Loneliness and Isolation in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Brooklyn’
Loneliness and isolation are themes explored in various differing ways throughout Tennessee William’s play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947) and Colm Toibin’s novel ‘Brooklyn’ (2009), mainly through the way their protagonists are presented and developed.
In ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, loneliness is caused by the changes in culture and location each protagonist faces. In ‘Brooklyn’, Toibin depicts how Eilis is thrust from her quaint life in Ireland into the alien and bustling world of Brooklyn, New York City. Toibin himself, an Irish-born writer, had been a victim of homesickness during his long stay in America, which gives the reader insight as to how much of himself Toibin wrote into Eilis. Toibin comments that, “I found America a strange, alien, hostile place”. These feelings he shares with his character, Eilis. Ireland did not prosper in the post-war boom like many other Western Europe economies – they were still suffering the effects in the 1950s, when this book was set – and there was a mass exodus of young men and women to England and North America in search of work. Not only had Eilis’ three brothers immigrated to England, it’s evident that there is little work available for someone with Eilis’ potential, therefore she is encouraged to seek better employment in America. However, this change comes ever so suddenly for Eilis, leaving her struggling to catch up with the events unfolding around her. Before she leaves her home in Ireland, however, in Part One of the novel, it occurs to her that, “she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance”. This reveals that before she’s even undergone this cultural change and environmental displacement, Eilis is already separated from her family and her life in Ireland. “As though from a distance” reinforces the notion that she is already mentally removed from where her body remains. Similarly, in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Williams illustrates how Blanche had quite a traumatic experience when she moved to New Orleans to live with her sister. While not technically a foreign land, it felt like it was to Blanche – she was, like Eilis, a complete outsider. Blanche was the only one of her class and background, besides her sister. While Eilis was referred to as a ‘ghost’ in her setting, in the first scene Blanche’s appearance is described as, “incongruous to this setting”. The adjective ‘incongruous’ connotes to ‘odd’ and ‘incompatible’, and while it may not have the sharp sting that comes with the imagery of the noun ‘ghost’, it certainly foreshadows what is to be one of the reasons for Blanche’s downfall – her alienation and isolation in the unfamiliar setting. For both Eilis and Blanche, they are outsiders thrust into an unfamiliar world, and it damages them psychologically.
This damage manifests itself different ways for each protagonist. In the novel, as Eilis’ tries to adapt to Brooklyn life, the isolation only becomes more apparent, manifesting in the form of homesickness, whereas in the play, Blanche’s loneliness leads to a dependency on alcohol and a near nervous breakdown. In ‘Brooklyn’, as critic Christopher Taylor of The Guardian puts it, “Tóibín patiently dramatizes Eilis’s homesickness” – referring to how it is a gradual process; Eilis initially tries to act as normal, going to work and talking with the others in her boarding house, but her actions are hollow, like stones skimming along the surface of a pond. The idea of separation and being ghost-like appears again; as Toibin states in Part Two, “She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.” The noun ‘ghost’ is a deceased being that still wonders the earth, a fragment of its former self, unable to leave this realm on its own volition. For Eilis to think of herself as a ghost shows the devastating psychological impact homesickness can have; she’s trapped in the nothingness of her own existence. “Nothing meant anything” is somewhat existential, separating Eilis from reality and claiming her as a victim of depression due to her seemingly never-ending loneliness. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Blanche, too, fell victim to depression and, as these feelings of isolation build up, she is left on the cusp of a nervous breakdown and quickly forms a dependency on alcohol. Williams shows the audience how Blanche makes herself dependent on other people, and when they abandon her (or she pushes them away), she’s forced to rely on alcohol as a substitute to keep herself together. Thus, in Scene 9, Williams notes that she is “drinking to escape”. In this context, the verb ‘escape’ refers to how she wants to escape the “rapid, feverish polka tune” that overwhelms her mind. By saying that the tune is ‘feverish’ means that it is ‘frenetic’, ‘manic’ and ‘overwrought’, a collection of adjectives that demonstrates how the tune is steadily driving Blanche insane. As Brooks Atkinson, a drama critic for the New York Times at the time of Streetcar’s premiere on Broadway, commented, “out of nothing more esoteric than interest in human beings, Mr. Williams has looked steadily and wholly into the private agony of one lost person [Blanche].”
