The American dream was an important motivating factor in the immigrant experience. Immigrants left their homes, families, friends— indeed all that was familiar and comfortable about their old lives—to move to the United States in search of a better life. Both Johnny and Katie Nolan are the children of immigrants, and like most first-generation Americans, they hope they will be more successful than their parents. They also hope that their children will be able to achieve even more of the American dream. The desire for each generation to achieve more than the previous is an essential feature of the quest to possess a share of the American dream. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie is able to fulfill the family’s goal of achieving the American dream, a goal that eluded her father. Unlike Johnny, who was a dreamer, Francie possesses the determination, the strength, and especially the imagination necessary to escape the poverty of her childhood.
In chapter 25, when Johnny takes Francie to Bushwick Avenue and shows her the mansions and the opportunities for wealth that await all immigrants, he implants in his daughter the knowledge and desire to achieve a similar level of success. Johnny suggests to Francie that in a democracy like America, anything is possible. Whether success means living in mansions or riding in fancy carriages, Francie glimpses all that is possible for the children of immigrants and imagines that she can accomplish a similar result. Francie is ten years old on that day on Bushwick Avenue, but the seeds of the American dream were actually planted much earlier. Mary Rommely’s comments to Katie when Francie is born illustrate her hope that her children and grandchildren will someday achieve the American dream. Mary tells Katie that she must read a page every day from the works of Shakespeare and a page from the Bible to her children. For Mary, these are the two great books that educated people read. Mary points out that in Shakespeare ‘‘all that a man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages.’’ Mary also tells Katie that she must immediately create a tin can bank and begin saving to buy land. Mary sees education and owning land as the surest ways of achieving the American dream. Although Katie challenges her mother, reminding her that her own children, including Katie, are poor and they will always be poor, Mary responds with a reminder that in the old country they had nothing. They were poor, and they were peasants and they starved, and while they are also poor in America, according to Mary, the reason they are now in America is that they are free, and their children are born in a free land.
In a sense, Francie is destined to succeed from her birth. She was born with a caul, a thin membrane that covers the face of some newborns. Folk tradition suggests that a baby born with a caul will have good luck, but Katie and Mary will not leave that good luck to chance. When Francie is born, Mary tells Katie that she needs to nurture Francie’s imagination to help her create a secret world in which she can escape from the real world. Mary says that it is important for Francie to have a world that is not real, so that ‘‘when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.’’ As it turns out, Mary is right about imagination being a way for Francie to escape from poverty. It is imagination that will help Francie to escape the limitations of their Williamsburg neighborhood. One example of how imagination allows Francie to improve her life is in her determination to attend a school with more opportunities than the one in her neighborhood. Before she enters school for the first time, Francie imagines how wonderful school will be once she is old enough to attend. The reality is disappointing. Her neighborhood school is overcrowded, and the teachers are cruel to the children of immigrants. The school symbolizes a larger problem for the immigrant community. The flood of immigrants into some areas of New York City has put a strain on all public and social services. Children attend neighborhood schools, but when tenements and apartment buildings are crowded with families and many children, neighborhood schools become crowded, as well. The school that Francie initially attends has three times as many students as it was designed to hold. Two or three students share each desk. The classrooms are crowded and the teachers impatient and overworked. There are few bathrooms, and the poverty and cruelty in the children’s lives create bullies, who limit the number of children who can use the bathrooms. It is a small thing, the inability to use a bathroom, but it creates accidents that lead to shame. Most children will stay and endure, but Francie finds another, much nicer school, one with grass, not concrete, and without fences encircling it. Francie imagines that she can attend the new school, and she imagines a way to make attending the new school possible. Her imagination allows her to see herself in a better world and as a result, she works to create that better world for herself.
