Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Home: a place of conflicting emotions by Dr Jennifer Minter

In Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s main protagonist, Eilis Lacey, struggles with homesickness as she relives the typically Irish immigrant experience in America during the 1950s. Despite her desire to resettle, Eilis’s relationship with “home” shifts and changes as she struggles to come to terms with the consequences of living in two places – both physically and emotionally. Ambiguously, home represents a place of divided and uncertain loyalties. Even before her fate is decided, by Father Flood, an Irish priest who has emigrated to the United States, and by her sister, Rose and mother, Mrs Lacey, Eilis is aware that something is not quite right in her home town, Enniscorthy. In many ways, “home” seems to lack something that separates her from complete fulfilment and that continues to dog her throughout her personal journey.

Evidently, Eilis’s journey to America takes her into unexplored territory and her new home in Brooklyn is plagued by a desperate feeling of homesickness and nostalgia, so that she never feels completely “solid” there either. However, it also becomes a place that provides Eilis with the opportunity to renew herself and carve an independent future without the strong shadows cast by her family. Whilst her mother continues to symbolise absence and the tug of her Irish roots, Eilis also forges a homely relationship with Tony Fiorello and his surrogate family that will only ever be a substitute.

Accordingly, home captures and reflects Eilis’s journey and her dilemmas. The search for a new “home” is both within her grasp owing to a plethora of new opportunities but it also becomes elusive because of the constant invasion of her past and the memories associated with place. “Home” is therefore a place of prospective happiness and security, but also the place of loss and disappointment.

Home reflects the “two people” of Eilis’s journey

Evidently, Enniscorthy represents many of the positive attributes of home such as comfort, security and familiarity, but it is also a place that divides Eilis from herself in many subtle ways.  From the beginning, readers are alerted to the fact that she always imagined staying in Enniscorthy permanently — “in the town all her life, as her mother had done”.

At the same time, Toibin suggests that it is difficult for Eilis to procure employment in this insular town in a socially-conservative environment; she also appears denied of a rosy romantic future. Employment with Ms Kelly becomes a source of humiliation as her employer often brushes her aside and chastises her in front of other customers. (“She checked every price Eilis wrote down, informed her briskly of the price when she could not remember, and wrote down and added up the figures herself after  Eilis had done so.”) The shadow of Ms Kelly’s contemptuous treatment also recalls the personal snub she suffered from Jim Farrell, an eminent suitor. At the dance, Jim appears offhanded and rejects Eilis. He “imperiously glanced around the hall, ignoring her”. Romantically, indeed, she becomes destined to become the “wallflower”. Eilis feels ashamed and proudly leaves “with as much dignity as she could”, suggesting that her pride has been irrevocably wounded. These  experiences suggest that Eilis must venture elsewhere for solace and support.

The motivation and impetus to emigrate to Brooklyn quietly overtakes Eilis as a foregone conclusion, arranged by others, and in response to her circumstances.

Father Flood is invited to the house for tea, and Eilis soon realises, the invitation has a more significant purpose. She is not present during the discussions; she “quietly left the room” and before she is fully aware of his important visit, she knows that “it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it”.

Ironically, the silence that surround his visit leads Eilis to conclude that Rose and her mother were “in favour of it”. (“She had never considered going to America.”)

Like stage-directors, both Rose and her mother control her life and the fact that she settles in Jack’s room becomes a foreshadowing device of departure. Eilis imagines an overriding sense of loss before her departure at the certain fact that she would “lose this world forever”.  She wonders if the “wrong sister” is leaving. After all, Rose always seemed the one who is “ready for life”, and who makes friends with ease, perhaps therefore unnecessarily sacrificing herself for her sister. This sense of sacrifice will forever plague Eilis in Brooklyn as her life there becomes a constant “struggle with the unfamiliar”, but a struggle that takes on many different hues. For example, the sense of impending loss, the fact that she would “happily stay here and take care of her mother” means that America will always remind her of sacrifice and loss — not just Rose’s. The mother too, exclaims, “it’ll kill me when she goes”.  But as we also know, Jack soon cherishes his independence.

As if to make up for their overriding sense of disappointment, America becomes a place infused with “compensating glamour”. It is this sense of glamour that eventually sets Eilis apart and makes her imminently desirable but the glamour, as we find out, comes at a cost.

