Study Guide

Brooklyn: A Novel Themes

  • Family

    No matter your background, there's one thing everyone shares in common—love (and the inevitable annoyance) for their family. Although Eilis Lacey's family isn't always the healthiest bunch around, they clearly love each other, which makes it a huge shock when Eilis decides to moves across the Atlantic Ocean to Brooklyn, New York.

    In Brooklyn, Eilis adapts and thrives… but after a sudden family tragedy forces her to return home and take care of her mother, she's forced to look at her family in a different way than ever before. Are they her future, or only her past?

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Eilis' family differ from Tony's family?
    2. What is the nature of Eilis' relationship with her mother?
    3. Why is Eilis so drawn to Frank?
    4. Is Eilis a good sister to Rose? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The differences between Eilis and Tony's families are related to the differences between Italian and Irish culture.

    Eilis finds herself so drawn to Frank because he represents a potential future child with Tony.

  • Coming of Age

    If you ever need to grow up fast, then just follow Eilis' example—cross the sea in a cruddy ocean liner, meet a hunky Italian-American, and then return home for a confusing visit to Ireland following your sister's death. Easy, right?

    While you might not be able to follow Eilis' example to a "t," we're more than confident that her struggles in Brooklyn—and boy are there struggles—will teach you quite a bit about what it means to grow up, to adapt to new places, and to persevere through hardships. Not a bad day at the office, huh?

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Is there a specific moment that marks Eilis' transition into adulthood? If so, why is this moment important?
    2. Does Rose help or hinder Eilis' coming of age?
    3. How does the change in culture affect Eilis' coming of age experience?
    4. Is Eilis a mature adult by the end of the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Rose aids Eilis' coming of age experience, as she provides her with all of the tools she'll need to become a woman.

    Rose hinders Eilis' coming of age experience, as she shelters her from realities that would force her to grow up otherwise.

  • Visions of Brooklyn

    Sorry, NY Times trend piece followers: there are no thick glasses or artisanal mayonnaise shops here. There's none of the Brooklyn we know and love today: no Das Racist, no Tribe Called Quest and no (gasp) Jay-Z. You don't even see a single slice of pizza, for Pete's (or Papa John's) sake.

    In fact, Brooklyn gives us very little of what we've come to identify as BKLYN-centric… besides a trip to Coney Island. Regardless, the brief glimpse we get into this ever-changing borough—and particularly, its strong Irish community—provides us with insight into BK that still holds value today.

    Questions About Visions of Brooklyn

    1. How does living in Brooklyn change Eilis? Does it change her for the better?
    2. In what ways do Tony and Jim embody the cultural differences between Ireland and America?
    3. Does the Irish community differ from the Irish-American community in Brooklyn? Explain. What does Eilis learn about American culture by working at Bartocci's?

    Chew on This

    Tony's wide-eyed sincerity and Jim's aloofness reflect the cultural differences between Ireland and Brooklyn.

    Eilis is changed by living in Brooklyn because she encounters a diverse array of people that she would have never encountered otherwise.

  • Memory and the Past

    Before Instagram, before Facebook, and even before everyone had Polaroids, all you had to remember your loved ones by were, well, memories. Eilis Lacey knows this well. After leaving her small town in Ireland for the hustle-and-bustle of big city Brooklyn, Eilis struggles with feelings of homesickness whenever she dwells too long on her memories. So how does she cope? It's actually pretty simple: making new memories. As it happens, however, that's a lot easier said than done, and Eilis' struggles in Brooklyn teach us a great deal about the nature of memory.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Is Eilis a nostalgic person? Why or why not?
    2. How does Eilis' perception of something change once it's in her past?
    3. How are letters related to memories in the novel?
    4. Are Eilis' memories of Ireland accurate? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    Eilis has a hard time holding on to her emotions towards something if it's not in her immediate present, which is proven both when she first comes to Brooklyn and when she returns to Ireland.

    Eilis is less interested in the letters from her family because of their content than the fact that they make her think about her memories.

