Clothes and make-up are mentioned constantly throughout the novel. They are the only thing that Mrs. Kehoe will allow the boarders to talk about around the dinner table, for instance: “As they sat at the table, she did not like the girls talking among themselves, or discussing matters she knew nothing about, and she did not encourage any mention of boyfriends. She was mainly interested in clothes and shoes, and where they could be bought and at what price and at what time of the year. Changing fashions and new trends were her daily topic, although she herself, as she often pointed out, was too old for some of the new colours and styles. Yet, Eilis saw, she dressed impeccably and noticed every item each of her lodgers was wearing. She also loved discussing skin care and different types of skin and problems. Mrs. Kehoe had her hair done once a week, on a Saturday, using the same hairdresser each time, spending several hours with her so that her hair would be perfect for the rest of the week" (56-57).
But clothes and make-up are also used as a way to say things about a character's identity. For example, Dolores's mismatched outfit and lurid makeup immediately make a bad impression on Eilis: “She was wearing a cheap leather jacket, like a man’s, and a frilly white blouse and a white skirt and almost black stockings. The red lipstick seemed garish against her freckled face and bright hair. She struck Eilis as looking like a horse-dealer’s wife in Enniscorthy on a fair day. Eilis almost fled downstairs as soon as she saw her" (128). Dolores proves as unpleasant and vulgar as her outfit suggests, calling the other boarders "bitches" and talking constantly about how she wants a "fella."
Georgina, in contrast, whose makeup and hairstyle are like "a film star's," is as poised, sophisticated, and confident as her look implies. She even imparts some of her worldly wisdom to Eilis, both in the form of practical advice for getting through immigration, and in the form of a makeover. The narrator states, “Georgina made Eilis sit on the bottom bunk and turn her face towards the light and close her eyes. For twenty minutes she worked slowly, applying a thin cake of make-up and then some rouge, with eye-liner and mascara. She backcombed her hair. When she finished, she sent Eilis into the bathroom with some lipstick and told her to put it on very gently and make sure that she did not spread it all over her face. When Eilis looked at herself in the mirror she was surprised. She seemed older and, she thought, almost good-looking. She thought that she would love to know how to put make-up on properly herself in the way that Rose knew and Georgina knew. It would be much easier, she imagined, to go out among people she did not know, maybe people she would never see again, if she could look like this" (52).
She receives another makeover from her housemate Patty:
"She offered to show Eilis how to put on the black eye-liner and some mascara and they spent time at the mirror together, ignoring everyone who came in and out. With extra clips that she carried in her bag, Patty put Eilis’s hair up for her. 'Now, you look like a ballet dancer,' she said. 'No, I don’t,' Eilis said. 'Well, at least you don’t look like you’ve just come in from milking the cows any more'” (130-131).
She receives something akin to a makeover from Miss Fortini, who helps her choose a bathing suit for the beach, and advises her to shave her bikini line.
All of these experiences help Eilis to better present herself as she would like to be seen and to become more American in her style. This series of makeovers serves to show how Eilis's actual identity is changing as well. She truly does grow in confidence, and she grows more and more comfortable in her identity as an American. Throughout the novel, clothes and make-up are a way for Eilis to define herself and to connect with others.
Several times throughout the novel, Eilis compares her memories to dreams as a way to express a sense of distance between herself and her past.
In her first passage to America, Eilis gets horribly seasick, and she wishes she could pretend it were not real: “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” (46). If she could only convince herself that that horrible moment was a dream, she would be able to escape her misery, and gain some distance from her own strong emotions. But she is unable to do that here.
At Nancy's wedding, when Eilis's fantasies of a life with Jim Farrell are all but playing out before her, Eilis compares her life with Tony to a dream. Sitting in the church, 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). Her love for Tony seems dreamlike and far away when compared with the immediacy of her feelings for Jim. She alienates herself from her past, almost as if she does not want it to be real.
At the end of the novel, she decides to keep photographs of herself and Jim Farrell. She explains that she does this because “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). Already she is anticipating that her short time back in Enniscorthy will recede in her memory and come to have little bearing on her everyday life. She hopes, at least, that it will seem little more than a pleasant dream to her then.