Both Jim Farrell and Miss Kelly loom large in Eilis’s departure and eventual return home, as “home” becomes an increasingly complicated place of loss and humiliation as well of pride and dignity. Her past continues to haunt her in the figure of Miss Kelly who reminds her of her inability to stay. Contrastingly, hindsight sheds light on Jim’s snub that, born of misunderstanding, reinforced her separation and distance. Ironically, upon Eilis’s return a year later, Jim explains to her that he was attracted to Eilis but was reeling from his own personal setback with Alison Prendergast. He was the one who was reluctant to set himself up once again for rejection thus cementing a bond between them that will, perhaps sadly, never be realised.

Brooklyn : a place of loss and a “terrible weight”

Toibin thrusts Eilis into a world of emotional anxiety and turmoil, exacerbated by her disconnection with her family. Essentially, her immigrant experience in Brooklyn is characterised by a sense of loss and nostalgia as she constantly looks to the past. Plagued by homesickness and the “weight of loss”, she “hated the house” and struggles to adapt. Father Flood’s comment, “you’re homesick, that’s all” represents the expectation that sadness emerges from migration and that , eventually, familiarity will triumph over sadness.

Toibin uses setting to reinforce a strong sense of absence and the emotional rift that plagues Eilis in Brooklyn; the room is unhomely and makeshift, and in this death-like place referred to as a “tomb” Eilis feels like a “ghost” which serves as a reminder of the security and warmth of a home that she may never recover.  Typically, the room reflects her “ghostlike” and insubstantial presence. She felt a “nobody” owing to her lack of familiar connections.  “Nothing here was part of her”.   Whenever  Eilis thinks of Enniscorthy and the house in Frairy Street, it is a “life she had lost and would never have again”. By comparison her new home and her new life are inconsequential and unsubstantial. “Now all that seemed like nothing compared to the picture she had of home, of her own room, the house”  She has an overriding sense of “despondency” as she also recalls her father’s death, which likewise, was a potent symbol of irretrievable loss. In many ways, “home” becomes a state of mind, and even Eilis realises that her sense of being “trapped” and “shut away somewhere” in a place that almost seemed like “hell”, reflects how she feels. “It was all in her mind”.

The letters also become a sign of absence and homesickness.  In her letters, Eilis cannot imagine telling her mother about her terrible bouts of seasickness on the ship owing to the “worst storm in years” or her distaste of her room. They are a sign that life in Brooklyn lacks familiarity. For example, she struggles to “find bread anywhere that she liked”, and even “the tea and milk tasted strange”.

(Coincidentally, too, the lugubrious winter weather reflects her sense of gloominess.)

Initially, the workplace setting (at Bartoccis) is also formidable, especially the sale that takes place three weeks after she begins her new job. “The shop, Eilis thought, was the hottest and busiest place she had ever seen.” The frenzied pace, the chaotic business and the loudness leave her exhausted as she tries to cope with throngs of “hundreds of customers”.  Once again, she is sentimentally drawn to the “early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy. The “smell of (burning) leaves” beckons as the daylight ebbs.

Toibin frequently depicts Eilis reading or writing letters — another metaphoric representation of the emotional rift.  The letters from her family do not reveal anything “personal” as if they are shielding Eilis from loss; likewise, Eilis too must dissemble as Jack did. She cannot imagine telling her mother about her terrible bouts of seasickness on the ship owing to the “worst storm in years” or her distaste of her room. Earlier at home, Jack’s letters were “passed around in silence” reminding the family of their separation. Eilis is later surprised at Jack’s admission that he omitted to tell the family that, at first, he would have “done anything to go home”. Letters, then, also become a sign of the difficulties associated with navigating the silence that yawns between them.  Accordingly, Eilis tries to supply the missing links. She imagines her mother in the kitchen taking her “Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out”. Gradually, they become her only tenuous link with home. She only lets the thought of home enter her mind when “she wrote or received letters”.

Brooklyn: a place of renewal

Gradually, though, her new home in the “land of the free and the brave” becomes a place for renewal as Eilis carves  an individual path without the emotional control wielded by Mrs Lacey and Rose.  Also, perhaps it is the extent of her loss and the “terrible weight” that fuels her determination to find a substitute level of emotional and financial security. Just as the brothers moved away from Enniscorthy to develop their independence and become “responsible adults”, Jack’s letters also serve as a foreshadowing device for Eilis’s own personal development. Her visit to Jack in Liverpool en route to New York already provides her with a symbolic forecast of her own experience in Brooklyn; Jack does not envisage returning home; he met a girl at the Saturday night dances, has a decent job and cherishes his independence. For the first time Eilis, too, is aware of not being reprimanded by either Rose or their mother.

