Brooklyn Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How do you interpret the ending? Does Eilis feel that she has made the right decision?

    Eilis's return to Brooklyn is prompted less by her own decision than by the threat of being exposed by Miss Kelly. Eilis herself is highly conflicted about what she wants. Though she does return to Brooklyn, she seems to have a hard time letting go of the life she might have had in Enniscorthy. She keeps the photograph of her and Jim Farrell in the bottom of her suitcase, and tells her mother that she does not know if she ever would have returned to Brooklyn if she had not married Tony.

    At the same time, there is room for hope. In the final lines of the novel, Eilis has the hint of a smile on her face as she considers the fact that this return to Brooklyn will come to mean so much to her over the years. Perhaps she recognized the ways in which her life in Enniscorthy was less than perfect. She was forced into her sister's old life, doing her sister's job at the mill, acting as a companion to their mother, and, if Eilis's mother had her way, wearing her sister's old clothes. Though she has always wanted to be like her sister, she is unsettled at the thought of being her living ghost. Moreover, for all her newfound popularity, Eilis cannot help but remember when she was far less loved, when she was spurned by Jim Farrell and passed over for bookkeeping opportunities. Brooklyn, and not Enniscorthy, has made her the person that she is, and it is perhaps ultimately where she belongs.

  2. 2

    What role does gender play in the novel?

    Brooklyn is a novel dominated by women. By the time the novel begins, Eilis's household is made up of only Rose, her mother, and herself. Rose is the head of their family, acting as both the breadwinner and the glue that holds Eilis and her mother together. She, instead of a father figure, is the primary decision-maker. She decides that she will be the one to stay at home and care for their mother while Eilis builds a career and has a family. She decides that Eilis's best hopes lie in America, and makes the arrangements for her journey.

    In America, Eilis meets with many women who empower her. Georgina is kind to her when she feels most alone and miserable, and teaches her much about how to act confident and present yourself well among people you do not know. Elisabetta Bartocci gives her her first real job and offers to invest in her education. Miss Fortini recognizes Eilis's homesickness and the ways that it affects both her work and her life, and helps her to get the help she needs. Patty helps Eilis to relax and feel confident among her peers, and is one of the reasons she meets Tony.

    It is certainly true that Eilis experiences certain limitations because of her gender. She is expected to want marriage and a family, even though she is not sure that she is ready for those things. She feels obligated to take on the care of her mother just because she is the only surviving daughter, even when she has three brothers who could presumably share in that responsibility. She is punished for expressing her sexuality by people who should have no say in those intimate decisions.

    But the remarkable thing about Brooklyn is that it focuses less on those limitations than on the ways that the women in the novel empower and support each other. Female friendships, and all the make-overs, talk about boys, and discussions of fashion that come with them, are central to the novel.

  3. 3

    Discuss the importance of Eilis's relationship with her sister Rose. How does it influence her?

    The novel opens with Eilis watching her sister from the window as she does her bookkeeping homework. Even in this first image, we see the importance of Eilis's relationship with her sister. She clearly looks up to Rose, studying bookkeeping just like her and trying to follow in her footsteps. But she also admires the image that Rose presents to the world. She outright states that she is "proud of her sister, of how much care she took with her appearance and how much care she put into whom she mixed with in the town and the golf club" (11).

    Eilis agrees to go to America essentially because Rose wants her to, even though she secretly believes that “the wrong sister was leaving,” and “that Rose, so ready for life, always making new friends, would be happier going to America” (32). But she realizes what Rose is sacrificing to give her this opportunity. She knows that Rose will not be able to marry, and will have to stay home and care for their aging mother. Her trust in Rose and gratitude for this sacrifice make her quiet her doubts, and she works especially hard to make Rose proud.

