Customs and traditions are funny. What’s expected in one culture may not even be appropriate in another. I was wondering the other day, what are the consequences for someone who does what’s expected and feels cheated or breaks with tradition and goes their own way?
In the 1950s United States, if you were a girl, you were expected to grow up, marry and move out. It didn’t matter if you were the first-born or last or somewhere in between.
I recently read Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin. Several weeks later I saw the movie. The story in both is about Eilis, 18 years old and living in a small town in Ireland. Her three brothers are away working in England, her father has died and her older sister, Rose, has a good job as a bookkeeper. Rose and Eilis live with their mother.
Normally in Ireland, since her father has died, Eilis, being the youngest, would be expected to live at home and take care of her mother or, if she married, she and her husband would either live with her mother or take her mother with them. Her fate was sealed the day she was born the youngest girl in the family.
Rose, being older, would be expected to marry and leave. But, in Brooklyn, she doesn’t. Not only doesn’t Rose move out, but when Father Flood, an Irish priest living in Brooklyn, comes back for a visit, she arranges with him for Eilis to go to America. He finds Eilis a place to stay and a job in a fashionable department store. Normally, it would be Rose who went to America.
Being part Irish, I know the traditions so I was surprised by this turn of events. I kept looking for a reason. Rose had a responsible job. She was earning a good salary as a bookkeeper and she would definitively do well in America. Why didn’t she arrange for herself to go?
Once Eilis arrives in America, she does well. She’s a success at the department store, is taking bookkeeping classes at night and has an Italian boyfriend who wants to marry her.
Rose dies one night in her sleep. It seemed somewhat mysterious until her doctor explains that she’d been seeing him for the last several years for a heart condition she had and she knew she didn’t have long to live.
When Eilis hears that Rose has died, she is filled with grief. She can’t make it back to Ireland in time for the funeral but tells her boyfriend she wants to go back for a visit. He is terrified that she won’t return and insists that they marry before a Justice of the Peace before she sails. They do and she leaves the next day.
Once back in Ireland, tradition kicks in. Her mother makes it clear that she expects Eilis to stay and take care of her. To help make this happen, her mother lets the owner of the company Rose worked for know that Eilis also knows bookkeeping and needs a job. He offers to hire her temporarily to try her out. Then her mother contacts Nancy, Eilis’ friend from before she left Ireland. Nancy’s fiancé has a friend, Jim Farrell, who quickly becomes romantically interested in Eilis.
When the three of them (mother, Eilis and Jim) attend Nancy’s wedding, Eilis’ mother is pleased with the way she’d been able to turn events in her favor and remarks to Eilis, “We’ve done well.”
Eilis is not so sure. She doesn’t have a close or warm relationship with her mother. In fact, her mother doesn’t seem particularly interested in Eilis and talks mostly about Rose.
Eilis has Tony back in America. She sees what her life would be like in Ireland and is not happy at the prospect.
This becomes a crisis. Eilis tells her mother she’s already married, he’s Italian and she’s returning to America. She doesn’t ask her mother to come with her, thus breaking the tradition.
Do you agree with her choice?