Through the foreshadowing characterisation of Georgina, readers gain a sense that Eilis will have a degree of freedom and some opportunities. Eilis’s independence is foreshadowed on the ship, which stands for her metaphorical personal journey, where she becomes “answerable to no one”. She shares a cabin with Georgina, who is suitably sophisticated, forthright and wise. Upon embarking with a “thin cake of make-up” and some advice from Georgina, Eilis already “seemed older and, she thought, almost good-looking”. Her glance in the mirror symbolically reinforces her growing self-awareness and she becomes “surprised” at her potential for beauty. Later when she tries on the new bathing costume that she will wear on her visit with Tony to Coney Island, Eilis’ sensuality is made apparent as Miss Fortini admires her feminine figure. When she finally returns to Enniscorthy after Rose’s death, Eilis stands out. “She believed, she carried something with her, something close to glamour, which made all the difference to her as she sat with Nancy watching the men talk.”

(She returns poised, confident and self-assured as a sign that America has indeed left its mark.)

Eventually, Rose’s death also symbolises, despite the unbearable sorrow, Eilis’s positive emergence from her sister’s shadow. Her confidence at the dance, as she greets Patty and Diana, is evident; even though they pretend not to see her, she walks over to their group, “smiling confidently at them all”. (Something Rose might have done.)

Recognising that she will never recover the home she left, Eilis nevertheless seeks to forge an approximate one. Consequently, the relationship with Tony Fiorello, whom she meets at the Parish Church dance, is pivotal to her transformation. Toibin shows a deliberate contrast between Tony’s unequivocal love and support, and the rejection and humiliation she imagined she suffered by Jim at the dance.  As a sign of her devotion, she shares with Tony  Jim’s sorrowful letter recounting Rose’s funeral which becomes the “most direct and emphatic way she had ever made clear to him that she would stay with him”.  Tony’s emotional support helps to mitigate the loss and gradually the nostalgia recedes. Her eventual sexual relationship with him provides comfort and a strange sense of gratitude born of her incredible loneliness.  (On that fateful night of lovemaking, it “made a difference to her beyond anything she had every imagined”. (195)) Experiencing relief at the fact that she is not pregnant— it becomes a “sign of God”— Eilis feels a stronger connection with Tony. He becomes “powerful and “present”. Ironically, she feels a “stronger sense of home than she has ever imagined”.

Tobin therefore suggests that such subtle personal relationships and sensitive feelings are what make the difference with Eilis and help her carve a substitute home characterised by commitment, devotion and passion. We are reminded that familiarity can help to overcome sadness. Eilis accompanies Tony and his brothers to a game of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets  Field which is representative of her increasing exposure to and involvement in American culture. After all Tony is so enthusiastic about baseball that he wants “our kids to be Dodgers fans”. Tony’s and Eilis’s joyful trips to the cinemas and Coney Island (during Summer) allow Eilis to bask in a substitute sense of comfort and together, they make plans for a “much better life”, built from the ground-up. The block of land on Long Island, which currently consists of bare land, waste ground and scrubland, symbolises once again the opportunity to establish a new life that they can “plan .. themselves”. They can have the fifth house  with its own garden, nestled on a block surrounded by his brothers and parents; Eilis knows that these plans are akin to a marriage proposal, and she does not resist as she “held his two hands and pulled him towards her”.

Renewal through work

At Bartocci’s, Eilis receives positive feedback and reinforcement which starkly contrast to the treatment meted out to her at Ms Kelly’s. Her confidence grows: “in Bartocci’s she had learned to be brave and decisive with the customers” and the book-keeping course gives her the poise and confidence to approach one of her lecturers, Mr Rosenblum, and to question him about books. Studying at nights makes her as “happy as she had been since she had left home” and Miss Bartocci promises her that she would be considered for a position as junior bookkeeper as soon as a vacancy appears. Her growth is reflected in her growing attachment to her room and its increasing familiarity. “Eilis loved her room, loved putting her books at the table opposite the window when she came in at night.” She undertakes a two-year book-keeping course at Brooklyn College so that she can graduate from the shop floor to an office position. When Ms Fortini helps Eilis choose a bathing suit for her outing to Coney Island, there is an aura of sensuality that was previously less pronounced.

