What The Tree Symbolizes In A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Research Paper

Length: 6 pages Sources: 4 Subject: Plays Type: Research Paper Paper: #24718269 Related Topics: Musical Theatre, Bleak House, Perseverance, Jazz
Excerpt from Research Paper :

Realism and Sentimentality: The Double Nature and the Symbol in Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty's Smith 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be read as a war-time novel situated in a landscape of nostalgia and longing. In this sense, it is often viewed as a sentimental work that appeals more strongly to the emotions and the heart than it does to the head or to the intellect, in a way that a more grotesque work, such as something by Flannery O'Connor of the same era, for instance, might do. Smith's novel, though realistic in many ways, is not a novel of realism or a novel of the bildungsroman genre: it is, rather, a sentimental ode to a way of life and the tenacious ways by which those who persevere can claim some sort of satisfaction at the end of a life well-traveled. The book contains moments of humor, sadness, melancholy and heartache -- but overall it sounds its theme in the Tree of Heaven that Francie Nolan uses to symbolize the Nolan spirit in particular and how the family as a whole keeps coming back to life in spite of all adversities, even after being seemingly pushed to the ropes, knocked down, and left for ruin by one another. This paper will show how the Tree of Heaven symbolizes not only the perseverance of the individual Nolans but also the sentimentality of the 1940s urban America -- a time and place caught up in the romanticism of the Good War yet at the same time feeling the sting of the reality of deprivation, and looking towards the hope of reward in success, love, education, and all around fulfillment -- such as only Heaven could afford.

As Kathleen Therrien notes, Smith "tightly interlaces sentimental, brutal, humorous, and emotionally wrenching scenes in a complex, richly textured narrative," in which the characters' lives trace various tales of poverty "wthout allowing any of them to emerge as the final, definitive or 'official' story" (93). Therrien's point is that the characters are and are not defined by their lives, the choices they make, and the consequences of their actions. There is a lyrical strain within the work that acts as a kind of merciful balm so that one is at once guilty and forgiven. For example, Francie's father Johnny Nolan is a loving first-generation American who has talent, creativity and ability (he is a singing waiter) -- but he suffers from an incurable depression and tendency to drink that manifests itself whenever Katie becomes pregnant again. In other words, a time that should be happy (the celebration of new life) is on the contrary a sad time for him -- and his inability to be happy about it causes him to ultimately lose his own life through alcoholism.

Yet, the spirit of Johnny and his good qualities live on in Neeley, Francie's brother, who demonstrates a talent for jazz. Francie's own ability to contextualize her brother in this manner signifies that she remains fond of her father, for whom she had a natural affinity. Thus, a character who in other circumstances might have been written off as a failure and a source of painful memories becomes in Smith's complex narrative a source of both sorrow and joy -- which in itself underlines the basic theme of the novel -- the double nature of things (for instance, the Tree of Heaven is considered both a menace that will not go away and a symbol of the indomitable spirit of the Nolans, unvanquished to the end). Thus, Neeley, who is Katie's favorite, and who receives special attention from her (he should go to school rather than Francie, says Katie, because he needs the structure whereas Francie can learn on her own) is sentimentalized by Smith towards the end of the novel, representing the spirit of the dead father Johnny in the endurance of the


(Indeed, the first "talkie" ever shown in cinemas had "Jazz" in the title, giving this characteristic of Neeley even more potency in popular America). Even at the end of the novel, the family cannot forget Johnny and do things in his remembrance, layering the narrative in the sweet, sentimental gloss that is so contrasting with its realistic moments, highlighting the double-nature of the narrative: the union label in clothing is one way they remember Johnny: "The Nolans sought for the union label on everything they bought. It was their memorial to Johnny" (824). It is an appeal to the reader's emotions, drawing him into the sentimental strain that Smith imposes on the novel from the beginning with the words, "Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan's house, and warmed the worn wooden fence" (3). Just the sheer alliteration of "warmed the worn wooden fence" makes one feel woozy with the sentiment that Smith piles on to her memory of Brooklyn in her youth.

Just like the Tree of Heaven, which Smith describes as "no matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky" (6), Francie and Neeley and Katie (and even Johnny in his own way) act like the tree -- reaching out and up towards the better life that lies just out of reach, yet never giving up (even in death -- as Johnny's soul seems to have merged with Neeley's and come out in the music). Thus, the sentimentality that is expressed in the opening and very much in the ending, is here within the symbol of the tree (as well as in the symbol of Francie's younger self represented by Florrie at the end). The tree that everyone loathes yet still has some special character, some special significance, that Francie will identify at the end of the novel: it is like the Nolans themselves.

Nonetheless, as Jennings Bryant notes, despite the sentimental nature of the novel, its realism is not lacking. The frankness with which sexuality is discussed and confronted in the novel made it somewhat "controversial" in its day (ix). The manner in which Johnny recoils from news of his wife's pregnancies strips scenes of any romantic nuance or happily-ever-after sense and focuses on the wallowing and self-pitying of a figure who should be better than that. Thus, the novel does evoke a bleak period in American immigrant life -- when the thought of new life was almost too oppressive to bear for some -- because the old life was already hard enough. Through this lens, Smith describes an America known by many in the pre-War days, before Roosevelt's easy credit turned the impoverished veterans into the middle class that exists today.

Still, the realism does not take away from the escapist fare that the novel also serves up to the reading public. On the contrary, the main heroine, Francie Nolan, is a voracious reader and represents the escapist sentiment in America at this time: the desire to be free from the oppressive, all-too-realistic real world with its cruelties and sorrows, which Francie manifests in her constant reading of books. Therefore, just as the Tree of Heaven symbolizes the persevering spirit of the Nolans, Francie the reader symbolizes the escape artist in Americana -- the child of wonder -- the dreamer. Her art is displayed in the way she loves the library: "Francie thought all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world" (33). It is through these books that she plans to escape the world, as though each was a rabbit hole that she could enter into and disappear.

And yet Francie cannot escape the world through "all the books in the world." She must deal with each blow that comes her way -- the death of her father, the preference of her mother for her brother, the heartache of not getting into school and of being misled by a boy. These moments are real and are there is no way to sugarcoat them or to filter them through the sentimental gauze that Smith drapes here and there over the novel. They are the parts that give the story depth of character and feeling, while the sentimental strain provides the pathos. In this way, the novel proceeds with essentially two narrative forms working side by side -- the penchant for realism and the penchant for sentimentality. But this double-penchant is typical of the 1940s in America -- a time when life was very real (the U.S. was at war with Hitler and the Japanese) and yet very sentimental (everyone yearned for that special something just beyond reach -- the innocence of the pre-Industrialized days, perhaps; of the Old World).

In this double-strained narrative and country, Francie grows -- and yet at the same time she keeps that child alive inside her. Francie herself meets her double at the end of the novel when she…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Bryant, Jennings. "Foreward." Sex in Consumer Culture: The Erotic Content of Media

and Marketing. NY: Routledge, 2006.

Gelfant, Blanche. "Sister to Faust: The City's 'Hungry Woman' as Heroine." NOVEL:

A Forum on Fiction, vol. 15, no. 1 (Autumn, 1981): 23-38.

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