What Blanche really longs to escape from, however, is her lonely existence. It’s the same thing Eilis wants to escape from. Thus, for both protagonists in both texts, they find a coping mechanism to their loneliness in the form of male company and blossoming love. In the novel ‘Brooklyn’, Eilis eventually meets Tony, an Italian-American who rapidly fills up her lonely life with kindness and love. Once she falls for Tony, her feelings of isolation and homesickness start to fade away. However, when she is forced to return to Ireland, life interferes with her established coping mechanism. It is quite clear she has feelings for Tony, as when back home in Ireland, in Part Four, Toibin says that, “all [Eilis] could do was count the days before she went back”. Like Eilis, Blanche longs for a man in her life, though Williams presents her as going about it with much more desperation than Eilis, resorting to intimate encounters with strangers in The Tarantula Arms, as they were, “all [she] seemed able to fill [her] empty heart with”, as remarked in Scene 9. The use of the adjective ‘empty’ connotes to ‘hollow’ and ‘abandoned’, and garners sympathy for Blanche’s tragic character who’s heart – the vessel of love – is empty. She’s a protagonist wrapped in fantasy and romantic ideals of a bygone era, but in the harsh reality of being widowed and stuck in New Orleans, her true loneliness is really accentuated. Critic Melanie Skiba labeled Blanch as the “incarnation of human loneliness”, and the admittance of her past only serves to endorse that claim.
While she turns to brief sexual encounters to keep her loneliness and depression at bay, Blanche’s primary coping mechanism seems to be her efforts to find a romantic partner in the hopes of quashing the loneliness inside her. This comes in the form of Mitch. Mitch comforts Blanche by confiding in her that he, too, is alone, and proposes that if they are together then neither of them will be lonely anymore, commenting to Blanche in Scene 6: “You need somebody. And I need somebody too. Could it be–you and me, Blanche?” Here, Williams implies that Blanche and Mitch’s relationship is built out of necessity and it being mutually beneficial, rather than true love, which is reaffirmed when Stella asks Blanche in Scene 5 if she wants Mitch, to which Blanche replies, “I want to rest”, not answering decisively one way or the other. Hence, such a tenuous relationship broke apart very easily after Mitch finds out the extent of Blanche’s deception. When Mitch breaks up with Blanch in Scene 9, she is pushed back into loneliness. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Williams presents an accurate portrayal of the restrictions placed on women’s lives in 1940s postwar America. Being written in 1947, the attitudes present in the play were present at the time of Williams’ writing. His use of Blanche’s and Stella’s dependence on men exposes the treatment of women in that era of American history. Both Blanche and Stella see male companionship as their only way to security and happiness, which is why Blanche is so desperate to find a partner, and so lonely and depressed when she cannot.
Blanche puts obstacles in the way of her finding a partner. Williams shows her building walls for herself, while Toibin’s Eilis, on the other hand, builds bridges. In the novel ‘Brooklyn’, Toibin shows this with Eilis’ commitment to move forward in life, despite the effects of her isolation in Brooklyn. Her strength is shown in her adaption, while Blanche wallows in weakness. Regarding coping with her homesickness, Eilis knew that, “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.” In part of this metaphor from Part Two of the novel, Eilis is the table to be covered with a tablecloth. One uses a tablecloth to protect what’s underneath or to hide any damage; Eilis wishes to put on a façade to cover up her damage in order for her to continue with day to day life, hoping that the pain would go away on its own if she “put it all swiftly out of her mind”. Unfortunately, Eilis’ façade proves just as damaging as Blanche’s, for it only acts like painting over cracks in a crumbling foundation – the underlying problem of homesickness and loneliness does not go away. Hence, it’s a relief for Eilis when she finally finds a crutch in Tony and Jim to help fend off her isolation and subsequent depression. While Toibin comparing Eilis to a tablecloth seems like a simple metaphor on the surface, it adds layers to Eilis’ character subtle but effective ways. Toibin’s literary devices are often subtle and written with a great deal of ambiguity, which John Mullan of The Guardian comments on by saying, “the author’s stylistic restraint is in imitation of his protagonist’s self-restraint”. This hints that he believes that Eilis and Toibin are one in the same in terms of inconspicuousness. The fact that ‘Brooklyn’ is written in the third person detaches Eilis from the reader, thus isolating her from the reader.
