“'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.”
How are we meant to read these final lines? On the one hand, Eilis seems to mourn for what might have been. She spends the final few paragraphs of the novel imagining Jim's hurt when he learns of her deception, her mother's pain in confirming the news, and how she will fade out of his memory. But on the other hand, she suggests that the words "She has gone back to Brooklyn" will come to mean "more and more to herself." Though this in itself is not positive, the fact that "She almost smiled at the thought of it" certainly seems to give this thought a hopeful tinge.
There is much ambiguity in the ending of this novel, and Colm Tóibín has more than once remarked that that was exactly his intention. There is more than one way to understand the ending, and imagine what comes next, but the film adaption of the novel offers perhaps the most moving interpretation.
In an interview with the Toronto International Film Festival, Tóibín states, "In a novel, you're asking the reader to imagine so much because the reader cannot see, and so the reader is constantly imagining and filling in gaps. And this means when you come to the end of the novel, you can leave quite a lot to the reader's imagination. The contract in a film is different, where you're showing so much that you can't do that." Nick Hornby, Tóibín argues, fills the "gaps" that he had left empty, and imagines the novel in a new way.
Hornby's scenes follow Eilis's journey back to Brooklyn, and at first, she still withdrawn and mournful. But then a change occurs. A young Irish woman traveling to America for the first time asks her about Brooklyn, what it is like and how it compares to home. Eilis tells the girl that it is just like home, and goes on to explains all the things she wished she had known as a first-time traveler. She helps the younger woman avoid seasickness, and nods reassuringly as they approach immigration. This scene is an echo of Eilis's own interactions with Georgina on her first trip to America. This time, she is the smart, worldly, self-assured woman that Georgina once was to her. Hornby brings the novel full circle, showing how much Eilis has grown because of her time in America, and confirming that her decision to return was the right one.
In the final scene, Eilis leans against a wall, eyed closed and relaxed, waiting. She sees Tony and his brother come out of a storefront across the street, and she stands up straight, staring at him until he meets her eye. The two lock eyes, both overwhelmed with emotion, until Tony crosses the street to her. They embrace each other tightly, and Eilis buries her face in Tony's shoulder. The scene seems to acknowledge all that has happened between them, both Tony's fear that Eilis would never return, and Eilis's guilt and doubt. The reunion is not jubilant, but it offers all the possibilities of reconciliation, love, and happiness.
Hornby's interpretation of the text offers the resolution which the book declines to give, both in terms of Eilis's romantic life, and her personal growth. It is certainly a satisfying answer, but it changes the story in fundamental ways. The mood of the story, for instance, is transformed from melancholy, regretful, and nostalgic to hopeful and buoyant.
The next time you watch the movie, examine your own reading of the novel. Does this ending make sense to you? Is it consistent with the way you read the book, and each of the characters?
Watch the interview with Tóibín, with clips from the movie, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-L4eGaWM1A