Fiction refers to any story that is created out of the author’s imagination, rather than factual events. Sometimes the characters in a fictional piece are based on real people, but their ultimate form and the way they respond to events are solely the creation of the author. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the characters are fictional, but they are based on people or character types from Smith’s life. This inclusion of facts from the author’s own life is the defining element of autobiography, the biography of oneself. For instance, many of the details and locations in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn mirror Smith’s own life. Examples include Smith’s own love of reading and writing, which Francie also loves, and the jobs that Smith held after finishing elementary school, which are the same kinds of work that Francie does. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a work of autobiographical fiction because it is a fictional story that contains elements of autobiographical fact.
Characterization is the process by which the author creates a lifelike person from his or her imagination. To accomplish this, the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who the character will be and how he or she will behave in a given situation. Katie, for example, is a complex character whose inability to love both her children equally leaves Francie always hungry for love. Characters can range from simple, stereotypical figures to more complex, multifaceted ones, and they may also be stock characters defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Although Francie’s father, Johnny, is a stereotypical Irishman who drinks too much, in general, Smith portrays her characters with a great deal of depth. This may be because they are loosely based on people she has known in her own life.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be described as a coming-of-age story. Typically, in a coming-of-age novel, the protagonist endures great trials and difficulty, at the end of which he or she has matured and grown stronger. It is common for the character to suffer and undergo hardships that test his or her strength and will to succeed. The heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan, who undergoes many difficulties and endures many hardships in her attempt to survive the devastating poverty of her childhood. Francie grows from an innocent child into a confident young woman, who has learned that she is smart, tenacious, strong, and brave. Other coming-of-age novels include Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Symbolism is the use of a concrete object to represent an abstract concept. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Tree of Heaven symbolizes the family’s ability to survive the terrible poverty that threatens to destroy it. The tin can bank, in which the family members save extra pennies, represents the hope that they can somehow escape the poverty of their neighborhood and start a new life in a home they will own. Finally, the pearl studs that Katie gives to Johnny on their wedding day symbolize Katie’s love for Johnny, but they also symbolize her expectation that he will be deserving of such a financial sacrifice. When he dies, Johnny is buried with the pearl studs. The promise of a better life that the studs symbolized died with Johnny and was buried with him.
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.