Once back in Ireland in Part Four, Toibin depicts Eilis quickly assimilating herself back into her homeland and culture; she’s an outsider now that she’s associated with the glamour of America, which Eilis enjoys, but she opts not to tell anyone about her marriage to Tony for a long while. This gives her the freedom to pursue Jim, a man that gives her companionship and fulfillment during her stay in Ireland. Keeping this secret to herself forces Eilis to be isolated inside her own mind. Soon enough, Eilis falls for Jim, and is thrust into a moral dilemma between two lovers. Whilst at her friend’s wedding, she has a realization: “It occurred to her, as she walked down the aisle with Jim and her mother… she was sure that she did not love Tony now.” The imagery of her walking down the aisle with Jim alludes to their suitability for marriage, breaking Eilis further as she is so close to the marriage and life she has always wanted, but now cannot have, due to her marriage to Tony. As critic Dr Jennifer Minter puts it in her English Works (2014) critical essay on ‘Brooklyn’: “Eilis will now have to make choices between two desirable options, which means that once again the decision to return to Brooklyn will lead to loss but for different reasons. She now has a great deal more to lose. Foreshadowing a renewed cycle of loneliness and isolation” – no matter her choice, sorrow and isolation is in her future, just like it is with Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’.
In conclusion, Blanche DuBois and Eilis Lacey succumb to depression due to their change in circumstances, and both share a similar need to overcome their loneliness and isolation through the comfort and companionship of others. In the end, however, both cannot escape their loneliness in one form or another. Eilis may come out of the situation better than her ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ counterpart, but she still sacrifices a life with the friends and family she has grown up with and is ushered back to Brooklyn to be the wife of someone she isn’t completely sure she loves anymore. She’s isolated herself from everyone she’s ever loved and from the future she still secretly longs for. Blanche, on the other hand, in my opinion, is written as the more tragic of the two – her loneliness drives her to near madness, and every chance at companionship she is offered falls apart. As Philip Weissman concludes when quoted in ‘Criticism on A Streetcar Named Desire: A Bibliographic Survey, 1947-2003’: “Blanche DuBois’ fear of loneliness and abandonment is probably based on a disturbance of early object relationship”, referencing her late husband’s Allan’s premature death. Since then, she has floated by, wrapped in fantasies and quests for companionship that mask her loneliness. She’s never been ‘whole’ since the death of her late husband, and is doomed to a tragic and lonely existence, even though she obviously deserves better.
Brooklyn: Subverting and Challenging Genre Conventions
Brooklyn by Colm Toiblin tells the story of Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey’s journey to America during the 1950’s. The novel explores Eilis’s relationship with home as it shifts in correlation with her loyalties to those around her. The conventions of the novel allow for it to be read as a ‘hero’s journey’ story. Generically, this subgenre involved a protagonist (the hero) who reluctantly accepts a ‘call to adventure’ taking him out of his ordinary world. After crossing the first threshold, he encounters multiple tests, allies and enemies. Eventually, he finds himself at his lowest point where he faces the ‘supreme ordeal’. With the help of a mentor he ‘seizes the sword’ by picking himself up and is pursued on the road back to his own world where he returns transformed and admired by the members of the ordinary world. Although Brooklyn is close enough to conform to the Hero’s Journey subgenre, it does subvert generic conventions to a significant extent.
Brooklyn uses a sense of realism to create a ‘call to adventure’ driving the protagonist out of her ordinary world. Traditionally, texts under the hero’s journey subgenre would involve a male protagonist leaving his home to face a mythical external danger. Set in the 1950’s, Toiblin portrays the adverse economic conditions in Ireland during the time. The reader is able to see that it is difficult for Eilis to procure suitable employment as she is left with no option but to work for Mrs Kelly who shadows her every action. Mrs Kelly “checked every price Eilis wrote down and added up the figures up herself after Eilis had done so.” This proved humiliating to Eilis as she was skilled in both math and accounting. Also, Enniscorthy seemed to have denied Eilis a ‘rosy romantic future’ as is portrayed when she meets Jim Farrell, an eminent suitor, who “imperiously glanced around the hall, ignoring her.” Noticing Eilis’s bleak future Rose and (Eilis’s soon to be mentor) Father Flood devised the plan to send Eilis to America to open her world up to opportunities that were not available for her in Ireland during time. Eilis is instructed [Quote i.e. You will be going to America where you stay with father flood…] This ‘call to adventure’ becomes a decision that is made for the protagonist by those around her. This deliberate decision by Toiblin subverts the convention of the hero choosing to personally undertake the ‘call to adventure’ as would be generically expected.
