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The entire novel has been divided into five parts, each dealing with a certain span of Francie's growth and maturity. The first section, including chapters 1 - 6, is set in the book's present and serves as an introduction. All of the key characters are introduced, and the poverty in which the Nolans live is fully described. In spite of the shabby surroundings and Johnny's weaknesses, the family is held together with a strong bond of love. The second section, including chapters 7 - 14, is a flashback to earlier times. The background of both Katie and Johnny are explored, and their courtship and marriage is presented. Also the births of Francie and Neeley are described. Section III, from chapter 15 - 42, is the longest section and is devoted to Francie's early days in Williamsburg. Her relationship to her family, her school experiences, and her interests are all fully explored. Johnny's death and its affects on the family are also presented.
Section IV, consisting of chapters 43 - 54, deals with the family's recuperation after Johnny's death. It includes a description of Francie's job, the interest of Sergeant McShane in the family, the birth of Laurie, Francie's first love affair, and the affects of the U.S. entering the war. Section V, including only chapters 55 and 56, is the shortest section that ties all the loose ends of the novel into a final outcome. Francie passes the entrance exam and is heading to college; Ben shows his interest in her and gives her a ring; Katie accepts McShane's proposal of marriage. As a result, the novel ends on a positive note, with all the characters heading to new and better lives.
The plot is also developed in a classical way. The first section is largely introductory, presenting the main characters, the setting, and the Themes. The rising action begins toward the end of the first section, when it becomes obvious that Johnny's drinking and the poverty that surrounds Francie, the protagonist, will cause her many problems in life. In the second and third sections, the author presents many challenges for Francie to face. When she starts school, she is teased by the other students and mistreated by the teachers because of her poverty. Because of her father's drinking, he is always out of work, and Francie is forced to do without and worry about how they will live. She also must constantly endure the favoritism that Katie shows to Neeley.
The climax occurs when Johnny dies. Now the family is more impoverished than ever, and Francie has lost her favorite parent, the one who paid her attention and made her feel important. The falling actions shows that life is harder than ever for Francie and her family. Katie is forced to take two jobs cleaning, and the children take jobs in McGarrity's saloon. Francie is not allowed to continue in high school, for Katie feels she must work full time. Even Francie's first love affair turns out badly. If it were not for Francie's strength and determination, the setbacks in life would surely overcome her. Instead, she meets her problems squarely and masters them one by one. In the end, she succeeds in rising above her poverty. She passes the entrance exam to college and is heading off to Michigan to become a full time student. Ben has shown his interest in her, by giving her a ring. Additionally, Katie is heading off to a new and better life with her new husband, Sergeant McShane. The book truly ends as a comedy for Francie and her family, who have managed to endure and overcome the poverty of their existence.