Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"The Jamesian Secret: Representations of Irish Immigrant Experience in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:

This paper discusses some secrets concerning Colm Tóibín and Henry James – some open secrets. The task at hand is to look into the Jamesian legacy in Brooklyn, by our mutual favourite, Colm Tóibín. Tóibín is an accomplished Jacobite both as an author (Tóibín 2004) and as a critic (Tóibín 2010), but he is also an internationally acclaimed Irish author with a serious interest in Irish issues. The essay focuses on the intersection of Jamesian features and the representation of Irishness in his Brooklyn. Brooklyn itself is a Jamesian story of a young girl moving to a new country and learning to play along new social rules, to understand differently, a story of migration and transculturation in the 20th century transatlantic context. One can even see it as Tóibín’s version of James’ transatlantic story of the innocent immigrant girl in The Portrait of a Lady. At the same time, Brooklyn is a specifically Irish-American immigrant novel in which a young rural Irish girl goes to America for a job, gets married and, after some complications, settles. The complications involve the betrayal of her lovers and I would like to look into the use of Jamesian ambiguity in the complications of this immigrant story. The question is this: what role does Jamesian ambiguity have in the representation of the heroine’s, Eilis’s, immigrant experience? It appears that the use of Jamesian secrets and ambiguity in the novel enhances the fluidity and socially preprogrammed nature of the immigrant experience Eilis undergoes.

This position is going to be explained in three separate steps. Firstly, taking a look at the Irish-American background of the novel will clarify the specifically moral implications of the plot. Secondly, by surveying its Jamesian themes, the Jamesian ambiguity of the story will be highlighted. Last but not least, scenes of Irish-American ambiguity will be considered which accentuate the moral implications in the novel. The way I see her, Eilis as a Jamesian character is neither a villain nor an heroine, but an immigrant who is helpless in a morally ambiguous situation.

1. Irish-American themes in Brooklyn

Eilis Lacey, the young female protagonist of Brooklyn, leaves a dreary Ireland that offers her no job and no boyfriend in the early 1950s. In the US she befriends a young Italian man, Tony, she first goes to bed with and then gets married to before returning to Ireland for a visit. Back home she finds another suitor, who, oblivious to her prior ties, offers to marry her. She is very much tempted to accept, when transatlantic Irish gossip reveals her marital status and she is obliged to flee back to the US before an impending scandal breaks out. She leaves behind her elderly widow of a mother, her disappointed suitor, and the possibility of a middle class life in Ireland — in exchange for a US working class existence. In sum, she starts out as a typical immigrant to the US: both her character and the story that evolves around her share features of previous Irish emigrant narratives. This brings the discussion to the first open secret to reconsider: that of Brooklyn’s relation to past and contemporary narratives of the Irish-American immigrant experience.

In the context of the 19th century conventions of the Anglo-Irish immigrant novel, Eilis is the young woman in mortal moral danger in America. A case in point is Mary Anne Sadlier’s transatlantic Irish fiction. As Yvonne O’Keeffe has shown, Sadlier’s novels are concerned with the question of what happens to the Catholic faith of Irish women once they leave Ireland. America represents a danger to the faith of these women, who more often than not suffer from lapsed faith, materialistic tendencies and a loss of moral virtues (O’Keefe 154). O’Keeffe has also identified that the emigrant story includes the voyage to America, setting up a new home, finding new employment, sending letters home, and the loneliness and isolation of emigrant experience (153). The didactic aim is to point out to Irish girls the path to success in America: that the morals and rituals of Catholicism should be transported to America, then success is secured (O’Keefe 152, Janssen 165).

From the perspective of the typical 19th-century Irish American immigrant novel, Eilis faces the usual stages and perils of emigration. In the course of her life in the US she learns that her faith is not strong enough: she cannot withstand the temptations America offers and falls into moral loss, only to be coerced back to decency by the threat of scandal. At the outset Father Flood arranges for her journey, job, and accommodation all within the confines of his parish in Brooklyn. First, Eilis finds solace in this but as her meeting with Tony takes its unexpected turn, she knows her actions are being watched and criticized at work, at the house, and at the dances in the parish hall, too. She flees back to Ireland to repent, only to face another dilemma there.