The perils faced by the protagonist in Brooklyn are emotional and psychological rather than physical. Generically, hero’s journey stories involved physical acts of valour which were undertaken by a male protagonist. These acts often involved conquering a monster. In Brooklyn, Eilis is faced with the threats of alienation and homesickness. These metaphoric ‘monsters’ test the characters emotional and psychological strength. Upon arriving to Brooklyn she compares her room to a “tomb” in which she “feels like a ghost”. Eilis’s “hate [of] the house” was as a result of the lack of familiar connections she felt to home as “nothing here was part of her.” Here, Toiblin has used setting (the house) to create a strong sense of alienation within the protagonist. The comparison of herself to a ghost reflects Eilis feeling insignificant in her new environment. Eilis is plagued by homesickness- the psychological supreme ordeal she must overcome.
The protagonist in Brooklyn returns to the ‘Oridinary World’ armed with a newfound sophistication symbolized by clothing, speech, action and education. Eilis is precipitated back to Ireland by the death of her sister. Generically, when the protagonist returns from his journey he is deemed a hero and comes back armed with physical skills that he has learnt along the way. He would have gained a newfound respect from the members of the ordinary world who view him in admiration. Upon arriving back in Enniscorthy, Eilis’s transformation is observed by those who knew her with people repeatedly telling her the that “she has changed”. Nancy, Eilis’s close friend informs her “you have an air about you…everything about you is different.” Her new persona exuberates confidence, a trait that does not appear to be completely accepted by the Eilis’s mother “You’d better wear sensible clothes. Nothing too Amercian.” Although the heroine’s transformation was not admired by elder females ?as she was seen to have been challenging tradition?, she had caught the attention of male characters, in particular Jim, who was attracted to her difference despite ignoring her in the past. Here, Toibin both subverts and conforms to the generic expectation of the hero coming back to be admired by those in the new world.
Toibin has made deliberate decisions to subvert certain generic conventions of the hero’s journey subgenre. The reason behind this decision could be seen as a result of a change in ideologies over time. Authors write for a purpose which is to convey a message to a particular audience in an engaging and entertaining way. They do this by appealing to ones beliefs and values. Over time, as ideologies change, writers have to adapt their works to appeal to new audiences, much as Toibin does in Brooklyn.
The Act of Literary Representation in ‘Brooklyn’
The deliberate manipulation of textual form definitively reveals the significance of people’s experiences of landscape in shaping individual identity and the values of social groups. Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, a unique blend of historical fiction and bildungsroman, utilizes characterization and narrative voice to emphasize the significance of changing landscapes for the migrant experience. Poetic voice and structure are vehicles in Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s lyric poem ‘Then and Now’ which emphasize the importance of an Aboriginal persona’s interactions with landscape in obscuring or shaping identity. Therefore a culmination of compositional choices concerning textual form emphasize the significance of people’s interactions with landscapes in shaping identity and social values.
The purposeful construction of texts reveals the foundational role of an individual’s interactions with real landscapes in shaping their identity. In Brooklyn, Toibin demonstrates the significant impact of shifting landscapes upon the protagonist’s identity through corresponding shifts in characterization. The novel opens in Enniscorthy with Eilis “sitting at the window” as she “noticed her sister”, the passive connotations associated with these verbs immediately introducing her acquiescent characterization. She aspires only to have “the same friends and neighbors, the same routines in the same streets.” Her unchanging experience of Enniscorthy, exemplified by the repetition of “same”, has a significantly stultifying effect upon her personal growth. Forced to interact with a new Liverpool landscape prior to her sea crossing, Eilis adopts “a tone used by a woman in full possession of herself.” She acknowledges that this was “something she could not have done” in Enniscorthy, high modality emphasizing her newfound recognition of Enniscorthy’s rigid social structure as inconducive to her discovery of self. Eilis’ characterization continues to evolve upon her assimilation into Brooklyn in Part Three. Toibin emphasizes that “she liked her room and her routine”, the repetition of this possessive adjective highlighting her satisfaction with the sense of ownership and independence her environment facilitates. However Toibin demonstrates at the novel’s conclusion that the primary significance of Eilis’ transient experiences of landscape is the disconnectedness that comes to define her identity. Toibin concludes the novel with an image of Eilis looking out the window “as the train moved south” following her ambivalent choice to return to Brooklyn. This frame device marks a return to Eilis’ initial characterization wherein she lacks the agency to engage meaningfully with either Enniscorthy or Brooklyn. Therefore Toibin uses characterization as a component of textual form to underscore the significance of shifting landscapes in impacting an individual’s identity.
