When Eilis arrives at home, her mother shows her Rose’s room, which she has perfectly preserved, just the way Rose left it. She talks about how they will soon have to go through Rose’s things together, speaking as if she has rehearsed all these remarks, and Eilis feels awkward, unable to find anything to say in response. Her mother does not ask her about her life in America, or any of the things she had prepared to talk about. By the end of the first day, Eilis is already exhausted, and wishing to be back in Brooklyn.
For the first few days, Eilis and her mother attend to the business of sending memorial cards and thank-you notes to those who attended Rose’s funeral or sent condolence cards. Eilis’s mother tells her everything that has happened to everyone in the town since she has been away, but she still asks Eilis nothing about her time in America. After a few days of doing little else but writing thank-you notes, Eilis is understandably restless and irritable, wanting to see her friends.
But her mother insists that they spend the next day replacing the wreath on Rose’s grave, and so they go to the family plot the next morning. Eilis is overcome by her grief, imagining her sister’s body decaying in the ground, but she tries to remember her as she was when she was alive, beautiful and confident and charismatic. As they walk home, Eilis’s mother suggests they avoid the busier roads, and Eilis realizes that she is afraid of Eilis being invited out by friends, afraid of her leaving her side for even a moment.
So, Eilis invites Annette and Nancy to her house instead. Nancy shares the news that she is engaged to George, and shows Eilis the ring. She tells Eilis how happy she is that she will be able to attend the wedding, and Eilis is confused, as the wedding is scheduled for a week after she is to leave for Brooklyn. Nancy tells her Eilis’s mother had responded for both of them, assuring her that they would both go. This, then, is another ploy by her mother to keep her close, but Eilis concedes, extending her stay by a few weeks in order to go to the wedding. She cannot, after all, tell Nancy that she has a boyfriend waiting for her in Brooklyn, as she still has not told her mother. Besides, she thinks they will not understand her secret wedding.
For the next week, Eilis has a busy social life, until her mother demands that she begin to sort through Rose’s things. Her mother wants her to keep everything, ignoring Eilis’s protests that she will hardly be able to fit it all in her suitcase. But neither will budge on the issue, and Eilis positively refuses to go to the tailor, to have Rose’s clothes fitted for her. Her mother leaves the clothes in her wardrobe instead.
One day, she plans to go with George and Nancy to the beach, only to find that they have invited Jim Farrell. At first, she is angry with Nancy for inviting him, and for not telling her beforehand. She is cold to him throughout the car ride, hardly speaking to him. But he is not rude like he once was, and he has a new interest in her. She notices him watching her, and she is amused and even flattered. She gradually softens to him throughout the day. They end the day with a drink at the Farrells’ pub, where Jim’s mother is especially warm towards Eilis, which she cannot help but take as a sign of his interest. She finds herself agreeing to another outing with George, Nancy, and Jim for the next weekend.
When she returns home, her mother asks about the trip, and specifically about Jim. She is very pleased to know Eilis had a good time, and when satisfied on this point, she relays some important news. The mill where Rose used to work desperately needs her help with the bookkeeping until they can find a replacement for Rose. Eilis agrees to go in the next day.
Eilis finds herself more at home in Enniscorthy than she has been since she arrived from Brooklyn. But then she sees that she has received a new letter from Tony, one that her mother has tactfully placed in her room and left unmentioned. As she reads it, she feels affection for him, but cannot help but wish she had not married him so soon. The stress of keeping him from her family and friends makes her feel like two people, and yet she cannot imagine telling her mother. She resolves that it would be better to wait until she returns home in two weeks, and to write to him tomorrow.
The next day, she goes to the office as promised. She helps Maria Gethings sort through the overtime slips and organize the wage packets. She feels eerily like Rose’s ghost, working among the people she used to talk about and doing the job she used to do. But at the same time, she is gratified by the feeling that this is the work she has always wanted to do, the kind of job she has been dreaming of at Bartocci’s. She realizes, at the end of the day, that she has forgotten to write to Tony.
The weekend comes, and George, Nancy, Jim, and Eilis take another trip to the beach. But they decide to go to a less-crowded beach than originally planned, and Eilis soon understands why. Nancy, knowing that Jim is interested in Eilis, has orchestrated something of a double date, where the two are often left alone. Eilis decides that this flirtation is harmless, and that she will “go along” with it to a point. She knows that even spending the day with Jim like this would give Tony pain, but she reasons that she will set clear boundaries. She will not, for instance, go in the water with him. She soon breaks this resolution, however, though she does not allow him to touch her like Tony once had. They take photos together on the beach, with Jim embracing Eilis from behind. She is clearly conflicted, knowing that she has allowed Jim to hope that she returns his feelings. But she reasons that she will keep her secret until she leaves in two weeks, and not go out with Jim again.