It is common for the children of immigrants to fare better than their parents in many ways. Francie’s ability to advocate for her own education and for a better school suggests that she will grow up with advantages that her parents did not have. The parents whose children attend Francie’s new school have lived in the United States for many generations. They know their rights and their children’s rights, and more importantly, teachers know that these parents will not tolerate abuse. Unlike Katie and Johnny Nolan, the parents at Francie’s new school know enough to demand a better education for their children. The new school is not overcrowded. Francie has her own desk, and the new teachers, who are not forced to deal with too many students and poor facilities, are more generous with their time. In the old school, Francie was the only child in her class who could claim to be, in a sense, an American, since she was the only child whose parents were born in America. In the new school, all the children are Americans.
An important means for Francie’s escape from her family’s crushing poverty is education, but education does not come easily to immigrant children. Before children can begin school in Williamsburg, they must be vaccinated against smallpox. The vaccination rule creates a problem for immigrant families, who are told that education is free and a requirement for all children. However, they are also told that their children must be vaccinated. If they are not, children cannot enroll in school, and if they do not enroll in school, the parents are breaking the law. Many parents are frightened by the idea of exposing their healthy children to an injection that might make them sick. Katie is so frightened by the vaccinations that she will not take the children to be vaccinated. She makes Francie take Neeley. To assuage Neeley’s fear, Francie engages him in a game of mud pies, which means that when they arrive for their vaccinations, they are dirty. To the Harvard-educated doctor, forced to perform community medicine in a neighborhood of poor immigrant families, the Nolan children are an example of the filthiness of those who are poor. When he sees Francie, with her dirty arm, he exclaims, ‘‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap.’’ The doctor uses the word ‘‘they’’ to mean the poor, the immigrants, those who live in the slum areas of Williamsburg. The doctor’s cruelty when Francie goes for her vaccination is one more example of how easy it is for those who have forgotten their own immigrant roots to mistreat the poor. The doctor, who has achieved the American dream, no longer recalls that at some point, his family were immigrants. The story of Francie and Neeley’s vaccinations and the fear that vaccination evokes in the immigrant community is a reminder that everything that immigrants encounter once they arrive in the United States is new to them and often quite frightening. Most immigrants came from rural areas and small villages, with poverty, little medicine, and high infant and child mortality rates, and where their children’s good health was not taken for granted. Now they are being asked to surrender their healthy children for a vaccination that they think will reproduce the conditions that they have fled across the ocean to escape. To the new immigrant, vaccinations are just one more hurdle in reaching the American dream, but it is a hurdle that Francie can surmount, even though she is only seven years old.
Imagination allows Francie to envision a world beyond the Williamsburg tenements where she lives. She can imagine years filled with joy and the promise of a better life, rather than the exhaustion of spending each moment just trying to survive. The first step toward fulfilling the promise of the American dream is best illustrated near the end of the novel, when Francie and Neeley meet at the bank to have the first money they have earned converted into new dollar bills, which they can present to their mother. The act of taking money home to give to their mother symbolizes the expectation inherent in the American dream that children will have a better life than their parents. Johnny Nolan’s failures nearly prevent his family from achieving the American dream. Katie will achieve only the dream for herself and for her youngest child, Laurie, by marrying McShane, who has already achieved the dream through his hard work as a policeman and as a politician and who, in paying for Francie and Neeley to attend college, opens the way for Katie’s older children to achieve the American dream. In contrast, the American dream is never achieved by Francie’s father, Johnny. Johnny has talent and might have succeeded, but very early in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, readers learn that his love of drinking limits his future. Although Johnny is able to join the Waiters’ Union and become an active member of the Democratic party—both signs that he has the ability to achieve the American dream—he never moves beyond his own personal fears. Achieving the American dream takes hard work, but Johnny is a dreamer, who imagines a better life but lacks the incentive and hard work to make the dream come true. The lesson he does teach Francie, though, is that there is a role for dreaming in her life; her imagination and the ability to imagine her own success help her fulfill her dreams. Francie Nolan succeeds because while she may have her father’s ability to dream of a better life, she also has the immigrant desire to work hard and create a better life. Francie embodies the American dream, which makes Smith’s autobiographical novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the perfect venue to learn about the immigration experience and how hard some people struggled to make the American dream their own.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Betty Smith, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.