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A Comparison of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and Fences by August Wilson

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The emotional experience of the landscape is never identical for different individuals. Nonetheless, these diverse experiences always informs a person’s sense of connection to their physical landscape, and subsequently have a profound impact on their identity. Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn explores how Eilis Lacey’s emotional experience in familiar and foreign landscapes develops her changing perceptions of herself and her place in the world. Alternatively, the emotional experience of Rose Maxson in August Wilson’s play Fences reveals that being confined to the same, monotonous landscape can also construct an individual’s identity and invite opportunities for renewed self-image. Therefore, Gondry and Toibin evidence that the emotional experience of landscapes can be diverse, but always profoundly influence an individual’s sense of belonging and identity.

An individual’s emotional experience of the landscape and the subsequent development of their sense of self are conditioned by the limitations or freedoms of their social landscape. Eilis’ emotional experience in the monotonous landscape of 1950s post-war Enniscorthy constructs her self-image through an understanding of her place in the world. The repetition of “and” in “She had expected that she would find a job in the town and marry someone, and give up the job and have children” evokes Eilis’ sense of security in the predestined, cyclical lifestyle of her imagined future landscape. This perception of her place in the world reflects the narrow-minded and insular nature of Enniscorthy’s social landscape, as reiterated by the deeply entrenched social hierarchy suggested in Miss Kelly’s favouritism of customers who “had plenty of money or were one of the clergy”. The influence of the monotonous social landscape on Eilis’ acquiescent self-image is also imbued by her passive attitude to life and experiencing new things, as illustrated by the listing syntax in “the same friends and neighbours and the same routine in the same streets”. Even so, the oxymoron of a “beautiful emptiness” that Eilis uses to characterise Enniscorthy demonstrates a sense of compliance and affinity for this landscape, implying her secure sense of self and belonging. However, Eilis’ shift to the social landscape of Brooklyn suggests how a new sense of freedom can transform identity. Specifically, the diverse nature of social landscapes is evoked by the juxtaposition between Miss Kelly and Miss Fontini’s treatment of customers, as highlighted by the doctrine of Bartoccis that “We treat everyone the same. We welcome every single person that comes into this store”. This liberation from Enniscorthy’s social hierarchy is emphasised by Eilis’ acquisition of a more confident self-image, as “Eilis felt almost angry with Mrs Kehoe, and this feeling, mixed with tiredness, seemed to give her courage”, indicating how the emotional freedom, permitted beyond the social confines of her home landscape, has transformed her identity.

Wilson reinforces this notion of the social landscape’s profound influence in Fences by accentuating the repressed nature of Rose Maxson’s identity. However, the diversity of emotional experiences of the landscape is evidenced as Rose remains in her enclosed lifestyle, which contrasts Eilis’ movement between Enniscorthy and Brooklyn. As a working-class African-American woman and mother, Rose is conditioned to the restrictive societal consensus of 1950s Pittsburgh. Subsequently, Rose’s isolated experience of the landscape is reinforced by the central motif of a fence which her husband Troy builds throughout the play. In contrast to Eilis who relieves her commitments to her mother and sister by pursuing a new life, Rose’s sustained obligation to protecting her family inhibits her experience of the wider world, as highlighted by the fence’s symbolism in "Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you". Even so, the extended metaphor in “I planted myself inside you [Troy] and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom” divulges how the restrictive impact of the social landscape on Rose’s identity is provoked by her struggle to preserve a stable family life within the limitations of a tumultuous marriage. Therefore, the emotional experience of the landscape can be diverse in that there are different measures of limitations or freedoms within different societies, but will nonetheless always have a pivotal influence on an individual’s identity

While the nature of an emotional transformation may be diverse for individuals in different landscapes, the profound impact of this on their identity is revealed through their realisation in hindsight. The acquisition of a renewed self-image culminates upon Eilis’ return to Enniscorthy, as she begins to comprehend the extent of her emotional transformation. The significance of this transformation in relation to Eilis’ identity is evidenced by the motif of fashion, illustrated in the quotation “her dress and her stockings and her shoes and her tanned skin, (…) she realised with amusement, (…) must look glamorous in these streets”. Cumulative listing in conjunction with the repetition of “her” denotes Eilis’ growing sense of self-worth, which mirrors her perception of grandiose American culture and Georgina as “immensely poised and glamorous” earlier in the novel. Furthermore, the impact of Eilis’ emotional transformation on her identity is profound, as indicated by her acquisition of a greater maturity and worldliness through confronting experiences relating to the landscape. Eilis’ vacillation between an emotional connection to Enniscorthy and Brooklyn represents a challenging tension between her sense of security in a familiar world and obligation to her new life, as depicted by her tentativeness in the metaphor “she saw all three of them – Tony, Jim, her mother – (…) surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain”. Ultimately, the repetition that Eilis’ decision to return to Brooklyn would mean “more and more to herself” accentuates that this challenging emotional experience of diverse landscapes has culminated in a realisation of the landscape’s significance to her identity. Therefore, Eilis’ emotional experience of diverse landscapes permits the acquisition of a more matured and confident self-image, as evoked by her realisation of the landscape’s significance in hindsight.

Although Rose Maxson’s experience of different landscapes is much more limited than that of Eilis, reinforcing how the experience of landscapes can be diverse, her emotional transformation similarly generates a renewed self-image. The confronting emotional impact of Troy’s affair and the birth of his illegitimate daughter on Rose’s self-image is enhanced by the significance of the landscape, as indicated by Troy’s remark “It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years!” and Rose’s response “Well I’ve been standin’ with you!” Subsequently, the challenging transformation of Rose’s familial landscape and her identity as a wife is evoked by the quote “From right now this child got a mother. But you a womanless man”. However, at the end of the play, the extended metaphor in Rose’s reassurance to her daughter about their garden that "You just have to give it a chance. It'll grow", demonstrates how Rose’s emotional transformation through confronting experiences in the landscape has allowed her self-image and sense of purpose to finally ‘bloom’. Therefore, the emotional transformation of individuals in different landscapes may be diverse, but the impact of this on their self-image is always profound and can be realised in hindsight.

The emotional experience of the landscape is unique to an individual, but will always profoundly influence their sense of connection to the world and identity. Although the experiences of Eilis Lacey and Rose Maxson were largely dissimilar, they were both conditioned to their societies and experienced a form of emotional transformation through their evolving relationships with the landscape, resulting in profound renewed self-images.

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A Comparison of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and Fences by August Wilson. (2018, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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