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The central theme of the novel is the challenge of growing up, especially in a poor, lower class neighborhood. In spite of the poverty she must endure, Francie Nolan is determined to make the most of life, learning everything she can. She develops warm relationships with her family and her friends, all of whom help her to mature and understand the world.
Closely related to the major theme is an emphasis on the difficulty of living in poverty. The neighborhood where Francie grows up is a Brooklyn slum, known for its lack of cleanliness and safety. During the course of the novel, Francie must fight to get a good education and to escape the problems of the neighborhood, like child molestation. Francie, however, will let nothing stand in the way of her goals, especially not lack of funds. With her mother's help and encouragement, Francie becomes a good student and rises above the poverty.
The novel has a variety of moods, but the predominant one is cheerful. When the family is together they cheer one another up, even though they live a life of poverty and scarcity; Francie and Neeley usually wear a happy face. When Johnny dies, the mood becomes somber, and the family goes through a period of disillusionment. However, they come out of it and resume a life of normalcy. Sissy and Evy's humorous actions always lighten the mood.