Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

September 28, 2009

Brooklyn is an elegant novel. Toibin efficiently tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from the Irish countryside, as she matures from girl to woman. In beautiful, but never overwrought, prose, Toibin tells the story of Eilis’s maturing.

As other reviewers, like KfC and John Self, have pointed out, Eilis is a very passive character. If you have not read the book, I would suggest that you consult those (relatively short) reviews, as this post will contain spoilers. I want to discuss Brooklyn rather than review it.


Eilis is a light character. By light, I means she lacks substance. She is too often what Rose, her mother, Mrs. Kehoe, Miss Kelly, Father Flood, or Tony or Jim make of her. As KfC and John Self have pointed out, she tends to take the path of least resistance with almost no regard for who is pushing her. We see this tendency of Eilis’s early when, trying to be a dutiful employee and neighbor, she tells Miss Kelly well in advance of her departure for America that she is leaving. Miss Kelly sacks her on the spot. Eilis takes it without complaint. In fact, she actually thanks Miss Kelly. For what she is thanking her is not clear. As she leaves, she wants to say goodbye to her co-worker, Mary, but does not because Mary has not made the effort to turn and look at her. Eilis, apparently, does not want to risk putting herself or Mary in an awkward situation, so “Eilis quietly left the shop and went home.” Eilis is a wallflower, thanking people for sacking her and lacking the courage to say goodbye.

BrooklynAt first, we can dismiss this as youth and immaturity. After all, she is still young enough that her mother, her older sister (Rose), and Father Flood arrange for her to go to America without consulting her until after the decision has been made. Eilis, again, does not resist. She seems to have little will of her own.

There is another strand too, which is related to Eilis’s passivity. We first see it most clearly when Eilis, having been in America a short while, gets homesick. She longs for her Irish home and the familiar. In describing the feeling of homesickness, she likens it to the passing of her father:

She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again.

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought.

Eilis defines herself by her relationships and surroundings. But, even so, there remains an emptiness to Eilis, as if she is waiting to be filled with others’ desires. She has no “will to power”.

She ultimately deals with homesickness as she does with most problems when they do not resolve themselves or are not resolved by another:

She would try to put those two days behind her. No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how bad she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work it if was during the day and go back to sleep if it as during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on, as Jack had hinted it would, as Father Flood had suggested. In any case, that was what she would do.

Eilis herself almost hits on her tragic flaw, though not quite, fairly early in her stay in America. When one of the lodgers (Miss Keegan) leaves the boarding house where Eilis is staying, the best room in the house becomes available. Mrs. Kehoe, the landlady, arranges for Eilis to move into the room despite Eilis being the most recent boarder. When Eilis asks why she is being given the best room, Mrs. Kehoe explains:

”You are the only one of them with any manners.”

After the move is accomplished, Eilis avoids the other lodgers for as long as she can. The inevitable meeting occurs on a Friday evening. Miss McAdam, another lodger, sits Eilis down and gives her an alternate explanation for Eilis ending in the room. According to Miss McAdam, a man was stalking Miss Keegan and, at one point, exposed himself to her on the steps of the boarding house. Miss Keegan was afraid to identify the man to the police and left for the relative safety of Long Island.

…And then, to make matters worse, the Kehoe woman wanted to move me down to Miss Keegan’s room. She went on about it being the best room in the house. I put her in her place. And Miss Heffernan is in a terrible state. And Diana has refused to stay in the basement on her own. So she put you down there because none of the others would go.”

Eilis noticed how pleased with herself Miss McAdam seemed. As she watched the older woman sipping her tea, it occurred to Eilis that this could easily be her revenge on Eilis and Mrs. Kehoe over the room. On the other hand, she reckoned, it could be true. Mrs. Kehoe could have used her, the only lodger who did not seem to know why Miss Keegan had left.

Eilis is ultimately unable to determine which of these very different versions of reality to believe.

She studied their faces as they addressed her, but nothing became clear. She wanted to allow for the possibility that everyone’s motives were good, but it was unlikely, she thought, unlikely that Mrs. Kehoe had genuinely given her the room out of pure generosity and unlikely also that Miss McAdam and the others really did not mind this and had merely wanted to warn her about the man who had followed Miss Keegan so that she would be careful. She wished she had a real friend among the lodgers whom she could consult. And she wondered then if she herself were the problem, reading malice into motives when there was none intended. If she woke in the night, or found time going slowly at work, she went over it all again blaming Mrs. Kehoe one moment, Miss McAdam and her fellow lodgers the next, and then blaming herself, eventually coming to no conclusion except that it would be best if she stopped thinking about it altogether.

And this is the solution with which Eilis is all too comfortable. It is not only that Eilis avoids confrontation, but she tends to shield herself from the truth and, if she glimpses it despite her best efforts, to hide it away somewhere away from her conscious mind. She finds that if she does not think about something, it fades.

This sense of fading and unreality is related to her passivity and is repeated throughout the novel. Earlier, of course, Brooklyn and her life there seemed unreal. Her solution to homesickness works. In fact, it works so well that she has the following epiphany:

Later, during the week, as she was making her way from Bartocci’s to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, but it came to her now with a jolt that, no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from the house by a man she had met and going to the dance with him in the hall…She thought it was strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think for a while that it must be the prospect of home.

Her fresh engagement with America comes, of course, with a new romance. There is a particularly telling scene, after Tony has told her he loves her but before she has reciprocated, in which she watches Tony:

There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.

Eilis manages, as she does with every other uncomfortable truth, to ignore her uneasiness. She and Tony are secretly married just before she goes back to Ireland. The decision to marry, of course, was Tony’s. Tony was afraid Eilis would not return if they were only promised rather than married. Eilis simply goes along to avoid unpleasantness.