The letters home also represent stages in Eilis’ growth as she seeks to negotiate her personal growth and independence. Her letter-writing becomes a deliberate act of selection as she only includes the details that would not worry her mother or Rose or give the impression that “she could not look after herself”.  She conceals details that signal her growing independence and confidence to make personal choices. As Tony becomes increasingly familiar, she keeps the thought of home “out of her mind” and the fact that she omits to share the details of their relationship with her mother, as Jack had done, suggests that their growing bond is cause for concern. (Rose is appropriately concerned.) She only reveals to Rose in the middle of the paragraph that Tony is a plumber. She knows that Rose would prefer that she date a person with an “office job” or someone who worked in a “bank or an insurance office”. (139)

Return to Enniscorthy: reversal of nostalgia

Eilis’s return to Ireland again reminds her of the divided home and she returns as if she were “two people”: “one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew or thought they knew”.  Her divided self reflects her growth and development in another place, but a place that is always pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and loss.  It is also a sign of her divided loyalties.

As testimony to the transformative affect of Brooklyn, Tobin depicts Eilis as ambiguously both a family member and an outsider.  She has an exterior confidence and a quiet sense of exoticism that set her apart owing to distance and difference — a difference that was also foreshadowed by Georgina on the initial journey to Brooklyn. (Georgina seems “immensely poised and glamorous”.)  Eilis is reminded that “you have changed”. As Nancy admirably states, “you have an air about you … Everything about you is different but not for those who know you”. As Tobin aptly states, this has been forged by her independent struggle with adversity and she appears now “grown up and serious”.   She appears “oddly confident” as she walks down the strand passing Jim Farrell.  Once upon returning to the family home, Eilis reflects upon her connections with place and the fact that the room means little to her. It appears “empty of life, which almost frightened her in how little it meant”.

In addition, Eilis is set apart, not only because of a certain quiet sense of exoticism. Her secret marital ties to Tony, forever create a distance between Eilis and “home” and remind her that she will never be able to recover her earlier life; her stay is just an “interlude”.

In one sense, she wishes she had not married Tony, not because “she did not love him and intend to return to him” but because, her life there is becoming less substantial, and the more she slips into her old routine, the more America appears as a “fantasy” to her. Earlier in Brooklyn, Enniscorthy must be “pictured” in her mind because it lacked the reality of daily experience.  Eilis’s secret is once again mediated through letters – letters that she cannot take downstairs and read to her mother. Tony’s letters are stiff, but full of “warmth, his kindness and his enthusiasm for things”. The letters once again remind her of absence; they become a symbol of the loss that tugs at the heart.  Should Tony turn his head, she might be gone.

However, there is also a sense of continuity and consistency which enables Eilis to seamlessly merge with her former life and because of her added sense of confidence, she earns respect and admiration. As Nancy  says, her change is evident for “only for those who only know you to see”.  Underneath surface appearances, a certain constancy prevails.

On the negative side, Eilis still suffers from innuendos arising from Ms Kelly’s narrow-minded contempt that has swirled around her since her first unhappy job. It is now Ms Kelly’s contact with her connections in Brooklyn that prompt Eilis’s decisive action to return.

Contrastingly, on the positive side, Eilis has inherited the personal strength from her mother, and her pride and dignity prompt her return.  Nancy also alludes to other values that have remained constant such as her homeliness, old-fashioned family values and loyalty; her stubbornness and her solidity: qualities that connect her strongly to her mother but ironically draw her towards Brooklyn and her new home.

Brooklyn becomes another site of homesickness.

Increasingly, Brooklyn becomes infused with a sense of homeliness, and becomes a marker of loss and absence. As Tony comes to represent absence and “fantasy”, he, now also symbolises the “terrible weight” of despondency and loss. Despite the overriding pull of place owing to the Mother and Jim who stands to inherit the “whole place” which would help to build a solid foundation for the future, Eilis feels the tug of “home” to be increasingly associated with Brooklyn. In this case, home represents her marital obligations and commitment to Tony and the dreams they share. Tony’s insistence that Eilis “marry me before you go” provides her only incentive to return but it takes priority.

Whilst Brooklyn represents the necessity of a (new) home and obligation it is once again divided by the fact that it necessarily represents what she has lost: a happy and secure life with Jim and the familiar proximity to her mother and friends.  Ironically, she seamlessly fits into Rose’s job without the sense of inferiority or worthlessness that she had experienced earlier at Miss Kelly’s.  Ironically, too, the community seems to embrace her more spontaneously and willingly as a stranger. After her return to Enniscorthy, she imagines herself “basking in the ease of what had suddenly become familiarity”. She wishes to imagine her journey to America as “fantasy”; her life is “dissolving” and America becomes less “solid”. It is no longer “richly present for her”, which could illustrate her desire to escape her commitment and the loss associated with it. She seems to regret her choice and her inability to be “right”.  At the wedding, as she and Jim pose for photographs, she realised “she did not love Tony now”, for he was slipping into a dreamlike existence that lacked solidity, “lacked any substance or form”.

