“She had no idea how far under the sea she was except that her cabin was deep in the belly of the ship. As her stomach began dry heaves, she realized that she would never be able to tell anyone how sick she felt. She pictured her mother standing at the door waving as the car took her and Rose to the railway station, the expression on her mother’s face strained and worried, managing a final smile when the car turned down Friary Hill. What was happening now, she hoped, was something that her mother had never even imagined. If it had been somehow easier, just rocking back and forth, then she might have been able to convince herself that it was a dream, or it would not last, but every moment of it was absolutely real, totally solid and part of her waking life, as was the foul taste in her mouth and the grinding of the engines and the heat that seemed to be increasing as the night wore on.”
In this moment, Eilis realizes that she is truly alone for the first time in her life. She is miserable and seasick, but she cannot relieve her pain by talking to anyone she loves, both because of the physical distance between them, and because of her desire to spare them the knowledge of her struggles. She knows her mother and sister made sacrifices to send her America, she does not want them to burden them with her unhappiness.
“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's sense of identity is very much tied to where she grew up. When she first moves to Brooklyn, without with familiar surroundings and faces of home, she feels untethered, and alienated from herself. She feels as if she is nobody, a ghost, hardly a part of the life around her. One of Eilis's biggest struggles in the book is refashioning her identity as an American woman, and deciding if that identity is what she really wants.
“She observed a change in them soon, however, as they began to talk to each other or shout greetings down the table or enter into low, intense conversations. At first they had reminded her of men who sat on the bridge in Enniscorthy or gathered at the seat at Arnold’s Cross or the Louse Bank by the Slaney, or men from the County Home, or men from the town who drank too much. But by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender. As she served the man she had thought was her father, she looked at him carefully, amazed at how little he actually resembled him, as though it had been a trick of the light or something she had completely imagined. She was surprised also to find that he was talking to the man beside him in Irish.”
This passage describes the Christmas meal at the parish hall. As Eilis serves the men, she is struck by their mannerisms, which remind her of her father and brothers. She almost mistakes one man for her father, and is jarred by the realization that they really do not look so alike after all. She thinks sometime later that the hall "could have been a parish hall anywhere in Ireland.” She finds great comfort in these resemblances. This passage signifies that she is finally beginning to adjust to life in Brooklyn, and building a home for herself there.
"'So where are you from?'
'I’m from Brooklyn,' he said, 'but my mom and dad are from Italy.'
'And what were you doing—'
'I know,' he interrupted. 'I heard about the Irish dance and I thought I’d go and look at it and I liked it.'
'Do the Italians not have dances?'
'I knew you were going to ask me that.'
'I’m sure they’re wonderful.'
'I could take you some night but you would have to be warned. They behave like Italians all night.'
'Is that good or bad?'
'I don’t know, but bad because if I had gone to an Italian dance I wouldn’t be walking you home now.'"
This is a conversation Tony and Eilis have after their first meeting. Tony essentially says that does not want to go to an Italian dance, where people "behave like Italians all night." He specifically wants to go to an Irish dance, and as he tells Eilis later, meet an Irish girl. This is revealing, especially when we consider how Tony thinks about his own identity. In this very exchange, we see that Tony thinks of himself as American, even though his parents are from Italy. In choosing an Irish girlfriend, he is looking to embrace that American identity, and distance himself from his Italian heritage. This passage is very much about assimilation.
“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, knowing that he would be walking her back to Mrs. Kehoe’s afterwards.”
Tony makes Eilis so happy that she almost feels as if she is looking forward to a trip home. This is high praise considering that Eilis has never felt fully comfortable in Brooklyn, and has constantly dreamed of returning to Enniscorthy. This passage both validates their relationship and shows what an impact it has on Eilis's ability to create a home for herself in this new country.
“Once more, they did not speak, but as he walked her from the subway station through the dark cold empty streets to Mrs. Kehoe’s, she felt that she was being held by someone wounded, that the letter had somehow, in its tone, made clear to him what had really happened and made plain to him also that she belonged somewhere else, a place that he could never know. She thought that he was going to cry; she felt almost guilty that she had handed some of her grief to him, and then she felt close to him for his willingness to take it and hold it, in all its rawness, all its dark confusion. She was almost more upset now than she had been when she had ventured out in search of him."