While Toibin exploits characterization as a primary component of the novel form, Noonuccal calls upon figurative language as a vehicle for emphasizing the destructive effect of engaging with the cityscape upon persona’s Aboriginal identity. Her “dreams are shattered by rushing car/By grinding tram and hissing train”, this sudden intrusion of a tricolon of vehicles emphasizing her hostile relationship with the urban landscape. Noonuccal incorporates direct speech to document the superficial remarks of an external observer regarding her assimilation into the cityscape, “Isn’t she lucky to have a good job!” While the cityscape here is conceptualized as a place of economic opportunity, this exclamation emphasizes the irony that the significance of her relocation is its damaging effect upon her sense of identity. The overwhelmingly detrimental impact of Noonuccal’s engagement with the cityscape is evident in the closing lines of ‘Then and Now’. She asserts that it was “better when I had only a dillybag. Better when I had nothing but happiness.” Anaphora highlights the disintegration of Noonuccal’s sense of self and personal happiness that underscores the significance of her experiences with the cityscape. Therefore elements of representation unique to the respective textual forms of Brooklyn and ‘Then and Now’ are powerful for conveying the significance of an individual’s experience of real landscapes in shaping their identity.
By exploiting aspects of textual form, composers emphasize the importance of interactions with imagined and remembered landscapes in illuminating the link between the values of social groups and attributes of their prevailing landscape. Conveyed through Toibin’s distinctive narrative voice, characters’ interactions with America through imagination or memory are significant as they reveal the inextricable relationship between the nature of a landscape and the social values of its inhabitants. Prior to her emigration, Eilis perceives America as “so utterly foreign in its systems”, but also with an “almost compensating glamour” and “element of romance”. Toibin’s free indirect narrative style demonstrates that Eilis’ recognition of America as a young, progressive landscape is linked to the value American society attributes to external image, indicated by the splendid imagery. During their sea crossing, Eilis’ roommate emphasizes physical appearance as important for gaining entry to “the land of the free and the brave.” By alluding to the American national anthem through dialogue, another key aspect of narrative voice, Georgina’s recall of her own Brooklyn experience reveals the significance of external appearance for achieving advancement in American society. Toibin’s use of free indirect discourse extends to Tony’s imagined landscape of Long Island, as he tells Eilis that “the house would be theirs…they could plan it themselves.” The dynamism of the New York landscape demonstrated through Tony’s imagined interactions with an as yet undeveloped Long Island underscores the values of risk-taking and audacity esteemed by the American Dream. Experiencing an American beach through imagination, Jim remarks to Eilis that “you’d get every type of person there.” Dialogue here reveals that the significance of his imagined experience of Brooklyn is the impression of America’s cultural diversity and dynamism. Thus Toibin’s manipulation of narrative voice as part of novel form emphasizes imagined and remembered experiences of landscape as significant in revealing the reciprocal relationship between landscape and the values of its inhabitants.
By re-experiencing the natural Australian landscape through memory, Noonuccal through poetic voice reinforces its significance in shaping the predominant values of the Aboriginal community. Noonuccal deliberately chooses first person narration in this dramatic monologue so that the Aboriginal experience of Australia’s natural landscape is focused through a single perspective. Her firsthand observations also reflect the oral tradition of storytelling integral to Aboriginal tradition, Noonuccal’s overarching use of poetic voice emphasizing the cultural values attached to landscape. Furthermore Noonuccal’s use of diction deliberately recalls Aboriginal dialect. The persona remembers “corroboree” and the “didgeridoo”, focusing on the significant links to tradition and family represented by memories of the natural Australian landscape. The importance of this experience of landscape through memory is made further evident in Noonuccal’s lamentation that there is “no more woomera, no more boomerang, no more playabout, no more the old ways.” This tetracolon of Aboriginal cultural icons demonstrates that the destruction of the natural landscape corresponds with the loss of tradition. Therefore a composer’s manipulation of narrative and poetic voice is a powerful vehicle for underscoring the significance of a social group’s experience of a landscape through imagination and memory for revealing its prevailing social values and structures.
Ultimately, a culmination of compositional choices regarding textual form enables composers to convey the significance of people’s interactions with landscapes both real and imagined in shaping identity and social values. The purposeful manipulation of novel and poetic form across Toibin’s Brooklyn and Noonuccal’s ‘Then and Now’ emphasizes the importance of such experiences between people and landscapes for their impact on an individual’s character and societal values. Perhaps in using textual form as an artistic lens through which to explore the relationship between people and landscapes, these composers are encouraging audiences to evaluate the significance of their own experience of their prevailing environment.