In the context of turn of the century conventions of representing Irish immigration, the virtue of staying home is stressed or debated. Another case in point is Joyce’s “Eveline” from Dubliners, with its intricate parody of turn of the century official Irish nationalist view on immigration (Mullin 172). Eveline is tempted by her suitor to emigrate to and get married in Buenos Aires, but she is eventually unable to depart. Brooklyn’s intertextual ties to “Eveline” have also been discussed before: the very issue of immigration, young women as protagonists, third person narration, heroines as passive observers (Young 125). Tory Young draws attention to the problematic agency of the young protagonists in the two stories. She claims readers try to decide if Eveline and Eilis took the right decisions, judging them on their actions and their passivity (128). Eilis’s passivity is usually criticised, while Eveline’s receives more sympathy. Young locates formal features of distancing narration in Brooklyn that account for the readers’ negative judgment of Eilis’s actions. She maintains readers dislike the constant presence of the narrator in the telling and the detachment from Eilis that follows (137). Because of the distancing, it appears that Eilis takes no responsibility for her actions, everything just happens to her (138). Therefore there is no moral dilemma for her, no question of choosing one guy or the other, one life or the other. In this sense, her actions can hardly be described as free.

In the context of contemporary transnational Irish fiction, the reconfiguration of traditional national identities is normally discussed (Fogarty 121, Ladrón 280). The figure of the immigrant is used in order to scrutinize the shattering of conventional notions about self, family, community (Fogarty 130). A case in point is Edna O’Brien’s work that focuses on the fluidity of Irish identity and problematizes female gender roles in Irish patterns of social normalization. Brooklyn has been compared to O’Brien’s Irish-American emigrant novel A Light of Evening (2006) in particular to point out that there is a shared interest in the in Irish women’s limited gender roles (dutiful daughter) and problematic agency and subjection when she emigrates alone (Stoddard 147). Morales Ladrón has shown how both novels disclose the complexity and diversity of diasporic identity, never at home in the homeland or in the host land, with shifting meanings for the term “home” (Ladrón 289). Drawing a parallel between Brooklyn and O’Brien’s A Country Girl (1960) in the title of his review, Christopher Tayler has pointed out that in Irish immigrant narratives “moving to America is the natural thing to do. […] Tóibín makes this emigrant’s story more painful without simply reversing those assumptions or ruling out an ironic distance from postwar Irish insularity” (Tayler).

So Brooklyn can be linked to diverse traditions of writing the Irish-American immigrant story. The 19th-century interest in the young girl’s Catholicism is overwhelming, the parish provides the spiritual and social life for Eilis. Yet moral certainties and the determination for success in the new land disappear. Eilis’s passivity is akin to Eveline’s inability to act, and while social expectation makes Eveline stay despite her inclination to go, and it makes Eilis leave home two times, despite her inclination to stay (Schillinger). Sharing contemporary interests, her story of emigration represents both the contingency of events in her life and the determining effect of unchallenged gender norms on it.

At the same time, Brooklyn does not represent Ireland negatively. Rather, it presents three different versions of Ireland in due course, and also Eilis’ possible traditional gender roles are represented as desirable. The first image of Ireland is indeed negative: dreary, devoid of possibilities. Compared to this, Father Flood’s Brooklyn and parish present an idealized version of Ireland (O’Connel 6): an Irish community with jobs, money, prospective husbands, education, and a future, a projected idealized version of Ireland. Secondly, when Eilis is actually in Brooklyn and is smitten by homesickness, she again projects an idealized Ireland for herself. This is Eilis’s nostalgic idea of the land she left behind. This vision is most poignant at Christmas Eve at the parish hall, when she serves Xmas dinner to leftover Irishmen, immigrants of the 1920s (Almeida 7), who had built the roads and the bridges but are now penniless and homeless in their new land. Compared to this, Irish Ireland seems preferable to Brooklyn’s false promises, as symbolized by the song of longing the ceili singer performs that evening. The singer reminds Eilis of her dead father, whom she knows is dead, as she knows Ireland is dreary, yet for a strong nostalgic moment both father and Ireland seem alive. The third image of Ireland is constructed when Eilis is back home for a visit to suddenly find that she is popular, she has a job, she has a suitor, and a possible middle class future in Ireland. As Liam McIlvannery puts it, Ireland has become her America after her two years in the States, while Brooklyn failed to fulfill its promises (McIlvannery). So there are diverse representations of Ireland and Irishness present in the novel that the protagonist is wavering among.