This is perhaps the most compelling evidence that Eilis truly does love Tony in the book. Eilis is slow to intimacy, and finds it hard to express her feelings. But after she receives Jack's letter with news of her sister's death, all she can think to do is run to him. She allows herself to share her grief with him, which is something she does with no one else in the novel, even her mother. Even she recognizes the significance of this act, reflecting “More than anything else she had ever done, she thought, this was the most direct and emphatic way she had ever made clear to him that she would stay with him.” If love is trusting someone enough to share your greatest pain, then Eilis shows that she truly loves Tony.
“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's return to Enniscorthy makes her feel like two people. She still loves Tony and the life they had together, but at the same time, it is far easier to revert to the Eilis they used to know. Eilis is facing some difficult choices about the person she wants to be, the version of herself that she thinks is the right one. Refusing to make that choice only creates more pain and confusion for herself.
“In the morning it was hard not to think that she was Rose’s ghost, being fed and spoken to in the same way at the same time by her mother, having her clothes admired using the same words as were used with Rose, and then setting out briskly for work. As she took the same route Eilis had to stop herself walking with Rose’s elegant, determined walk, and move more slowly.”
Eilis takes over Rose's role not only at Davis's mill, but also in her own home. She has always looked up to Rose, and modeled herself after her sister, so in some ways, this is all she ever wanted. But after her life in America, and the grief of losing Rose, this also unsettles her. This passage suggests that though a life in Enniscorthy is so comfortable and appealing, it also feels slightly wrong, like she is not being true to herself. This passage, too, has much to do with the themes of identity.
“Two years ago,” she said, “he wouldn’t even see me. I know that Rose asked him if there was any possibility of a job for me and he just said no. Just no.”
“Well, things have changed.”
“And two years ago Jim Farrell seemed to think it was his duty to ignore me in the Athenaeum even though George had practically asked him to dance with me.”
“You have changed,” Nancy said. “You look different. Everything about you is different, not for those who know you, but for people in the town who only know you to see.”
“You seem more grown up and serious. And in your American clothes you look different. You have an air about you. Jim can’t stop trying to get us to find more excuses to go out together.”
This is a conversation between Eilis and Nancy after Eilis has been home for some time. She cannot believe the way that Enniscorthy has changed, the new opportunities it offers to her so readily. But Nancy points out that it is not Enniscorthy that has changed, but Eilis herself. She goes so far as to say "Everything about you is different." Eilis seems to wish that things had been this way before she left home, but Nancy's insights force her to acknowledge that Brooklyn has had a profound and largely positive impact on her. This passage is reflective of the novel's themes of identity and self-definition.
“It might be possible to explain to Jim how she had come to be married, but he was someone who had never lived outside the town. His innocence and his politeness, both of which made him nice to be with, would actually be, she thought, limitations, especially if something as unheard of and out of the question, as far from his experience as divorce, were raised. The best thing to do, she thought, was to put the whole thing out of her mind, but it was hard now, as the ceremony went on, not to dream about herself being there at the altar and her brothers home for the wedding and her mother knowing that Eilis would be living in a nice house just a few streets from her.”
Here, Eilis finally comes to terms with the fact that there is no future for her with Jim Farrell. Her time in Brooklyn has irrevocably changed her, and tied her to another place. Jim, as good a man as he is, could never understand that. She loves that he is so upstanding and traditional, but these are also the reasons they cannot be together. Eilis mourns the life she could have had with him.
“As the train moved south, following the line of the Slaney, she imagined Jim Farrell’s mother coming upstairs with the morning post. Jim would find her note among bills and business letters. She imagined him opening it and wondering what he should do. And at some stage that morning, she thought, he would come to the house in Friary Street and her mother would answer the door and she 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.”
These are the final paragraphs of the novel, and they leave much of its central conflict unresolved. Eilis is forced to return to Brooklyn under threat of exposure by Miss Kelly, instead of by her own choosing. She mourns the life she could have had in Enniscorthy, and imagines the pain she is causing both Jim and her mother. But at the same time, she "almost smiled at the thought" that returning to Brooklyn will come to mean so much for her. The novel does not necessarily imply that she will not be happy with Tony once again, and achieve all she originally set out to achieve. It seems that Eilis is still unsure what she wants for herself, leaving the reader with a sense of melancholy.
Brooklyn Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Brooklyn is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.