This is Francie’s home and the detailed narrative of her childhood neighborhood reflects a love of place convincingly. Various shops are described with affection, as are the means for survival in this poor area.
Although great loyalty is expressed about this place, and affection is clear, the novel simultaneously criticizes the poverty inherent in the slum areas of this district. At times, one could argue that the thematic interest in Brooklyn, and Francie’s love for it, tend to overshadow the stark poverty that Francie’s family (and others of her class) clearly have to endure. Before she and Neeley are able to work and assist in contributing to the household, it is evident that they often suffered from hunger if not starvation.
As well as offering a social criticism of an unequal society, this is also a coming-of-age novel that traces Francie’s development into early adulthood. This Bildungsroman is centrally triumphant and sentimental in its spirit as by the end of the novel Francie moves away from her childhood home both literally and figuratively as she is preparing to study at the University of Michigan.
The strongest, most prevalent theme is the effects of poverty. Although the narrative is often interspersed with more light-hearted reflections, particularly when Sissy is referred to, there is a continuous return to the theme of existing with an ever-present hunger.
At the beginning of the novel, and immediately after alluding to the tree of the title, the novel tells of how Francie makes money as an 11 year old by collecting rubbish all week. This is written of as a matter of fact, but it is also a useful introduction to a life where every penny is valued.
This novel is careful to demonstrate that those who come from the lowest social class are human beings, and not sub-humans as a doctor is heard to tell a nurse in Chapter Eighteen. Through Francie, the lowest social groupings are given a voice.
Value of education
As well as advising Katie to save money in a home made bank, Mary Rommely insists on the value of education. She sees that reading and writing will armor a child to venture out into the world beyond Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Johnny is similarly desirous of his children to receive a good education and these influences are passed down to the children.
Because Francie’s family understands the importance of education, and the benefits of giving children aspirations, this theme is often drawn upon to explain Francie’s drive to escape the harsh living conditions of her childhood. The references to this theme also give the novel a strong social conscience as the novel presses for equality and fair treatment.