Landscapes and Human Awareness of Identity in ‘Brooklyn ‘

The deliberate manipulation of textual form enables composers to showcase how an individual and social group’s awareness of identity is manufactured and shaped by their prevailing landscape. Colm Toibin’s bildungsroman novel Brooklyn (2009) exploits characterisation and form to detail the experiences of Irish immigrant, Eilis Lacey, as she interacts and navigates her primary landscapes of Enniscorthy and Brooklyn. Toibin deliberately imbues Eilis’ characterisation at the novel’s outset with passivity and acquiescence to demonstrate the stultifying effect of her conservative Enniscorthy environment. Furthermore, Toibin imbues the novel with parallel settings across Enniscorthy and Brooklyn to highlight how the vast dichotomy in societal identity stems from influences in the predominant landscape. Therefore, authorial choices regarding characterisation and form enable Toibin to showcase the reciprocal relationship between landscape and an awareness of the identities of both individuals and social groups.

Characterisation is a key vehicle through which composers communicate the impacts of the prevailing landscape upon an individual’s awareness of self. Toibin uses characterisation to frame Eilis as deliberately passive observer, a product of her stultifying upbringing in Enniscorthy. Opening the novel with an image of Eilis “sitting at the window”, Toibin describes her as she “noticed her sister” and “looked on silently”. These verbs, “noticed” and “looked on”, carry acquiescent, passive connotations, reflective of the static familiarity of her prevailing landscape of Enniscorthy. Initially, Eilis’ identity is centred upon her Irish upbringing, as she envisages herself “having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets”. Anaphora of “same” Repetition of “same” allows Toibin to demonstrate that Eilis’ identity is largely based on the repetitive familiarity of her Enniscorthy lifestyle. The stultifying effects of her landscape impact severely upon her personal growth, as she thinks that the arrangements to go to America “would be better if they were for someone else, something the same age and size”. Toibin uses the conditional, “if”, to demonstrate that Eilis’ impending departure from Enniscorthy has brought an awareness of the inextricable link between her hometown and her identity. (ß Develop this point) Toibin features a shift in characterisation to further strengthen the link between place and identity as Eilis in Liverpool finds herself using “a tone Rose might have used…a tone used by a woman in full possession of herself”. She openly acknowledges that this “was not something she could have done” in Enniscorthy, with high modality tone highlighting her awareness of the shift in identity that accompanies her shift in landscape. Therefore Toibin’s manipulation of characterisation demonstrates the awareness of identity that arises upon Eilis’ habitation and departure from Enniscorthy.

A composer’s deliberate manipulation of structure is a powerful tool for conveying how a self-perpetuating awareness of national identity stems from interactions between social groups and their predominant landscape. Imbuing Parts I and II with parallel settings of Miss Kelly’s shop and Bartocci’s, Toibin distinguishes Enniscorthy’s insularity and Brooklyn’s dynamism to highlight the comprehension of identity that stems from daily interactions with and within a landscape. Acting upon an awareness Enniscorthy’s classist social identity, Miss Kelly comments that “anyone who is anyone” shops at her store and reserves the best items “only for special customers”. Through such dialogue, Toibin intentionally presents her as the embodiment of Enniscorthy’s insularity and bigotry. In contrast, Miss Fortini makes the declarative statement that “we treat everyone the same”, indicative of the collective tolerance and progressiveness that arises from living in a culturally diverse Brooklyn. Toibin dubs Miss Kelly’s shop assistant her “little slave”, a servitude metaphor highlighting Miss Kelly as a conscious perpetrator of Enniscorthy’s rigid class systems. Contrastingly after Miss Fortini states to Eilis her terms of employment, she asks, “Is that a deal?” This rhetorical question is a conscious offer of cooperation, an equality of opportunity extended in Brooklyn but not a socially immobile Enniscorthy. Miss Kelly curtly instructs Eilis to “be off with you now” upon the disclosure of her impending emigration, imperative demonstrating her intolerance for self-improvement. However, Miss Bartocci tells Eilis, “We encourage all staff to do night-classes”, her inclusive tone demonstrating that self-improvement is encouraged in Brooklyn, stemming from an awareness of the ideals espoused by the ‘American Dream’. Therefore parallel settings across Enniscorthy and Brooklyn, acting as a foil for one another, demonstrate how collective interactions with and within a prevailing landscape shape and perpetuate an awareness of the identity of entire social groups.

Therefore, a culmination of authorial choices regarding characterisation and form in Brooklyn enables Colm Toibin to showcase the understanding of individual and societal identity that arises through interactions that occur throughout Eilis’ contrasting experiences of Enniscorthy and Brooklyn. Perhaps in using landscapes as a lens through which to scrutinise the protagonist’s transformation of self and place, Toibin is encourage audiences themselves to develop an awareness of how their own identity is shaped by their prevailing landscape.

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