But when the rest of the party suggests continuing the day by having tea and then attending the dance that night, Eilis agrees. She dances with Jim all night, and everyone notices. Eilis is drawn in by Jim’s charm, his good looks, his perfect behavior towards her. By the end of the night, they are kissing each other, unable to stop touching each other even when they are once again in the back seat of George’s car, and have an audience.
Rose’s employer soon sends for Eilis again, asking for her to continue working part-time. Mr. Brown, the owner, even says that he may soon be able to offer her a full-time position. Though she explains that she will soon be returning home to Brooklyn, he urges her not to make any firm decisions until they speak again.
Eilis marvels at how differently she is treated now that she has come back from Brooklyn. She sees that many things have changed in Enniscorthy, but Nancy points out that she has changed, too. She has a new confidence and self-assurance, a sophistication she lacked before. Eilis seems to be able to imagine a new life for herself here, working as a bookkeeper and married to Jim Farrell, living in his beautiful house and enjoying new social status.
But this dream is disrupted by two new letters from Tony, to whom she has neglected to write. She decides to answer later, pretending she had not received the letters. She can hardly imagine her life in Brooklyn now, hardly imagine herself as Tony’s wife. She has grown so comfortable here in Enniscorthy that she dreads leaving.
Jim, meanwhile, tells Eilis how he will soon have his parents house, and run the pub full-time. He asks her to come to tea and meet his parents, and despite the implications of this invitation, she accepts.
On the day of George and Nancy’s wedding, Jim Farrell picks up Eilis and her mother in his car to take them to the church. His arrival makes quite a spectacle, with several neighbors looking on from their doorways, admiring both the sophistication of Eilis’s dress and her luck in catching the attention of a man like Jim. Eilis can see that her mother is pleased by the impression they make, and the implication that Eilis and Jim will soon be an item.
The wedding ceremony is beautiful, and as she watches, Eilis thinks mournfully about her own marriage. She is sure it was a mistake, and that she does not love Tony after all. But she also knows that a future with Jim Farrell is out of the question. Even if he asks her to marry him in the short time she has left in Enniscorthy, he will not be understanding when she reveals she is already married. Divorce is highly uncommon in Enniscorthy, and she knows that he is too traditional and serious to even consider the idea. But she mourns what might have been, the wedding with her whole family present, living right down the street from her mother and her friends. She knows that no matter what she does now, she will hurt someone, whether Jim Farrell, her mother, or Tony.
As Jim and Eilis leave the wedding, Nancy’s mother, Mrs. Byrne, teases them, insinuating that they will be the next to get married. Eilis is deeply embarrassed, and annoyed at the thought of what her mother might have said to Mrs. Byrne to provoke such behavior. Jim, for his part, is cold, and hardly speaks to Eilis until they are away from the crowd, sitting on the beach alone.
He explains to her that he had always liked her, and that even when he had seemed so rude the night they met, it was only because he had been through a difficult breakup the same day. He tells her that he does not want to lose her again, that if she must go back to Brooklyn, they should talk about their future, and maybe even get engaged. Eilis avoids the question, saying that they will talk about it soon, but she is clearly emotional.
Jim’s mother soon invites Eilis to tea, and then to a reception at the golf club which will honor Rose. On the important day, Eilis visits her sister’s grave. As she gazes at the grave, she can hardly think of what to say to her, or how to pray for her. Her mind is blank and numb. She walks back towards home, trying to shake her grief through the familiar sights and faces. She meets Mary from Miss Kelly’s shop along the way. She tells Eilis that Miss Kelly wants to see her immediately. Eilis is surprised, but complies with the request, and Mary shows her into Miss Kelly’s apartment.
Miss Kelly tells her that she recently heard from her cousin, Mrs. Madge Kehoe, in America. It is clear that there is a deeper meaning behind this simple remark. But Eilis will not be intimidated by Miss Kelly anymore. She responds coldly, giving nothing away. Miss Kelly continues that she told Mrs. Kehoe about the rumors about Eilis and Jim, and how Eilis had taken over Rose’s work at Davis’s. Eilis can tell she has planned all these remarks, and she suddenly feels nervous about Miss Kelly’s intentions. Miss Kelly continues that Mrs. Kehoe, too, had some interesting news. Eilis remains calm and cold, feigning ignorance. But Miss Kelly tells her that Eilis knows what that news is, and tells her she will not be deceived. Eilis insists that she is not deceiving anyone, but Miss Kelly tells her she knows this is not true, and asks if her name is even Miss Lacey anymore. Eilis can hardly hide her alarm at this point, and takes her leave with as much disdain and dignity as she can manage.
This is the push Eilis needed to take action. She immediately calls the shipping company and reserves a ticket on the next ship, which leaves the day after the next. She writes letters to Miss Fortini, Father Flood, and Mrs. Kehoe apologizing for her late departure. She writes one to Tony telling him about her return, and telling him that she loves him, though she hesitates before sending it. When she returns home, she finally makes the dreaded confession to her mother that she is married, and must return to her husband in Brooklyn. Eilis’s mother is outwardly calm and reassuring, but she is devastated by this news. She asks about Eilis’s husband, whether her is nice, whether he is someone special. Eilis can hardly keep from crying as they talk. Her mother asks whether she married him because she was pregnant, and Eilis assures her that that was not the reason. In a particularly heartbreaking moment, she asks Eilis if she would have stayed in Enniscorthy if she had not married Tony. Eilis, tellingly, says that she does not know.
