Coming of Age in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Coming of Age in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn presents the problems of a young girl coming of age, a time when she is faced with new challenges and must overcome obstacles. Throughout the book the protagonist, Francie Nolan discovers herself maturing as she struggles with loneliness, the loss of innocence and a life of poverty in a Brooklyn slum. This theme is evident in (1.) her love for books which she uses as companionship, (2.) her outlook on the world as she matures and finally, (3.) her realization that in order to succeed in life she must obtain an education and work hard to do it.
One of the biggest challenges Francie faces while growing up is loneliness. As a young child living in a Brooklyn slum, Francie has no friends her age. The other children either find her too quiet or shun her for being different because of her extensive vocabulary. Betty Smith describes how most of Francie's childhood days are spent: "in the warm summer days the lonesome child sat on her stoop and pretended disdain for the group of children playing on the sidewalk. Francie played with her imaginary companions and made believe they were better than real children. But all the while her heart beat in rhythm to the poignant sadness of the song the children sang while walking around in a ring with hands joined." (106). Francie is lonely, and longs to be included. As Francie matures, she begins to experience a different kind of loneliness. Betty Smith portrays her feelings as she observes her neighborhood: "spring came early that year and the sweet warm nights made her restless. She walked up and down the streets and through the park. And wherever she went, she saw a boy and a girl together, walking arm-in-arm, sitting on a park bench with their arms around each other, standing closely and in silence in a vestibule. Everyone in the world but Francie had a sweetheart or a friend she seemed to be the only lonely one in Brooklyn without a friend." (403). Loneliness is a constant challenge for Francie but it is through her loneliness that she finds a new companion in her books. Francie reads as an alternative for her lack of friends and companions. It is through her love of reading that Francie develops her extensive, sophisticated vocabulary. Her books lead her into maturity and help her learn to be independent and overcome her many hardships.

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As Francie matures she looses her innocence. She first starts noticing the difference in herself between her eleventh and twelfth birthday. Her perception of her world starts changing rapidly at this point in the novel. Francie notices things like: her days fly by, people are not the same and they once looked and they act differently as well. She notices that people are not as full of life as they once appeared. Francie has a tough realization at this age as she soon begins to discover that the future is not as far off as it once seemed. Francie's loss of innocence is destroying her longstanding sense of refuge that was in place in many aspects of her life, one is the theater, another is the childhood games she once played, and many of the things she formerly loved are now dismissed as irrational and frivolous. The final loss of her innocence however, comes with her first relationship with a man named Lee Rhynor. Francie and Lee know each other for a little over a month when they confess undying love for each other. Francie promises to wait for Lee while he is away fighting in the war: "And he asked for her whole life as simply as he'd ask for a date. And she promised away her whole life as simply as she'd offer a hand in greeting or farewell." (450). This is when Francie loses the last of her innocence. She finds out that Lee returned to his home town and marries another girl and that his love for her was nothing more than a sad joke. With this final loss of innocence Francie becomes a stronger and deeper woman. Francie has a new perception on the world. Most importantly, she understands that things as not always as they appear and not always what she hopes them to be. Her outlook on life becomes very real and a little harsh.
The Nolan’s do not have much money which makes it difficult for them to survive in Brooklyn. Francie’s family always needs to be resourceful. They play homemade games to make the time pass by faster, or the food go further. Francie’s parents hardly eat anything in order to ensure their children are fed. This lack of money is what formulates Francie’s realization that an education is the ticket to success. Francie works hard to achieve good grades and because of her focused effort she is able to move on to college, skipping several grades of high school. Even though Francie does not have a lot of financial support the lack of money actually makes her more successful. Her experience of poverty drives her to escape that kind of life.
In the final pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith talks about the landlord of Francie’s apartment who sends two men to chop down a tree because it was in the middle of a wash line. The workers do chop down that tree, but the tree does not die. A new one grows up from the stump. Where there are no wash lines the tree reaches for the sky. “This tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it”. (493) This tree, growing in Brooklyn symbolizes Francie and her struggles to survive in a harsh and desolate environment. Poverty, loneliness, and a complicated loss of innocence form the roots of who Francie becomes. Just like the tree, Francie continues to survive in spite of a harsh world. The novel ends at the point when Francie makes it to college and the reader knows that she is on a path to success. In the last line of the book the author writes “Goodbye Francie”. She has left behind years of pain and suffering yet this struggle is what ensures her survival. The reader is assured of her success.
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