When she returns to Ireland, she finds that her feelings are somewhat reversed. Instead of feeling that her life in America is meaningless, it is her old Irish life that seems to her alien and empty.

She was glad she did not have to write now from her bedroom, which seemed empty of life, which almost frightened her in how little it meant to her. She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back. This made her feel strange and guilty; she curled up in the bed and closed her eyes in the hope that she might sleep.

And, of course, she does not tell anyone in Ireland about her marriage.

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though 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.

Eilis senses that one of these two selves will necessarily pass. When she, Nancy, George, and Jim head off to the beach, Eilis examines the surroundings as they go. Toibin uses language that echoes his description of her feeling when her father’s casket closed from earlier:

This was where Eilis had come with Rose and her brothers and her parents when they were children, but she had not been there for years nor thought about it. As they drove through Blackwater village she almost pointed out the places she knew, such as Mrs. Davis’s pub where her father had gone in the evenings, or Jim O’Neill’s shop. But she stopped herself. She did not want to sound like someone who had come back home after a long time away. And, she thought, this was something that she might never see again on a Sunday like this, but for the others it was nothing, just a decision.

The echo here of her memory of her father’s funeral is beautifully haunting. Her next departure from Ireland is a death too. She knows this and feels alone because no one else understands how one of her two selves will necessarily die.

Of course, her decision to return to America, like almost every decision Eilis makes is an acquiescence to the demands or desires of someone else. For instance, when they get to the beach and, eventually, Jim asks if she will go into the water with him, she “had already planned to say no.”

But his tone, when he spoke, was unexpected in its humility. Jim spoke like someone who could easily be hurt. She wondered if it was an act, but he was looking at her with an expression so vulnerable that she, for a second, could not make her mind up what to do. She realized that, if she refused, he might walk alone down to the water like someone defeated; somehow she did not want to have to witness that.

“Okay,” she said.

And this is the problem with Eilis. It is not that she does not have her own desires. Rather, Eilis lives too much in the present, too little in the future. She does not want to hurt Jim at the beach, so she agrees to go into the water, deepening his attachment to her. She is already married to Tony, so things cannot work for both. But she ignores the future consequences. She agrees to go with Jim because it is the easiest path for her at that moment, because the present Jim is more real to her than the absent Tony.

Eilis recognizes this feeling later when looking at two letters from Tony.

She looked at the two envelopes, at his handwriting, and she stood in the room with the door closed wondering how strange it was that everything about him seemed remote. And not only that, but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her – her room in Mrs. Kehoe’s, for example, or her exams, or the trolley-car from Brooklyn College back home, or the dancehall, or the apartment where Tony lived with his parents and his three brothers, or the shop floor at Bartocci’s. She went through all of it as though she were trying to recover what had seemed so filled with detail, so solid, just a few weeks before.

All of this putting out of mind thoughts of the future and people absent can only lead to problems. Eilis’s short-term compromises will have long-term consequences. She has drifted her way into a corner.

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. She pictured Tony and Jim opposite each other, or meeting each other, each of them smiling, warm, friendly, easygoing, Jim less eager than Tony, less funny, less curious, but more self-contained and more sure of his own place in the world. And she thought of her mother now beside her in the church, the devastation and shock of Rose’s death having been softened somewhat by Eilis’s return. And she saw all three of them – Tony, Jim, her mother – as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain.

Again, Toibin returns to earlier imagery. This time the echo is of the scene where Eilis watches Tony from afar and sees herself a shadow. These two scenes are telling revelations of how Eilis sees people and her relation to them. Though she is passive, she sees herself as a shadowy actor. She avoids acting to avoid damaging them. There is a self-centeredness to her passivity. She is unwilling to contradict others because she sees them as fragile, helpless before her dark, uncertain power to damage.

And she will damage either Tony or Jim, or both. Each moment along the way she was enjoying herself and did not want to hurt their feelings. By doing this, Eilis encouraged each of the men to love her. She, however, does not return the love of either with anything approaching the same intensity. She simply burrows further into a situation that she knows will not bring her long-term happiness. Nothing about her feelings suggests that her marriage to Tony will be fulfilling to her. Her method of communicating those feelings and making difficult decisions suggests that she will continue to drift into lose-lose situations, waiting only until a damaging choice is required. Her uncertainty is a menacing, foreboding shadow over the people in her life.

Toibin’s use of recurring imagery and language to emphasize these themes is outstanding technique. One of my frustrations with the novel was that Eilis seemed so often an empty vessel. But I think this is part of the point. Eilis’s essential trait, her tragic flaw, is her unwillingness to make choices, particularly difficult choices. Her pleasantness, her industriousness, her intelligence are all undermined and overshadowed by her unwillingness to confront and shape her own future. Toibin exploits this by giving us so little of Eilis besides her seeming pliability. By the end of the novel, we see Eilis for what she is. We realize more than ever how accurate she was when she saw herself as a sinister shadow in Tony’s life.

As always, Eilis manages to put the final consequences of her choice out of her mind too. The closing paragraph is outstanding:

[H]er mother would stand watching Jim Farrell with her shoulders back bravely and her jaw set hard and a look in her eyes that suggested both an inexpressible sorrow and whatever pride she could muster.

“She has gone back to Brooklyn,” her mother would say. And, as the train rolled past Macmine Bridge on its way towards Wexford, Eilis imagined the years ahead, when these words would come to mean less and less to the man who heard them and would come to mean more and more to herself. She almost smiled at the thought of it, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine nothing more.

[P.S. Please check out ANZ LitLovers Blog for additional analysis that captures references and elements I missed.]