2. Jamesian secrets

The representation of Eilis’s immigrant experience and the contrasting images of Ireland in the novel are connected to Eilis’s Jamesian features, to her being a Jamesian heroine. This Jamesian face of hers will be the second open secret to consider in the essay in order to make the link visible. Tóibín refers to James in connection to Brooklyn openly in his “The Origins of the Novel.” Here he identifies four sources for the novel, the fourth of which is “using what I’d learned from Henry James about the power of secrets and the need to control point of view” (Tóibín 2009b). As far as point of view is concerned, Brooklyn is narrated from Elilis’s point of view, Eilis being the center of consciousness, in third person, a feature linked to the distancing effect Young identified. But what is it that Tóibín learnt from James about the power of secrets? In an essay on James and New York, Tóibín’s explanation of James’ main concerns gives us a good idea of Tóibín’s sense of the major themes connected to Jamesian secrets:

(d)uplicity and greed, disappointment and renunciation, which became his most pressing themes, occurred for James the novelist in the private realm … the stories are careful and restrained but make clear that the subject of illicit love or misguided loyalty interested James deeply, as did the subject of sexual coldness (Tóibín 2010 52).

In another essay of the volume he continues this train of thought by adding:

Someone who, in another novelist’s hands, could be presented as a villain was, once captured by James’s all-embracing and all-forgiving and oddly ironic gaze, a trapped heroine until terms such as “villain” and “heroine” melted into meaninglessness. … The late style of James suggests that feeling and knowing are open-ended and can lead … to something like forgiveness, the glossing over of unpure motives, […] (Tóibín 2010, 110-111).

Duplicity, illicit love, misguided loyalty — I think these are the themes that are connected to the Jamesian power of secrets Tóibín also continues to explore, and not only in Brooklyn. In an interview with Joseph Wiesenfarth Tóibín commented on his The Story of the Night as focusing on a complicated character, who balances on the treshold of evil:

is somebody very easily led who could move into areas of slow, small corruption very, very easily without having an enormous moral sense but also not being evil. And the reader could watch this movement, which I tried to describe with some subtlety, and could see that as each act took place it was neither good or bad, or did not seem so at the time (Wiesenfarth 7-8).

And it remains to be seen how this impulse “rehaunts” Tóibín’s fictional house (Eugenides) in Brooklyn.

Eilis herself appears as a person who is trapped, and as the story evolves, the terms villain or heroine, right and wrong, melt into meaninglessness. Eilis’ story of betrayal begins with her decent use of silences. At the outset already, her family communicates through silences, even her journey to the US is arranged silently for her. Once in the US, she minds her manners, learns not to ask questions about her landlady’s husband, remain silent on problematic issues at the dinner table, and not to mention the issue of waiting on colored customers at the store either. Her letters home reveal nothing of her anguish in Brooklyn or about her evolving relation to Tony. She is reticent with Tony, too: he learns most about her Irish ties when he reads a letter from Eilis’s brother, Jack about her sister’s funeral, and she regrets having given him the letter soon after. So the emergence of Eilis’s second life is connected to silences and secrets.

