Study Guide

Brooklyn: A Novel Respect and Reputation

By Colm Tóibín

Respect and Reputation

As each customer came into the shop [...] Miss Kelly had a different tone. Sometimes she said nothing [...] And then there were customers whom she greeted warmly and by name. (1.80)

Miss Kelly is so judgmental and snooty that we don't know how Eilis stays sane while working at her shop. It would be bad enough if she was only a jerk to the customers, but she treats Eilis in a condescending fashion too, often subtly alluding to her family's lower social status in relation to her own. We're getting annoyed just thinking about her.

Miss McAdam [...] sniffed her nose disapprovingly if anyone passed by them who she thought was Italian or Jewish. (2.11)

If nothing else, this shows that people are just as condescending and judgmental in America as they are in Ireland. The main difference is that in America there are a whole bunch of different ethnic groups to stereotype and look down on.

It was clear to her that her landlady's last remark carried with it the firm idea that she and Eilis stood apart from the other lodgers. (3.35)

This happens quite a bit in the novel and it drives Eilis nuts every time. Although she's appreciative of the preferential treatment she receives from Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis is fundamentally opposed to elitism of any sort—probably because she's been a victim of it plenty of times.

Eilis would have given anything now to have been with them, dressed like them, to be glamorous herself, too easily distracted by the jokes and smiles of those around her. (3.116)

Although Eilis is an uber-nerd, she secretly wishes that she could be a party kid. She has a hard time making that leap, however. Whether this hesitation comes from a lack of confidence, concern over her reputation, or just fear, Eilis desperately wishes that she didn't care what others thought about her.

"I was just going to say that I heard there are coloured women going into Bartocci's," Miss McAdam said. For a moment no one spoke (3.198)

For Eilis' roommates, Bartocci's decision to open up its doors to African-Americans is a big scandal. For Eilis, on the other hand, it isn't really a big deal—after all, their new customers are just as classy and glamorous as their old ones, so what's the difference?

"Maybe if we got rid of some of the wallflowers, Sheila," Eilis said, "with the sour look on their faces." (3.409)

Sheila and Miss McAdam constantly make Eilis feel bad for wanting to live her life on her own terms. Well, ladies, we're not trying to rub salt in your wounds or anything, but consider yourself slammed.

He managed to let her know that he meant more than he said, that he was suggesting it might be hard [...] having a daughter who would take a man home to her room for the night. (3.876)

Oh no—it seems like Father Flood has somehow heard that Eilis slept with Tony. While this might not seem like a big deal today, it would have been a pretty big scandal in the period that Brooklyn take place in. For her part, Eilis feels guilty, not because she thinks that she shouldn't have done it, but because she knows that it will damage her reputation.

How easy would it be to divorce someone? [...] The only divorced people anyone in the town knew were Elizabeth Taylor and [...] other film stars. (4.218)

While we're not entirely convinced that Eilis and Tony should rush into a divorce, we definitely empathize with her here. Could you imagine living in a time when you'd be ostracized for getting a divorce? Sheesh—the only people we're judgmental about are judgmental people.

He was, she thought, good, and he was also wise and clever in certain ways, but he was conservative. He liked his position in the town. (4.264)

Although Eilis' feelings towards Jim Farrell are very real, she knows that he'd flip his lid if he found out the truth about her. Her being married (to an Italian, of all people) would be a huge scandal that would damage his reputation. Love goes a long way, but not that far.

"She told me the whole thing. The world, as the man says, is a very small place." (4.309)

And now we end in the place we started—with Mrs. Kelly being her typical condescending, judgmental self. If nothing else, this should remind Eilis why she left Ireland in the first place.