Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (2009)

Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn (2009) features the experiences of an Irish migrant, Eilis Lacey, a young woman who travelled on her own and settled in Brooklyn, New York, in the United States during the early 1950s.  In this way, the novel provides insight into the Irish-migrant experience and, by implication, into the migrant experience in general.  While being about the migrant experience, the novel does not treat the subject as a sociologist would, but as a novelist, emphasising the thoughts, feelings and little dramas involved in the transition from one country, life and identity to another. 

The novel therefore deals with the emotional ups and downs of this young migrant in ways that are meant to be insightful and revealing.  For example, the novel deals with the migrant’s initial heavy reliance on fellow-countrymen to aid in her settlement, and the migrant’s negotiation of a myriad of cultural differences involved in the gradual process of acculturation.  The novel also deals with the acute emotional pain of homesickness and its slow, eventual passing.  In particular, the novel notes how finding love in a new land ties one to it, facilitating the establishment of roots in the new country and the severing of sentimental ties and responsibilities to the old country.   

The novel details the push factors that see an intelligent young woman with a good work ethic and study ethic, and therefore the potential for upward social mobility, leave her economically-backward small Irish town of Enniscorthy.  She came from a place where, in 1952, most people did not own a telephone and where employment prospects were minimal, which increased the chances of being economically exploited by an unscrupulous employer, as Eilis was in regards to working for Miss Kelly in her grocery shop.  

The novel also details the pull factors relating to Brooklyn, New York, which is a bustling, sophisticated cosmopolitan city with ample opportunities for those willing to work and study hard to improve themselves.  It also has a large Irish migrant population that will aid in the settlement of an Irish newcomer.  Most notably, Brooklyn had a charitable Catholic priest, Father Flood, who will organise lodgings for Eilis, as well as arrange her employment and study opportunities.  He will also provide compassion and counselling during tough times. 

With great sensitivity and attention to detail, the novel comprehensively covers the psychological dimensions of being a migrant.  For example, it deals with one’s initial doubts about leaving home, the anguish experienced on board ship due to not knowing to how to minimise seasickness by avoiding a meal on the night of a big storm, and the main character’s sense of surprise at the discovery of the need to look healthy upon disembarking to pass by the transit authorities without quarantine.  Upon arrival, the novel deals with the disorienting yet exciting sense of being a stranger in a strange land despite one’s familiarity with the shared English language.  It also deals with the confusing unfamiliarity of the local geography and weather conditions, and looks at the main character’s heightened sense of curiosity regarding unfamiliar day-to-day customs taken for granted by locals, like the way American parents walk their children to school while Irish parents do not.  The novel also deals with the feeling of being friendless and lonely, the emotional pain of homesickness, the burdens of doing full-time work while attending night school on top of that, and the comfort that arises from associating with one’s fellow countrymen until one is fully integrated. 

By detailing the process by which a migrant acculturates and integrates to feel part of their new country, there will initially be a time when the migrant feels more a part of their old country, which will be followed by a time when the migrant is torn by conflicting loyalties, which will then be followed by a time when the migrant identifies with the new country.  The establishment of a loving relationship in the new country is shown to play a major role in the migrant establishing roots and making the new country feel like home. 

While dealing sensitively with the migrant experience, the novel also depicts young romance with the same degree of sensitivity.  The novel details the mixture of pleasure and anxiety that can be experienced in social situations like dances, where young people can meet and form relationships.  The novel features the ebb and flow and ups and downs of the romance between the Irish-born Eilis and the Brooklyn-born Tony who is of Italian background, presenting their romance as involving a mixture of happiness, discovery, insecurity and uncertainty.  Although the novel was written by a man, it seeks to convincingly deal with romance from a female perspective, which is the perspective of its main character, Eilis.   Tony’s committed pursuit of Eilis, and her gradual realisation of how much she loves him, comprises a major dimension of the novel.  At one stage, near the end of the novel, Eilis is torn between two lovers who each reside in different towns on different continents, Tony in Brooklyn and Jim Farrell in Enniscorthy.  This romantic dilemma risked creating a scandal that was averted by Eilis’s decisive return to the United States to be with Tony. 

The novel puts the Catholic Church and its priests in a positive light by featuring the generous help and pastoral care provided by Father Flood to the young migrant, Eilis, who is unsure of herself in her new surroundings and in need of help.  The novel features the selfless charity of Father Flood who exhibits a devotion to doing good works for others.  Generally, the novel conveys the positive role that the Catholic Church can play in people’s lives, such as by helping an individual through tough times, such as when Eilis was suffering from homesickness, or by helping people through periods of grief, such as when Eilis was grieving for her sister Rose who died.  Father Flood’s parish also charitably provides Christmas lunch to the down-and-out and the lonely.  Father Flood had a notable talent for convincingly asking powerful people to do favours to help those in need.  He knew how to bring out the charitable sides of his parishioners so that by helping the church they end up helping each other. 

The novel pays great attention to providing authentic recognisable detail about locations, especially regarding the author’s small town of Enniscorthy in Ireland, in which parts of the novel are set.  In this way, the novel pays tribute to this town and puts it on the map in the world of literature.  Similar detail is provided about Brooklyn and parts of Manhattan that would enable those familiar with these places to recognise them.  This seems intended to give the novel a great deal of authenticity. 

Set in the early 1950s, the novel notes the impact of the civil rights movement and the increased integration of ‘coloured’ people into formerly whites-only places, like a department store.  Some white people, like Eilis, welcome this change while others have difficulty with it.  However, this change represents what will become normal practice in the near future. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2023 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Brooklyn meaning, Brooklyn themes, Brooklyn analysis, Brooklyn notes