Back in Ireland Eilis’s silences function similarly. When she returns, nobody knows about her marital status because she had decided not to talk about it. She did not want to deceive others, yet she is treated as a girl instead of being treated as a married woman. First she thinks of this situation as a way of taking a nice break, a rare chance that would never return. Then she enjoys this break so much that she sees her life in Brooklyn as an ordeal, and her husband as a legal hindrance who ties her to all she dislikes. That is when she would gladly make her life in Ireland the real one, but she thinks she cannot talk about her problem to anyone, as she knows it is unlikely that she is allowed to get a divorce and remarry in the Irish Catholic setting. So she tries not to make a decision to return to the US but wait out. Eventually, it is gossip that makes her leap for Brooklyn. So her initial propensity to be secretive about her position escalates to the point where silence is difficult to be distinguished from a lie. Lying, silence, and betrayal get entangled here in a Jamesian fashion, in a process through which a traditional referential notion of truth becomes battled (Bersani 58, Buelens 259).

The situation Eilis finds herself in is an example of Jamesian moral ambiguity. The term moral ambiguity means the presence of two or more possible moral imperatives in a given situation that cannot be exercised at the same time (Kovács). For instance, imagine if a friend who has helped you out many times asks you to cheat. It’s wrong to cheat but it also seems wrong not to help someone who has been there for you. A morally ambiguous situation is when whatever you do you end up doing something wrong, as you violate moral laws either way. Ambiguities and moral ambiguity in particular play an important role in Henry James’s texts as has been discussed by generations of critics from Edmund Wilson (Wilson 162) through J. A. Ward (Ward 40), by Tzvetan Todorov under the notion of the fantastic (Todorov 179). James’s later novels reek of moral ambiguity. Let us just mention Kate Croy from The Wings of the Dove, where the dilemma is whether to slight a lover or a friend, in either case, harm is done.

In literary studies it is easiest to discuss ambiguity in structuralist terms. Shlomith Rimmon-Kennan, the author of Narrative Fiction, wrote her first book, The Concept of Ambiguity in 1977, about the use of ambiguity in James. She defines narrative ambiguity as the existence of two mutually exclusive fabulas in one syuzhet. Ambiguity arises from the impossibility of choosing any one of the fabulas. She analyzes the functioning of ambiguity in “The Lesson of the Master,” “The Figure in the Carpet,” The Sacred Fount, and The Turn of the Screw to point out the different modes in which ambiguity comes into being in them (Rimmon 230-1). So the term refers to a structuralist concept initially with an eye for typology. Outdated as the concept is, as a first step, it helps to identify the situations Eilis finds herself in.

Eilis finds herself in morally ambiguous situations repeatedly. In the US, she has implicitly consented to marrying Tony when she receives the letter that calls her home to her lonely mother. The question is if she stays or goes back. Whatever she does, she knows, she will hurt someone. If she stays in the US, her mother will suffer, if she returns to Ireland, Tony will be betrayed. So as a compromise she decides upon a visit home and marries Tony before leaving as a pledge to return. Back in Ireland, she again has to face her morally ambiguous position fully. Yet here the moral question is posed differently. The new question is whether to stay in Ireland and get married and care for her mother or return to the US to her first husband. Whatever she does, she knows, she will hurt someone. If she stays, she lets down Tony and becomes a bigamist. If she returns, she lets down Jim and her mother. So if Jim would ask her to marry him, there would be no good answer. As Eilis puts it “the answer was that there was no answer”(236).

The ambiguities concern the issue of familial duty. McWilliam argues that Tóibín’s heroines in The South and Brooklyn, contrary to expectation, show a “reluctance to return to familial duty”, the core immigrant problematics (156). From the perspective of Jamesian ambiguity it needs to be pointed out that in Brooklyn the concept of ‘familial duty’ itself changes its meaning which makes the need to return to duty problematic itself. If the first scenario shown above is considered, then Eilis’ duty is to care for her lonely mother. If the second scenario is considered, her familial duty is to return to her husband. So the question of duty becomes more complex than a moral question of right or wrong, because the two concepts of duty are interposed on each other.

