Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Ties That Bind: A Portrait of the Irish Immigrant as a Young Woman in Colm Toibin's Brooklyn

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Ties That Bind: A Portrait of the Irish Immigrant as a Young Woman in Colm Toibin's Brooklyn

Article excerpt

"Why did I ever come over here?"--Toibin, Brooklyn 180

"Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies, emergences"--Stewart 1-2

In the past years, several writers have offered fresh takes on the typical coming-to-America saga, adding new layers to the immigrant experience or challenging our cliched expectations of immigrant idealism. Jeffrey Eugenides, for instance, has written about a hermaphrodite immigrant in Middlesex (2007); Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) focuses on a Dominican immigrant who is an outcast, science fiction-obsessed kid; in Netherland (2008), Joseph O'Neill has fleshed out an immigrant version of Gatsby in the Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon; one of the main characters in Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin (2009) is an Irish monk who looks after the prostitutes in the South Bronx. Colm Toibin's latest novel, Brooklyn (2009), marks yet another departure from conventional tales of newcomers to America in that its central character does not actually want to immigrate. Even 150 years after the famine, America was "still a choice destination for the Irish" (Almeida 4), but not for Eilis Lacey, the novel's protagonist. With as many reasons to stay as to leave home, Eilis struggles to figure out her place in a strange new world while still bound to the old. The novel reconfigures "home" from being a static, concrete place that grounds the immigrant's identity to a constant negotiation of the boundaries between Ireland and America, past and present, public history and individual memory. This spatio-temporal restructuring registers the shifting conditions of relationality for immigrants, whose identity is defined as much by their experiences in Ireland as by circumstances in their adopted land. Equally important, in Eilis, Toibin creates a memorable character who, while not given to affective excesses, is profoundly attuned to what Kathleen Stewart calls "ordinary affects," (1) those "forces that come into view as habit or shock, resonance or impact" (1), everyday acts of accommodation that shape the course of her life both at home and away from it.

Toibin is best known for The Master (2004), a delicately wrought novel in which he sounded the depths of Henry James's psyche and explored the unspoken subtext of his life at a critical point in his career. Though less ambitious than The Master, Brooklyn bears out Toibin's commitment to psychological realism, which, in a conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, he has described as "the essential impulse" of giving a voice to what haunts the novelist, of "chart[ing] what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find[ing] form and structure for it." Not only is Toibin "an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions" (Schillinger), but the strong emotions he evokes "from the gaps between the lines" (Yardley) are historically and socially constructed--i.e. shaped by family, community, institutions, etc.--and closely linked with discourse in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Thus James's anxieties about his sexuality and literary reputation speak to the more general cultural uncertainties of the "fin de siecle."

In his analysis of the psychological and cultural implications of Toibin's marine imaginary, Liam Harte emphasizes the perspective of the solitary outsider embodied by James as well as by the major characters of Toibin's other novels, particularly The South (1990), The Heather Blazing (1992), and The Blackwater Lightship (1999). As he shows, their state of alienation reflects "the desire to escape the 'burden of history,' especially in the context of Ireland" (335), where history has been defined by two constants: Catholicism and Irish nationalism. Such an escape is, of course, impossible, as Harte shows with regard to Katherine, the female protagonist in The South, (2) and as will be seen in the case of Eilis, though for the latter, the past--her inherited identity--is not so much a burden as a blessing. …

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