Ben is the young man Francie meets on her first day at her summer college classes. He is practical and a careful planner, who also helps care for his mother. He helps Francie study for her classes. Ben plans to attend college and law school. He loves Francie and is willing to give her the time she needs to learn to love him.
Doctor and Nurse
The doctor and nurse have only a brief role; they administer the vaccinations that Francie and Neeley need to begin school. The doctor shows no compassion or understanding about what it means to live in poverty. Although the nurse grew up in the neighborhood, she has managed to escape the poverty of her childhood and seems to have forgotten its lessons.
Evy Rommely Flittman
Aunt Evy is Katie’s older sister. Like all of the sisters, Evy is a practical woman, willing to work hard for her family. She is married to Willie Flittman, who is a failure at everything he attempts. When Willie cannot work, Evy takes over his job. When Willie disappears one day, Evy again takes over Willie’s job and supports the family. Evy tells good stories: when she recountsWillie’s experiences with his horse, Drummer, she is able to imitate both Willie and the horse and bring the stories to life.
Uncle Willie is Evy’s husband. Willie believes he is a failure, since even his horse does not respect him. He never understands that his abuse of the horse is why the horse urinates him. Willie does not drink, but like Johnny, Willie is also a dreamer who wants to escape from his everyday life. After Willie becomes a one-man band, he disappears from his family and the novel.
Miss Garnder is Francie’s eighth grade English teacher. She believes that Francie’s writing should only be about pretty things. Miss Garnder gives Francie’s papers failing marks when they do not reflect her own ideas about what constitutes a proper topic for a paper.
John is Sissy’s third husband. His real name is Steve, although readers do not learn his name until near the end of the novel. Like all of Sissy’s husbands, Steve lets Sissy call him John. But at the end of the novel, he finally asserts himself and insists that his name is Steve. He also insists that Sissy marry him in a church, since he knows that this the only way she will consider their marriage real.
Lucia is a Sicilian girl who is unmarried and pregnant. Sissy helps Lucia and adopts her baby. There is a suggestion that Lucia had an affair with Sissy’s husband and that the baby Sissy adopts is actually his.
Mr. McGarrity owns the bar where Johnny drinks. McGarrity’s wife and children never talk to him, but Johnny knows how to have a real conversation, and McGarrity loves him for this. After Johnny dies, McGarrity helps Katie by giving after-school jobs to Francie and Neeley.
Sergeant Michael McShane
McShane is a retired policeman and a successful politician. He asks Katie to marry him after the proper mourning period to honor his first wife is ended. McShane is a good and kind man who married a young, unmarried, pregnant girl to save her and her family from shame. He was a faithful husband until his wife’s death. He is wealthy, and so readers know that Katie and her youngest child, Laurie, will not have to struggle to survive. He offers to pay for Francie and Neeley’s college educations.
Annie Laurie Nolan
Laurie is Francie’s new baby sister. Laurie is born five months after her father, Johnny, dies. Her birth creates even more problems for the family, since Katie has less time to work. She is named after a song Johnny used to sing. McShane promises to adopt Laurie and give her his last name after he and Katie marry.
Mary Frances Nolan is the central character. She was named Frances after the fiance´e of her father’s brother Andy, who is dead. Her personality is a combination of her father’s romantic nature and her mother’s pragmatism. Like her father, she dreams of the world beyond their neighborhood, but like her mother, Francie knows that if she wants her dreams to be real, she has to make them real through hard work. Francie is often alone and often very lonely, and so she escapes into reading. Francie has a rich imagination that is sometimes frightening to her, as when she imagines the loneliness of old age; however, her imagination also allows her to imagine a better life, as when she sees that attending a school outside her neighborhood will give her a better education. Although Francie grows up in terrible poverty, she never feels like she is poor. Francie is a storyteller who makes up stories to entertain herself. She loves her father deeply, even though she knows that his drinking is responsible for the family’s poverty. Francie understands that her mother loves Neeley more than she loves her daughter. Francie is a complex character who grows and matures throughout the novel. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Francie has inherited her mother’s strength.
Johnny is Francie’s father. Johnny is weak; he is unable to survive the poverty in which the family lives. He is a dreamer and a romantic who does not have either the ability or the incentive to make his dreams come true. When faced with the need to support his family, Johnny escapes into alcohol. Johnny loves his wife and his children, but he is unable to be the kind of husband and father they deserve. Johnny earns his living as a singing waiter, but the work is inconsistent. The tips he earns are used to buy alcohol, and performing provides the instant applause he desires. Johnny knows that Katie, his wife, can always be depended upon to support the family, so her reliability allows him to continue drinking. Johnny does understand that an education is the way for his children to escape from the family’s poverty. He also tries to provide Francie with extra love to make up for her mother’s lack of attention. Johnny is charming and handsome, but he has no depth of character. Johnny is a static character who neither grows nor changes during the novel.