3. Irish-American moral ambiguities

Yet is it not an oversimplification to attribute the situations of moral of ambiguity to Eilis’s natural propensity for silence only? After all, she does emigrate, almost starts a new life by the time her old one recalls her. What is the role of the immigrant experience in the emergence of secrets and ambiguity? Furthermore, is it possible to infuse the structuralist concept of ambiguity with cultural considerations?

First of all, one needs to understand how new contexts generate silences and unspeakable concerns as Eilis moves between settings. When she gets to know Tony, who is a plumber, she knows he would not be suitable for her under Irish circumstances. It dawns on her that character and job are not so closely related in the US as back in Ireland, a phenomenon she cannot communicate to even to her sister Rose, because on her side the reasoning sounds like a plea. Then, the fact that she is waiting on colored customers at the department store is not to be disclosed either, because no one would understand at home why she is doing it. Later on, Miss Fortini’s desiring queer look in the changing booth is another experience she cannot tell anyone about. In a similar fashion, her lovemaking with Tony in her rented room belongs to the realm of the unthinkable by both Irish and Irish-American standards. Finally, she cannot tell Jim, her Irish suitor the situation she is in because he would never comprehend the concept of a divorced woman. The unthinkable and unspeakable taboos she experiences are generated culturally and her resettlement makes her reflect upon the relativity of them.

As a result of her socially expected reticence on cultural taboos, Eilis’s reflections on her double sense of self get stronger as the story goes along. Before going to Brooklyn, she just feels she is singled out for something she is not fit for. Once there, she watches Tony and realizes he has no other concealed side to him, and he is unable to watch others like Eilis is watching him: unnoticed, taking in, measuring up in silence:

She discovered a vantage point from where, unless he looked directly upwards and to the left, he would not see her. […] Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. (144)

When she is at home again in a new role, she feels as though she were two people: one in the US, the other, “her mother ’s daughter everyone knew or thought they thought they knew.” (218) She acquires a new vision that includes her sense of herself having a dark side. This darkness is a menace connected to her silences and deception, two senses of her self.

As a result of her relocations, terms like home and duty shift their meaning, too. First, home is in Ireland, of course, so when Tony mentions their children she freezes up, not wanting to believe that home can be constructed in the US, too. In reverse, she feels already at home in Brooklyn when she visits her mother in Ireland, where her old home seems cold, empty, insignificant. In a few weeks, however, her Irish home becomes all that is worth in life, and Brooklyn again feels unbearable (Savu 267). Similarly, in the two contexts the term duty has two meanings, too. First, in Brooklyn, her duty is to visit her mother despite her attachment to Tony. Then, back home, her duty is the need to return to Tony the husband. Duty, the requirement against one’s personal inclination, shifts its meaning completely because of the changes of context.

Eilis postpones making a decision about staying in Ireland or returning to the US in the end because she is aware of her helplessness in the morally ambiguous situation that evolves. She knows she cannot resolve the ambiguity because of the cultural difference of social norms. Therefore she is helpless: neither villain nor heroine, as she is not in the position to make a decision. – As we have seen, Tory Young claimed there is no responsibility in her actions: “there is no moral dilemma for Eilis.” I agree, there is no moral dilemma, because there is no room for choice in this scenario – whatever happens it will be harmful either way, social constraint will decide for Eilis what to do. Therefore her lack of agency or freedom has cultural reasons.

Nevertheless, a consoling, healing thought occurs to Eilis once she is heading back to Brooklyn. Because of her previous experience of displacement , she already knows the nature of cultural change. As the term duty had changed meaning, as home had, as her sense of self had, her new American life, she knows, will become real the same way the new Irish life did.


Eilis’s story of forced emigration is a process of social normalization. She finds herself in culturally motivated ambiguous situations. In the course of these, I argued, traditional Irish social norms and Jamesian ambiguity meet in order to expose the pain and helplessness and also healing involved in the immigrant experience. Jamesian ambiguity has a major role in representing the fluidities of the Irish-American immigrant experience in the novel.


Works Cited

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