    She even channels Rose in moments of conflict. After she allows Tony to stay the night at her apartment, she is worried that Mrs. Kehoe has informed Father Flood, and that he will disapprove. She considers how to face him: “As she heard footsteps approaching in the hallway, she knew she had a choice. She could appear humble before him and imply an abject apology even if she did not admit everything, or she could model herself on Rose, stand up now as Rose might have and speak to Father Flood as though she were entirely incapable of any wrongdoing" (201). Here, channeling Rose's calm confidence works well for her, as both Mrs. Kehoe and Father Flood drop the issue entirely. Eilis uses this strategy again and again throughout the novel, modeling herself after her older sister until she truly becomes much like Rose.

    But when Rose dies, everything changes. There is a hole in her family, one which Eilis must choose whether or not to try to fill. Though she deeply loves her sister, and has become like her in so many ways, she ultimately cannot consent to living Rose's life. She refuses to wear Rose's clothes, she shudders at the thought of being "Rose's ghost," taking over her job at the mill and her place in their mother's home (227).

    Rose has shaped her younger sister in immeasurable ways, but Eilis must ultimately learn how to be her own person, and step out of Rose's shadow.

  4. 4

    Compare and contrast Tony and Jim.

    Eilis once does this very exercise: “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" (246).

    Eilis is right to say that Jim knows his place in the world. He knows he is going to take over his parents' pub, and he knows he will live in their house. He knows that he will continue to enjoy his status and relative wealth in the town he grew up in. He offers Eilis this kind of security, too. She knows exactly what kind of life to expect with Jim, and she is for more similar to him than she ever was to Tony.

    Tony's future is less certain. Though he hopes to build a business, and to be able to give Eilis everything she will ever want, he is currently only a plumber. His future is bright, perhaps, but there is far more risk involved. Moreover, Tony is different than anyone she has known before. Eilis is slow to intimacy, and reluctant to express her feelings even to the people she loves. Her major relationships, especially those with her mother, sister, and brother, are all characterized by a certain level of reserve. But Tony is different. He is open and vulnerable. He tells her he loves her and he tells her he wants to marry her with no hesitation. He is transparent. Eilis is attracted to this quality in many ways. She can see that Tony takes real, genuine delight in life, and he does so very openly. Though she is drawn to him, she also finds that this kind of relationship causes her much anxiety. After Tony mentions their future children for the first time, for instance, she avoids him for nearly a week. A future with Tony is far more uncertain, and potentially more challenging, though not necessarily less happy.

    In many ways, the differences between Jim and Tony highlight the differences between a life in Enniscorthy and one in Brooklyn. Both men seem to mirror the city they come from. In choosing between them, Eilis also must not only choose what she wants in a partner, but what kind of life she wants to lead.

  5. 5

    What role does economic mobility play in the novel?

    Class is one of the driving forces of the plot. Eilis's family is working-class, but as job opportunities dry up in Enniscorthy, they are pushed out of their own community. All three of Eilis's brothers, for instance, are forced to leave Ireland to look for work in England. Eilis has few choices. She can accept whatever meager work she can find at places like Miss Kelly's, and hope to make a lucky match, like Nancy, or she can attempt to get an education, and find a better job, like Rose. But Rose seems the exception when it comes to economic mobility, and even with this hard-won success, she struggles to support the family. Eilis, even with her natural talent and her sister's help, is unable to replicate Rose's path.

    Rose sees America as a solution to their problems. America is known as the land of opportunity. There, it is far easier to achieve the kind of economic mobility Rose wants for Eilis. Eilis will easily be able to find a job that will both allow her to support herself and fund her education. As a certified bookkeeper, she will be in an even better position. This is hardly a far-fetched dream. Many people around Eilis are on similar trajectories. Tony's family, for instance, hopes to achieve the same kind of mobility. Tony and his brothers hope to use their trades to build a land-developing business that will get their family out of a cramped three-bedroom apartment and into their own homes. They hope Frank will be able to get an education and do even better than them.

    When Eilis returns to Enniscorthy, one of the things that has changed about her is her economic status, and that is something everyone notices. New doors open for her in both her career and her romantic life. Eilis is forced to choose whether to enjoy her new status in a place that pushed her out, or one that allowed her to become the person she is.