“For a moment, as she held the photographs taken that day in Cush, the one with her and Jim and George and Nancy, and the one of her alone with Jim as they smiled so innocently at the camera, she thought she would tear them up and put them in the bin downstairs. But then she thought better of it and slowly took all her clothes out of the case and placed the two photographs face down safely at the bottom of the case and then covered them over again. 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 one of the final scenes of the novel, Eilis must decide what to do with the photographs of her and Jim Farrell. It is tempting to tear them up, and try to forget about the experience, but she cannot bring herself to do it. Neither does she tear them up out of guilt or fear of being discovered by Tony. Instead, she packs them carefully in her suitcase. The photographs symbolize the life that she might have had if she had stayed in Ireland, and her decision to keep it signifies her unresolved indecision about what it is she truly wants. Even though she is going through the motions of packing her things and returning to America, she is unwilling to let go of that alternative life that she might have had.
Eilis channeling Rose (Motif)
In difficult moments, Eilis often imagines how her sister Rose might act, and endeavors to imitate her confidence and charm. The first example of this is as soon as she leaves her sister's company. When a porter helps her with her bags, “she found herself thanking him in a tone that Rose might have used, a tone warm and private but also slightly distant though not shy either, a tone used by a woman in full possession of herself. It was something she could not have done in the town or in a place where any of her family or friends might have seen her" (34). It is interesting, here, that Eilis notes that she could not have practiced this kind of confidence among her friends and neighbors. But allowed to reinvent herself among new people, she intentionally adopts Rose's confidence, charisma, and poise.
These qualities serve her well in moments of confrontation. When Mrs. Kehoe gives Eilis the best room in the house, keeping it a secret from the other girls and putting Eilis in an uncomfortable position, Eilis again thinks of her sister: "'It’s always better to be honest,' she said, imitating Rose when Rose found her dignity or sense of propriety challenged in any way. 'I mean with everybody,' she added" (104).
She uses this same strategy in her confrontation with Father Flood. She worries he will confront her about letting Tony stay the night, but she decides, once again, to channel Rose. “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).
Throughout the novel, Eilis becomes more and more like her older sister, and learns to navigate the world in much the same style. But when she returns to Enniscorthy, she is forced to differentiate herself. She does Rose's job and lives where Rose used to live. Her mother even wants her to wear Rose's old clothes. She notes, “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). Eilis learns much from Rose, but at some point, she needs to forge her own identity.
The story is structured around three one-on-one confrontations throughout the novel. Each acts as an important turning point.
The first is Eilis's conversation with Miss Kelly on pages 4-6. Though technically Miss Kelly only means to offer Eilis a job, the way Miss Kelly summons her and the condescending remarks she makes make it seem far more combative. Eilis takes the job, but worries about her older sister's reaction. Eilis is well aware that Rose wants better for her: "She knew that Rose had tried to find her work in an office, and Rose was paying for her books now that she was studying bookkeeping and rudimentary accountancy, but she knew also that there was, at least for the moment, no work for anyone in Enniscorthy, no matter what their qualifications.” She decides not to tell her sister about the job, and if asked, plans to justify taking it with the excuse that she's "'just there until something else turns up.'" But Rose does find out, and though she says nothing to Eilis about it, she soon announces her plan to send Eilis to America. It is likely, then, that Eilis working for Miss Kelly was a decisive moment for Rose, spurring her to finally make the necessary arrangements to get Eilis to America.
The second is when Eilis meets with Father Flood after her sister's death. Though on the surface their discussion is about whether Eilis should return to Enniscorthy, there is an undercurrent they both understand. Eilis notes that “Whatever way he looked at her, he managed to let her know that he meant more than he said, that he was suggesting it might be hard for her mother not only losing Rose but having a daughter who would take a man home to her room for the night" (201). Though Eilis refuses to acknowledge his meaning, she is rattled enough that she improvises a plan to return home. She explains, "Before she had seen Father Flood, it had not occurred to Eilis that she might go home for a brief stay. But once it had been said and did not sound ridiculous and had met with Father Flood’s approval, then it became a plan, something that she was determined to do" (203). This spur-of-the-moment decision will prove an important one, as Eilis's return to Enniscorthy will force her to choose between her new life in America and the one she left behind.
The final confrontation of the novel is once again between Eilis and Miss Kelly on pages 254-256. This meeting is a mirror of the first, with Mary summoning Eilis to Miss Kelly's apartment in exactly the same way. But this time, Miss Kelly implies that she knows Eilis is married, and all but threatens to tell everyone in the town. Once again, Eilis refuses to acknowledge her meaning, but she cannot escape the implications of her words. She is forced to come clean to Jim Farrell and her mother, and return to Brooklyn.
The central importance of these confrontations supports the idea that Eilis is more of a passive observer than an active participant in her own life. It takes a confrontation by another person to make her take any action, and even the actions she does take are largely dictated by those around her.
Brooklyn Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Brooklyn is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.