Analysis

Sissy's scheme to have a baby is yet another instance of women gaining power by playing tricks on men. There are a number of times that Sissy employs a few tricks with men; similarly Evy's jokes about Drummer are always poking fun at Uncle Flittman. The comical story of how Sissy gets a baby is juxtaposed with the tragedy of Katie's pregnancy, which the reader finally learns of at the end of Chapter 36. Sissy's adoption causes Johnny to wonder whether he too has been duped. Katie then whispers news of her pregnancy in his ear. The trick on Sissy's husband is meant as comic relief for the book; Katie's pregnancy is life's tragic trick on Johnny, and the stress over supporting another child is one cause for his last downward spiral.

Johnny's death is foreshadowed throughout the book. In the beginning of the book, the narrator says that all the Nolan men die before they are 35. Francie is now fourteen, which means that Johnny is 34. Many other details in the plot have prepared for this moment as well. Katie has thought many times that Johnny will not be with them for long. Francie's diary entries in Chapter 32 not only record a high frequency of sick days, but also detail Johnny's decline in health. In Chapter 35, Johnny is never drunk, but acts strangely all the time. His final desperation when he is let go from the Union signals an imminent death.

Some critics suggest that the book's characters are caricatures—types of people rather than real people. However, Chapter 36 shows Katie less as a character type, and more as a real person. She responds initially to the death the way the reader would expect, telling her children not to cry. She does not cry at the funeral. Then, all of a sudden she breaks down at the kitchen table, in front of her sisters and her children. This emotional catharsis is unlike Katie, but shows that her behavior sometimes strays from the hard / detached type.

The day that Johnny gets thrown out of the labor union is a turning point for the novel. It is a symbolic death that signals Johnny's material death. Without the labor union, Johnny has nothing, not even singing jobs, which at least gave him some sense that he was contributing to the welfare of his family. Johnny's reaction to the news is another sign that something has changed and nothing can be as it was before. He acts in a way he never has, sobbing wildly on the table. The narrator notes that Johnny has been acting drunk, although he is sober. This detail suggests that the natural course of Johnny's life has shifted; his entire adult life, he has alternated between drinking binges and stretches of sobriety. This pattern nonetheless becomes what is expected of Johnny. When suddenly his behavior changes from this routine, the narrator is sending a warning sign to the reader.

Although Katie scolds Johnny in life, in death she insists that he be remembered honorably. She insists that his cause of death be documented as "pneumonia," and not "alcoholism." She notices that the neighbors interpret Francie's and Neeley's fear of their dead father as a sign of Johnny's neglect, and tells them so that they can squelch the gossips. When Katie agrees with Francie that Johnny was a good father, the reader has the sense that she is telling the truth, despite all of her struggles with Johnny.

The end of the tin-can bank signals another turning point in the novel. Katie seems to succumb to the idea that Johnny's grave is the only plot of land she will ever own; she seems to anticipate that she will not have any extra money to save. The author invokes tragic irony here. Mary Rommely advises Katie to buy land at the beginning of the book; to Katie's mother, owning a plot of land represents promise and hope. A grave connotes the absolute absence of promise. Still, Katie has in a small way fulfilled a promise to herself by buying the grave.