The Tin-Can Bank
This bank is a home-made saving system formed, as the name suggests, from an old tin can. Mary advises her daughter Katie to make one of these when Francie is born. The savings that accrue may be used to buy a plot of land, which Mary sees as a means of escaping their dire poverty.
This bank is functional, then, but it also symbolizes both the desperate level of poverty Francie is born into and her mother’s will to escape it. It represents how they are ostracized from the wealthier classes of society, and their strength to overcome extreme poverty. Sadly, the only plot of land Katie is able to buy with the savings is a burial plot for Johnny, which reiterates the extent to which the poor are restricted in their opportunities in a capitalist, ‘free’ society. Despite Katie’s ceaseless hard work, pride and desire to save for the future, she is only recompensed with a hole in the ground for Johnny’s casket.
The tree of the title is explicitly referred to at the beginning and end of the novel and, therefore, frames the narrative. It is also mentioned intermittently through the course of the novel as an indication of hope. This tree that grows in Brooklyn, ‘grew lushly, but only in tenement districts’. Because it continues to flourish in a harsh environment, it represents hope and possibilities in a life that could be ground down by the hardship of poverty. This is emphasized at the end of the novel when Francie notes that the tree she loved as an 11 year old has since been chopped down, but a new one is growing from the old stump.
Further to this, because the tree is adapting to its surroundings to avoid the fate of the previous one, it may also be interpreted as a direct figurative representation of Francie. She too has adapted in order to thrive; however, she has to move away to college in order to achieve her full potential
Shakespeare and the Bible
When Katie asks her mother, Mary, for advice about rising from the poverty they have been born into, she is told to save money in her tin-can bank and read Shakespeare and the Bible to the children every night until they are old enough to read it for themselves.
Shakespeare’s works and the Bible are, for Mary, the symbols of education and she believes they will show the next generation that there is a world beyond Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These texts represent a superior alternative to a life of blinding poverty as they help to develop a child’s aspirations.
It is constantly emphasized throughout the text that education is absolutely vital for a child to escape his or her harsh, starvation-level upbringing.