Katie Rommely Nolan
Katie is Francie’s mother. Katie comes from a family of strong women.When she needs to accomplish something, Katie always finds the strength to succeed. She learns after Francie’s birth that her husband, Johnny, cannot be depended on to support the family. When her second child is born, Katie admits that she loves her son more than her daughter. He is a strong, healthy baby, but Francie was small and frail. Katie knows that Francie is a survivor who can manage without her mother’s help, but Neeley, who was born strong and did not have to struggle to survive, will need his mother’s help to overcome the hardships of life. Although she wants to treat the children equally, Katie cannot do so. Her love for Neeley is more intense than her love for Francie. Katie works hard to support her family, but no matter how poor they become, her pride will not allow her to accept any charity. Katie’s efforts to survive sometimes make her hard, but there is no doubt that she loves her family. She wants her children to have a better life and feels that education is the key to escaping poverty. Katie never questions her decisions and thinks that she is always right. When the family can only afford to send one child to high school, Katie chooses to send Neeley, reasoning that Francie is determined enough to continue her schooling no matter how hard she must struggle.
Cornelius ‘‘Neeley’’ Nolan is Francie’s brother. He is a year younger than his sister. The two children are close friends, as well as siblings, who share the poverty of their childhoods. As he grows up, Neeley begins to resemble his father physically and even has his father’s singing voice. However, Neeley is not like his father. He has inherited his mother’s work ethic and he dislikes alcohol. Neeley is obedient and loving, a good son and brother.
Ruthie is Johnny’s mother. She did not want Johnny to marry Katie and leave his mother’s home. At Johnny’s funeral, she never speaks to his widow or her grandchildren.
Lee is a young soldier who is about to leave for Europe when Francie is introduced to him by a friend at work. At first, Lee seems to be genuinely sweet and caring. He easily convinces Francie that he loves her, and she falls in love with him. Lee tries to convince Francie to spend the night with him, but she refuses. He returns to his hometown to see his mother, and two days later, he marries his fiance´e. The novel never makes it clear whether he was just lonely and caught up in the romanticism of going off to war or whether he deliberately tried to seduce Francie to take advantage of her youth and inexperience.
Mary Rommely is the mother of Katie, Sissy, Evy, and Eliza; she is Francie’s maternal grandmother. She and her husband immigrated to the United States from Austria. She insists that her four daughters learn to speak only English so that they will not understand their father’s abuse, since he speaks only German. Mary is a strong woman who believes that getting an education and owning a plot of land are the ways to escape poverty and succeed in their new land. Mary is very religious and tells Katie after Francie is born that she must teach her child about the supernatural, including ghosts and fairy tales. Mary also tells Katie that her children must read every day from the two most important books published, the Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare. Mary insists that Katie make a tin can bank and begin saving money to buy land.
Aunt Sissy is Katie’s oldest sister. Sissy is the only sister who did not attend school, and thus, she cannot read and write. Sissy is generous and loving and longs for motherhood. She gives birth to ten babies, all of whom die at birth. Sissy has been married three times; all her husbands are called John because that is a name she loves. After her first four children die, she leaves that husband, who she thinks is responsible for the babies’ deaths, and marries again. She repeats this pattern with her second husband. Sissy does not bother divorcing her husbands because she was not married to them in the church. Because she is a Catholic, she does not consider herself married to these men in God’s eyes. She also has many lovers, trying to fill the emptiness of her heart, which longs for a baby. Sissy uses her sexuality to attract men, and this causes her trouble, especially after she embarrasses Katie in front of the neighbors. Sissy also has a giving and compassionate heart, and this is seen as more important than her promiscuity. After she finally adopts the baby she longs to mother, Sissy becomes a loyal and loving wife. She is finally able to give birth to a baby who lives when she rebels against the tradition that only women can be present at a birth; the male doctor saves the baby’s life. In choosing the doctor rather than a midwife, Sissy breaks with tradition, just as she has all her life.
Rommely is Mary’s husband and Katie’s father. He is Francie’s maternal grandfather. He is a cruel and selfish man who never forgives Katie for marrying Johnny, since he thought that she should work and support her father.
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.