Roselyn McNulty

Roselyn McNulty

Ripon College

English & Spanish


2004

Mentor: Dr. Robin Hackett, Department of English

The Fiction of Betty Smith: The Working Class's Achievement of the American Dream

Often drawing from her own personal experiences, 20th century American author Betty Smith writes about working class women from immigrant families who achieve the American Dream through a combination of internal and external forces. External forces may include marriage, chance or luck, and the benevolence of others, while internal forces would include character traits like strong curiosity and motivation, the internalization of family values, love of the written word, and relentless optimism. All of these factors contribute in some degree to the success or failure of a particular character. Smith’s most well known novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is a prime example of the means by which her characters overcome the barriers created by poverty to obtain an education and realize the American Dream.

I will analyze Smith's four novels, all published between 1943 and 1963, as one representation of attitudes and social commentary produced in this era. Issues to be explored include the manifestation of Smith's biographical information in the novels, Smith’s perception of the American Dream, whether or not the novels are historically accurate representations of social stratification, and the ability or inability of people to escape from the poverty-stricken working class.

Although Smith has made significant contributions to the landscape of American literature, she has traditionally been dismissed from the canon as an overly sentimental juvenile writer. However, her works reflect important, realistic conditions of society during this period in American history. To this end, I will use a variety of literary criticism approaches, including, but not limited to, cultural, feminist and Marxist/materialist criticisms, which will allow me to further understand how a female member of an immigrant family in the working class could have possibly broken through so many barriers and achieved the American Dream.

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