Homesick and Happy in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

By Sue Norton

Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn operates, like so much of modern fiction, on planes of moral ambiguity and relativism.  Few clearly correct options present themselves to the central character who maintains our sympathy because of the emotionally fraught situation in which she finds herself.  But unlike so much modern fiction, Brooklyn offers a potential way forward, an exit strategy from the perpetual regret and reconsideration brought on by most moral and emotional conundrum.  It is, in its artfully fictitious way, as therapeutic as a really good self-help book.  As someone who has suffered innumerable bouts of homesickness since leaving The United States for Ireland in 1993, I felt soothed in reading it.  It offers an anatomy of homesickness that is both compassionate and life affirming.

Eilis Lacey, the novel’s heroine, wants to do right by all of the people she loves, but any choice she makes will cause damage to someone.   Hers is a story at once painfully contemporary and as old as Diaspora itself.   At the urgings of her widowed mother and encouraging sister, unemployed bookkeeper-in-training Eilis emigrates to 1950s New York from provincial Ireland with the sponsorship of well-intentioned Father Flood.  After a nauseating sea passage, during which she suffers an intense physical and symbolic emptying, she finds herself working on the shop floor of an Italian owned Brooklyn department store.

We picture her stunned yet exhilarated by the glitzy pedestrian traffic of city life, as compared to the more steady stream of familiar country faces that used to pass through the doors of the sweet shop she had worked in back home in Ireland.

In the beginning, she is so anxious to present herself well, to ascertain and meet expectations, both in her boarding house and in her job, that she barely registers the strangeness of her new surroundings.  She pauses hardly long enough to notice her own loneliness.  She is doggedly obedient to her landlady, to her shop supervisor, and to Father Flood.  She is a young Irish lass abroad, yes, and she wants to be good.  But not entirely naive, Eilis is also a girl wholly capable of self-reflection.  She is astute to her own layers and levels of consciousness, and when she eventually realises that she is homesick, she becomes distressed.

Having moved to Ireland from the New York tri-State nearly two decades ago, I found myself relating most profoundly to Eilis at the moment in the narrative when she grasps her profound irrelevance:  “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… .  Nothing here was part of her.  It was false and empty, she thought.  She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing.  Not the slightest thing.  Not even Sunday.”

Eilis endures, though, until one day when, quite unexpectedly, she nearly suffers a nervous breakdown on the shop floor.  To help her recover, Father Flood enrols her in a two-year bookkeeping course in Brooklyn College and insists on her involvement in the social events of his parish.  From then on, Eilis resolves to suppress her emotions.  “No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how bad she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind.  She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night.  It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window.”

And so she covers herself in her books, her work, and her volunteerism in the parish.  She writes many cheerful letters home to her mother and her sister Rose, for she will never share the truth with them.  In the cruellest irony of emigration, she makes herself unknowable even to those she yearns for.

At first we wonder whether Eilis will persevere in America, thus meeting the expectations of her family that she make a better life for herself, or whether she will succumb to her desire for home, a desire that comes to her in “flashing pictures” of her “own life in Enniscorthy, the life she had lost and would never have again…. of her own room, the house in Friary Street, the food she had eaten there, the clothes she wore, how quiet everything was.”

For a short while, we wonder if this is to be Eilis’s central dilemma:  impressive but homesick, or pathetic but home.  In itself, such an existential crossroad can make for compelling plot.  But Tóibín complicates matters further for Eilis.

First he offers her false security.  He provides a number of solutions to her initial homesickness.  Gradually Eilis takes sustenance from routine.  She excels in her role as shop assistant; she takes an interest in her classes; she finds quiet pleasure in her private room in the boarding house; and she eventually comes to accept and return the affections of a young man named Tony.  Tóibín builds for Eilis a kind of infrastructure.  He provides her with some dependables, and she gradually depends on them.  She relents, in other words, to the comforts around her.  And in her opening of herself to these comforts, Tóibín suggests that, for those who suffer disappointment, allowing one version of happiness to replace another is wise.  He demonstrates as well that chronic longing eventually becomes unsustainable.  It simply isn’t feasible to live, for long, in a state of emptiness.   Tóibín gives Eilis a steady job and a steady boyfriend, and he lets her let them in.   Thus he allows her the gift of a promising future.

Like Eilis, many of us who suffer estrangement brought on by distant relocation eventually choose to cut our losses.  At the point in the narrative when Eilis begins to allow herself to enjoy life in New York, I found myself realizing that I too had relinquished, in some measure, my own homesickness.  At around twelve years into my tenure in Ireland, I began to feel as though, in my desire for my lost American life, I had been gripping an electrified fence:  wanting to let go, but compelled to hold on.  But, like Eilis, I had also begun to permit some pleasures.  I allowed friendships to form, a career to evolve, and certain pastimes to recur.  I came to welcome some of the blessings of my exile, just as Eilis does.

But authors giveth and authors taketh away.  Before long, Eilis suffers a reversal.  She is sent news of the sudden, tragic death of her sister Rose.  At first she is lost in shock, and then she offers consolation by telephone to her mother, and then she tries to return to what has become her normal routine.   She draws much closer to Tony, who loves her.  She looks forward to career growth at the department store.  And then, in a somewhat spur of the moment decision, she asks Fr. Flood to assist her in securing leave from her job to return to Ireland for a month’s stay.  Tony, afraid of losing Eilis to her bereaved mother, convinces her to marry him in a secret civil ceremony before she goes.  She loves him, and so she says I do.

