone and waited in line for hours for the chance to buy stale bread for the week help us imagine what it was like in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1900s. The living conditions in the tenements are eye opening. Can you imagine sharing one bathroom with several other families? We get to learn what it felt like to experience progress, early twentieth century style. It is pretty darn magical moment when medical progress allows Sissy’s eleventh child a chance to live. The scenes of day-to-day life in the stores, the games they play for fun, the street musicians, and so many other little details help us really feel like we are there walking the neighborhood with our pal, Francie. We get a really vivid picture of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during the early 1900s—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. What do we learn about the time period when Francie (who is older) just hands her money over to her brother for him to divide up?
    2. What are some things we learn about life in Brooklyn in the early 1900s by the way some minorities are treated? Consider the characters’s interactions and discussions with or about Jewish people and the Asian man at the Laundromat.
    3. Consider the type of transportation that the characters use. What would the streets sound like back then? Would it be much different than today?
    4. What does Francie’s mother think of the girls who are bobbing their hair? Why is this a big deal to her?

    Chew on This

    More than anything else, this is a story about a specific place and time. The story about Francie is secondary.

    The setting is so present in this novel that you could possibly consider it to be a character in the novel.