  • Respect and Reputation

    Eilis Lacey needs to stop caring about her reputation so much. She constantly has to deal with snobs like Miss Kelly, who treats her like low-class dirt, and Miss McAdams, who's always trying to knock her down a peg or two.

    Still, this is a pretty tough request to make of a relatively conservative Irish lass—it goes against her very nature. As Eilis grows and matures into a sharp, confident young woman, however, she starts to stick up for herself and care less what others think of her. They don't call Brooklyn a coming-of-age novel for nothing.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. How is Eilis' concern about her reputation related to traditional Irish Catholic culture?
    2. By the end of the novel, is Eilis unconcerned with her reputation? Explain.
    3. Compare and contrast Miss Fortini and Miss Kelly.
    4. Does living in America make Eilis more concerned about her reputation? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    While Miss Kelly makes Eilis needlessly concerned about her reputation, her American boss Miss Fortini teaches her how to treat all people equally.

    Although Eilis makes a great deal of progress, the fact that she won't come completely clean about her marriage shows that she's still concerned about her reputation.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Eilis Lacey has more dreams than she knows what to do with. She dreams of becoming a classy, glamorous woman, like her big sister Rose. She dreams of having a husband who loves her and treats her like a princess. And she dreams of being an accountant, which, as far as dreams go, is actually pretty low-stakes (and financially responsible).

    Regardless, Eilis quickly realizes that simply having dreams is a lot easier than making them come true, her forward momentum in Brooklyn halted by what we can only diagnose as a near-fatal case of FOMO.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Why is Tony obsessed with planning for the future?
    2. Are Eilis' expectations for America met? Explain.
    3. Why is Eilis hesitant about making a commitment to Tony?
    4. Does Eilis have concrete dreams for her future? Explain.

    Chew on This

    Eilis is hesitant to make a commitment to Tony because she doesn't like the feeling of having her future potential limited.

    Eilis is hesitant to make a commitment to Tony because she has her own ambitions, such as her desire to become an accountant.

  • Love

    What a bait-and-switch. First, we get lulled into a false sense of security after witnessing the adorable romance between Eilis and her bae Tony. Things seem great. Then, suddenly—BANG—this seemingly perfect relationship bites the bust, ruined by the intrusion of Jim "Homewreckin'" Farrell (seriously, guys, our inner-shipper is dying).

    But when we poke a little deeper into Brooklyn's seemingly simply love story, we realize that it's a shockingly complex portrait of a young woman with a lot of conflicting emotions and dreams for the future.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does Eilis love Tony by the end of the novel? Did she ever love him?
    2. In what was does Jim differ from Tony? Does Eilis find these qualities attractive?
    3. How does Tony's romantic experience affect the power dynamic in their relationship?
    4. Should Eilis have married Tony? Why did she marry Tony?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Eilis would so quickly spark a romance with Jim Farrell shows that she doesn't love Tony, and might never have loved him in the first place.

    Although Eilis' romance with Jim was real, that doesn't mean that she doesn't love Tony.

  • The Home

    It's easy to get homesick when you're an ocean away from everyone and everything you've ever known and loved. After moving to Brooklyn, New York, young Eilis Lacey feels like a tiny, Irish fish in a gigantic, American sea. In other words, she misses her home.

    As she struggles with these feelings of homesickness, she also begins to adapt to life in America, meeting a new boy-toy and moving up in the rank in her job. Now Brooklyn feels like home. But when a family tragedy forces her to return to Ireland's craggy shores, however, Eilis is forced to choose which place is her home once and for all.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Does Eilis feel comfortable in her house in Ireland? How does that change after Rose's death?
    2. Does Eilis like Mrs. Kehoe's boarding house? Explain.
    3. Which is Eilis' home at the end of the novel: Brooklyn or Ireland?
    4. How does the concept of family relate to the concept of home in the novel?

    Chew on This

    Eilis' decision to return to Brooklyn, even though it's foisted upon her, shows that she sees Brooklyn as her home, and Ireland as her past.

    Eilis doesn't truly feel comfortable in Brooklyn until she makes her room into a homey space.