Emigrants everywhere who have experienced how unnerving and surreal visits home can be, will recognise Eilis’ disorientation.  She notes that her bedroom on Friary Lane seems ‘empty of life, which almost frightened her in how little it meant to her.  She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back.”

But Eilis’s fright at her own lack of interest in being home gradually gives way to a pleasurable feeling of confidence as the townspeople begin to take admiring notice of her and as her friends come to call for her.  She tells no one that she is married.  She at first discourages the attentions of eligible bachelor Jim Farrell, but soon finds herself seduced by his interest in her.  She quietly revels in his amorousness and enjoys the convertible car rides that they take to the seaside.  Still heartsick for the loss of her sister Rose, she begins to see how building a life with Jim Farrell, who is kind and potentially prosperous, would allow her to comfort her mother in the years to come.  Tony begins to seem remote.  She writes to him less frequently and sometimes neglects to open his letters to her.

But because Eilis is a protagonist so given to introspection, so averse to self delusion, and so usually careful with the feelings of others, we do not see her as an adulteress.  We see her as girl genuinely determined to use her life well and to enjoy it well too.  When Jim hints at marriage, she gives heavy consideration to the idea.  In the space of a few weeks, Enniscorthy has regained its familiarity to her, and New York has come to seem like a faraway Neverland.

Tóibín’s determined placement of Eilis, such a sympathetic character, in a state so betwixt and between is arresting and suspenseful.  We cannot imagine what she will do, whose heart she will break, or even what she should do.  She tries to pray for direction, and finds herself “actually answering the question that she was about to ask in her prayers.  The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. …  And she saw all three of them – Tony, Jim, her mother – as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain.”  In Eilis, Tóibín gives us a figure of integrity, a figure bound, ironically, by constraints born of the openness with which she has tried to meet her circumstances.  In the eyes of the reader, Eilis is not tainted by reckless self-interest, and neither are those in her inner circle.  Her mother, we see, is worthy of her love, as is Tony, and as, in time, Jim Farrell would likely be.

As events unfold, we find we admire how it is that Eilis has become acutely homesick on both sides of the Atlantic, but has acclimated on both sides of it as well.  We are convinced by the sincerity of her emotions each time they shift, and, if we have ever experienced estrangement ourselves, we are immensely encouraged by her ability to remain open to the motions of grace.  Nevertheless, we recognise the difficulty of her ultimate predicament.  Who will she choose?  Where will she choose?

And then, fate decides.  A local Enniscorthy gossip learns of Tony from Eilis’s Brooklyn landlady, a distant relation.  Condescending and self-righteous, she toys with Eilis’s sense of reputation and threatens to expose her to Jim Farrell.   Eilis, as dignified in this cruel encounter as we have found her to be throughout her travails, simply removes herself home to reveal to her mother that she is married and must return to New York.  She had just the previous day reasoned of Jim Farrell, “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 as divorce were raised.”  Both stoic and loving, Eilis’s mother gives her unqualified blessing to Eilis’s new life, despite the additional loss and suffering that she herself must now endure going forward.  Quietly heartbroken, she withdraws to her room unlikely to see her surviving daughter ever again.  Eilis embarks on her voyage to New York the next day.  Significantly, she leaves the curtains open as she packs her bags, unwilling to ‘cover’ herself any longer.

Tóibín’s minute revelation of Eilis’ story will be immensely reassuring to those who have wrestled with the ambivalent guilt of having left loved ones behind.  The complexities of estrangement are fully wrought through the perambulations of Eilis’ mind.  Our misery will love her company, but so will our hope for a brighter tomorrow.

It is in the novel’s closing words that we locate Tóibín’s reassuring moral.  Eilis imagines that Jim Farrell, having received her note of farewell, turns up bewildered at her mother’s doorstep.  “‘She has gone back to Brooklyn,’ her mother would say.  And as the train rolled past Macmine Bridge on its ways 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.”

Thus, Eilis begins her life anew.  Or, more accurately, she resumes her new life, returning, as she is, to a promising marriage she has barely embarked upon and to a city in which she had begun to shine.  Her smile on the train suggests her open heart, as does her sensible unwillingness to imagine anything further.    Though compromised her life will be, it will not be empty or tragic.

Brooklyn represents an instance of fiction as instruction.  It offers a way forward to those of us who have walked in Eilis Lacey’s immigrant / emigrant footsteps.  This heroine possesses the enviable quality that the poet John Keats called negative capability, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”  Eilis, having proven to herself her own resilience, embraces the unknown.  She understands at the close of the narrative what she could not have understood at its start.  She understands that, provided her days take on a generally comfortable, generally rewarding predictability, she can make peace with them.  In Brooklyn, we discover that a person may sometimes be homesick but can nevertheless be happy.

Sue Norton is an American lecturer of English in The Dublin Institute of Technology.  She has crossed the Atlantic Ocean fifty times in nineteen years because that is what you do when your heart has two homes and direct flights are available. 

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  1. I just finished reading “Brooklyn”, and Ms. Norton’s beautifully written, astute, compassionate review was an illuminating delight to read. Thanks! D.S.