But, as Toibin also contradictorily suggests, the closer the ideal future seems within her grasp, the further distant it becomes.  Jim, for example, becomes imbued with a sense of nostalgia that Tony will never have, because of the sense of loss and disappointment attached to their relationship. Perhaps, though, it is also her sense of difference that now attracts him to Eilis, without which his desire and commitment may be reduced.

Toibin admits that one of his concerns in writing the novel was to explore “how easy it was for the immigrant or returning emigrant to forget the other place, whichever it was. How the things that seemed so real – work, home, friends, love – could seem so remote once you were somewhere else with new work, a new home and new love.” “What would she (Eilis) do on coming home, with the pressures on her, that air, the town so familiar, her mother – and Tony’s chargem, that golden time, seeming more and more distant”. (Toibin in an interview with Stephanie Bunbury, The Age, 30/1/16)

Eilis’s past continues to interweave with the present; Miss Kelly has exchanged gossip with her cousin, Mrs Kehoe about Eilis’s relationships which leaves Eilis wondering just how much has been transmitted. It prompts her into action as she books her trip. Although Eilis does not have to return, and although she does not even know if she would have returned had she not “married him” or made a commitment, Eilis reflects the same pride and stoicism as her mother, who walked out of the room ever so poignantly once she realises the extent of her terrible loss. Her mother’s demeanour is “slow and dignified and deliberate”.  Just like Eilis’s.

The letters are all that remain between mother and daughter as an ambiguous marker of both loss and connection; one forever unaware of just how much the other knows, or deliberately forgets.

Ironically in leaving Enniscorthy, Eilis will now have to make choices between two desirable options, which means that once again the decision to return to Brooklyn will lead to loss but for different reasons. She now has a great deal more to lose. Foreshadowing a renewed cycle of loneliness and isolation, Eilis knows now just what she must forgo because of her perhaps rather hasty commitment to Tony. Within her sights are the marriage that she always wanted but couldn’t have, and the secure and cosy future that once would have made her happy. It seems that misunderstanding with Jim has cost her dearly.

Above all, the most poignant heart-break is reserved for the mother. Her loss is particularly acute because she is left with no-one to care for her in her old age, which is particularly worrying in socially conservative Ireland in the 1950s. After having encouraged the boys and then Eilis to immigrate, she ends up alone.

In this regard, Toibin depicts the mother’s inexpressible sorrow in understated (or minimalist) ways and readers are encouraged to imagine the incredible depth of her loss through her subtle gestures and stoic facade.  In order to spare Eilis the sorrow and guilt associated with her return, the mother seeks to downplay the enormity of their separation. With a “great weariness” she retires for bed and says her farewell in an exceptionally unemotional way. Eilis “could see from the look in her eyes how much effort she was putting into saying as little as possible of what she felt”. “Mammy” realises that either she or Tony must suffer the loss and in this case she respects Eilis’s choice of husband. Toibin describes her final departure from the room as “slow and dignified and deliberate” which stoically and “with all the pride she could muster” conceals the extent of her “inexpressible sorrow”. In a way the mother’s decision to keep the bedroom door closed requires great sacrifice but her main purpose is to make it easier for Eilis to return to the new life she has chosen for herself.

Toibin suggests that the migrant experience will always be characterised by a sense of underlying loss as well as opportunity. There is no simple “right” decision and whether Eilis stays or leaves, returns or departs, home will always be a substitute and a divided place.

By Dr Jennifer Minter, Brooklyn: a home – a place divided, (VCE Studies Notes: English Works)  www.englishworks.com.au

Jenny’s tips for English Exam and SAC:

I don’t see many A standard essays on Brooklyn. Why?

There seems to be a tendency to “story-tell” with this book. To get high-scoring marks in text response, you must be as analytical and insightful as possible, and in particular, refer to the author’s literary devices and intentions. Toibin’s literary devices are subtle and often deceptive. He writes with a great deal of ambiguity and irony.  This means it takes considerable clarity and sophistication on behalf of students when analysing the author’s intentions.

  1. Please see further Tips on Text Response
  2. Please see the latest tips on language analysis
  3. See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.


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  English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes.  Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.

See also our VCE workbook for students: The Language of Persuasion: an essay-writing guide.

Please click here to download a PDF version of the Exercises in the Language of Persuasion: an essay writing guide for immediate use. By using these exercises, you will be able to follow our support material on each exercise (See “turn to exercise”). Each “turn to exercise” includes key strategies, suggested responses, students’ samples and assessors’ marks and comments.