The most significant character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan. A lonely child, Francie avoids close companionship with her peers. Although she is a talented writer and an excellent student, Francie drops out of school at age fourteen to earn money for her family. She later picks up credits in summer school and eventually passes a college entrance exam; she gradually opens up and forms closer relationships with people her own age through her work and her studies.
Johnny Nolan, Francie’s father, dies at age 34 from alcoholism. A singing waiter by trade, Johnny has a dreamy sensibility that makes him a failure in the working world but a hero in the eyes of his children. Francie’s younger brother Neeley, her sidekick in early childhood, comes to bear a striking physical resemblance to their dead father as he nears manhood. Johnny’s romantic vision of Francie and Neeley allows them to imagine themselves as more than they are; his tragic example encourages them to achieve more than he ever could.
Francie’s mother, Katie, a cleaning woman, tries to better her family’s impoverished situation. She attempts to provide an education for her children with piano lessons and nightly readings of Shakespeare and the Bible, and even tries saving money to buy a home as her mother, Mary Rommely, advises her. Johnny’s death does not break Katie’s spirit, and five months after he dies she gives birth to a daughter, Laurie. At the end of the novel Katie plans to wed a wealthy, older policeman, Michael McShane. The marriage promises to yield both happiness for Katie and financial security for her family.
Smith’s book is populated by admirable female characters. Katie is depicted as the stronger partner in her marriage, and Francie as a better student than her brother. Katie’s two sisters, Sissy and Evy, both serve as role models of sorts for Francie. Aunt Sissy has more street smarts than either Katie or Johnny. She deals effectively with the police, teachers who bully Francie, and a succession of lovers and “husbands.” Aunt Evy, nowhere near as dramatic or amusing a figure as Sissy, is noteworthy in Francie’s mind for taking over her husband’s job successfully.
Several of Francie’s teachers and a librarian also affect her development. The visiting music teacher, Mr. Morton, brings music into the lives of Francie and his other students, dubbing Dvorak’s New World Symphony “Going Home,” and teaching, with enthusiasm and delight, serious music to students unaware of the difficulty of what they are learning. Miss Bernstone, an inspiring art teacher who thinks best with charcoal or chalk in her hands, is similarly liberating.
In contrast to these teachers stands Miss Gardner, who dismisses Francie’s writing as sordid, objecting to the absence of beauty in her descriptions of “poverty, starvation, and drunkenness.” Asked by Francie to define beauty, Miss Gardner responds with a quote from the poet John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” to which Francie replies, “those stories are the truth.” Miss Gardner refuses to submit to Francie’s reasoning, and Francie, in turn, refuses to turn in English assignments for the rest of the year. This conflict points up Smith’s own conviction that naturalistic writing can reveal the truth without necessarily being sordid; Francie is angriest when she looks up “sordid” and finds that the dictionary defines the word as meaning “filthy,” an adjective that hardly seems relevant to her description of her late father “wearing a fresh dickey and collar every day of his life and shining his worn shoes as often as twice a day.” Francie knows that although truth is not always beauty, no falsehood can create beauty where there is none, and that, more important, beauty is neither the only nor the best standard by which to judge the value of life.
Lee Rhynor and Ben Blake both contribute to Francie’s later growth and maturity. Lee cynically uses Francie, proposing marriage to her and then marrying another. He manipulates her, and although he ultimately does not get what he wants from Francie-a sexual commitment-he hurts her nonetheless. Francie’s relationship with Ben lacks the passion that characterizes her relationship with Lee. She admires his success and compassion, but Ben does not allow himself to translate his need for Francie into sexual desire; he will not allow either himself or Francie to recognize his love and thus stifles his passion by denying it.