Literary Qualities

Smith uses a third-person omniscient narrator to relate her story. Thus, although Francie is the book’s central character, Smith develops other characters, even the minor ones, by means of occasional internal monologues. When, for example, ten-year-old Francie and nine-year-old Neeley venture forth to win a Christmas tree-a process that involves “catching” unsold trees that are flung at them; children who fall down forfeit their right to the trees-Smith reveals the thoughts of the “tree man”: “Oh…why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go?” After deciding reluctantly that he cannot grant the Nolan children any special favors, he throws a huge tree at them, and when they hold their ground he yells “now get the hell out of here with your tree…” At this point Smith shifts to Francie’s perspective and has her realize that “he was really saying, ‘Goodbye-God bless you.'” Smith’s choice of narrative technique allows her to express an adult’s perspective on events at times and a child’s at others, yielding a rounded portrait of life in the Nolans’ Brooklyn neighborhood.

The American novelists Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe were among Betty Smith’s favorite writers. The relationship of her work to that of Thomas Wolfe is strong. For both writers, reminiscence seems to elicit an elation that idealizes in the present what was mundane in the past, and both make use of loose narrative structures and heavily autobiographical source material. Smith’s symbol of the tree dominates her novel in the same manner that Wolfe’s Blue Ridge Mountains dominate his landscape in books such as Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. But whereas Wolfe’s mountains enclose lives and trap characters, Smith’s tree represents growth and hope. Smith’s work also resembles that of Dreiser in that it attempts to portray the plight of the working poor in early 20th-century urban environments. But whereas in Dreiser’s work-such as his best-known novel, Sister Carrie-protagonists are often caught in a naturalistic trap of character and environment, the characters in Smith’s fiction often succeed in breaking free of the bonds of poverty.

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