How to find one's home is a central question in this novel, and it is closely tied to identity. Eilis is torn away from the place she thought she would call home for her whole life, which is a terrifying and disorienting experience for her. She is desperately homesick for much of the novel, feeling like she does not belong, and like her identity has been erased. By building relationships in the community, by getting to know Brooklyn and coming to be known there in turn, she creates a second home for herself in a foreign city. But when she is forced to choose between these two homes, she is torn, feeling like two people. It is a question Eilis never fully resolves in the novel, perhaps because she cannot resolve the question of herself.
Memory plays an important role in bridging the gap between our past identities and our current selves, our past homes and our current ones. Whether in Enniscorthy or Brooklyn, Eilis is constantly remembering the other place, and what it means or does not mean to her anymore. Eilis's memories are often compared to dreams, especially in moments where she feels furthest away from her past. Memory is the only way that Eilis can seek to resolve the question of who she is, where her home is, and what she truly wants.
In this novel, identity is closely tied to environment. That is presumably why it is so unbalancing for Eilis to move to America. The loss of her hometown uproots her sense of self, and she must work to rebuild it by navigating her new community. One of the ways that Eilis often does this is by emulating the person she most admires: her sister Rose. Eilis does manage to grow her confidence and cultivate a new image of self-possession. But at the same time, Eilis is a passive observer, content to let others make life-changing decisions for her. What she seems to lack throughout the novel is a grounded sense of self that is not influenced by her environment, that determines what she most values and makes her choices accordingly. Like the question of home, Eilis's sense of identity is still very much unresolved by the end of the novel.
Tradition vs. Assimilation
One of Eilis's primary conflicts in her time in America is whether to try to assimilate and integrate herself into the community, or cling to her memories of Enniscorthy. This problem recurs in many forms throughout the novel. The constant conflict between the American-born Patty and Diana and the Irish-born Sheila and Miss McAdams embodies the very same struggle. Eilis's indecision between the thoroughly Irish, thoroughly traditional Jim and the open, hopeful, American-born Tony reincarnates this struggle once again. Eilis must constantly choose between familiarity and change, or hope to find some balance between the two.
Class and Economic Mobility
Economic mobility is one of the driving forces of the plot, and it is central to the idea of an immigrant narrative. The story only begins because there is a lack of economic mobility in Enniscorthy, a problem which is pushing out the working class and fracturing families. Class divisions, meanwhile, are becoming more and more entrenched. Eilis's journey to America is made for the purpose of achieving the kind of economic mobility that is just not possible in Enniscorthy. When she achieves that kind of mobility, it opens a whole new set of doors, some which allow her to move forward in America, and some that allow her to return to Enniscorthy.
As a woman immigrant in the 1950s, Eilis undoubtedly faced certain limitations because of her gender. Eilis and her sister feel responsible for the care of their aging mother in a way that their brothers do not, and this affects their futures. Eilis is pressured to want marriage and a family even though she does not feel ready for those things. Eilis is unable to explore her sexuality without the scrutiny of her whole community, and the entire blame of the act falling on her shoulders. But just as often, the novel depicts women empowering each other, and forming connections that help them to better navigate the challenges they face. From Rose, to Georgina, to Mrs. Kehoe, to Miss Fortini, to Patty, Eilis had plenty of people looking out for her wellbeing and helping her to build a new life in America. In them, she found a surrogate family and an invaluable support system. Moreover, the novel fully embraces the ways that women relate to each other. Clothing, makeup, and hairstyles are points of connection and markers of identity. Makeovers are bonding experiences between women. Brooklyn is focused less on women's oppression than on celebrating the ways that women empower each other, and following the journey of one of those women.
Race is a constant undercurrent in the novel. Even before she leaves for America, Eilis is shocked to learn that her brother Jack has been the victim of English prejudice against Irish immigrants. Still, this is hardly preparation for what she will find in America. Eilis unwittingly finds herself at the center of a controversial decision for Bartocci's to sell Red Fox Stockings, which are made for black women. She works the sales counter for these products, and faces the vitriol and prejudice of her fellow lodgers as a result. She instinctively finds their hateful comments to be wrong, but she hardly has the understanding necessary to rebut them. She finds herself in another challenging position when she learns from a bookstore owner that her professor narrowly escaped the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of every other member of his family. At the time, Eilis had never heard the term Holocaust, and does not understand its significance aside from its obvious connection to the war. Her innocent questions deeply upset him, and she learns that her own ignorance has new and unexpected consequences. While never at the forefront of the novel, Eilis's experiences with race form an integral part of her experience with American life as a whole.
Brooklyn Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Brooklyn is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.