Her mother makes arrangements for her transportation to the train station the next morning, and makes her promise to write to her to tell her the whole story about her and Tony. But is clear that she is exhausted by this painful interaction, and in spite of the early hour, she insists that they say goodbye now, so that she can go to bed. Eilis is stung by her mother’s hard, distant response, and by her cutting their time together short. She wonders if her mother had known about Tony all along, if she had found her letters to Rose or guessed the truth by the letters she had received from Tony. She wishes for something more, her mother’s blessing, or forgiveness, or even responsiveness. But she is forced to pack her things alone, and contemplate how to tell Jim.
She decides to write him a note and leave it in his mailbox the next morning on her way to the train station. She debates whether to keep the photographs of them together or tear them up, but she decides to keep them, and puts them in the bottom of her suitcase. She imagines how he will feel reading her note, what he will say to her mother. She imagines her mother telling him that she has gone back to Brooklyn, and how she will fade in his memory over the years. She thinks about how though those words announcing her departure will come to mean so little to him, they will come to mean so much to herself.
Upon returning to Enniscorthy, Eilis is gratified by her newfound status. Now that she has spent time in America, become educated and polished, it seems that she can easily have all the things she had wanted before she left. The well-off man Jim Farrell wants to marry her, and Mr. Brown is prepared to give her full-time work as a bookkeeper. Eilis has achieved the economic mobility she always sought when she was in Enniscorthy, but she cannot help but remember that it was not Enniscorthy that allowed this to happen. She reminds Nancy that Jim Farrell once disdained to talk to her, and Mr. Brown would not even consider employing her, and asks what exactly about her has changed.
Moreover, she is disturbed by the fact that her own identity seems to be merged and even eclipsed with that of her sister's. After Rose's death, she takes over her work at Davis's mill and becomes her mother's new companion. She is painfully aware that she is living Rose's life: “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" (227). In consciously undoing her elegant walk, in refusing to wear Rose's old clothes, Eilis signals that she does not want to actually be Rose after all. After spending most of the novel imitating her sister, she must reverse course and differentiate herself from Rose now.
Still, the life that Enniscorthy now offers to her is attractive, especially once she becomes involved with Jim Farrell. Jim Farrell is the opposite of Tony. Where Tony is open, Jim is self-contained. Where Tony is hopeful about his ability to build a better life for himself, Jim is already exactly where he wants to be. Where Tony is friendly and charming, Jim is reserved and dignified. Tony offers Eilis a life of great challenges and great joys, while Jim offers Eilis a life of security and familiarity. The two men come to embody the question that is already weighing on Eilis: whether she should return to Brooklyn, where she has grown so much and where so much is still possible, or stay in Enniscorthy, where things are easy and secure.
But with Jim occupying more and more of her time, Brooklyn recedes in Eilis's mind, becoming more and more like a dream. In the bright church, with her fantasy life with Jim all but playing out before her eyes, she thinks that “she was sure that she did not love Tony now. He seemed part of a dream from which she had woken with considerable force some time before, and in this waking time his presence, once so solid, lacked any substance or form; it was merely a shadow at the edge of every moment of the day and night" (246). Once again, we see Eilis use the dream motif to describe her memories and the distance they hold in her mind. Her memories of Tony have been so effaced by her easy, pleasant life in Enniscorthy that they seem faded and far away.
Whatever her feelings about Brooklyn, the decision is taken out of Eilis's hands. Miss Kelly summons Eilis to a meeting which parallels their first meeting at the start of the novel, and which proves just as dramatic a catalyst. Miss Kelly knows about Eilis's secret marriage, and will tell everyone in the town if she continues with her deception. Eilis surrenders, choosing to return to Brooklyn with her dignity intact.
As she packs away her things, Eilis chooses to keep a photograph of herself and Jim Farrell with the reasoning that “Some time in the future, she thought, she would look at them and remember what would soon, she knew now, seem like a strange, hazy dream to her" (261). In a return to the dream motif, Eilis signals that she has resigned herself to a life in America, where Enniscorthy will become the hazy dream, the life she might have had.
In the final lines of the novel, she thinks about Jim's pain when he finds out she is returning to America, imagining how she will fade from his memory. She thinks about “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" (262). Though Eilis clearly mourns the alternate life she might have had with Jim Farrell, she seems to be not entirely without hope for future happiness in America. This unresolved indecision, Eilis's continual passivity in her own life, is frustrating, to say the least, but it leaves the story open to the reader's interpretation. This lack of resolution, still tinged with hope, gives the novel its melancholy feel.