Colm Toibin Essays On Education

This book collects, for the first time, Colm Tóibín’s critical essays on Henry James. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel about James's life, The Master, Tóibín brilliantly analyzes James from a novelist's point of view.

Known for his acuity and originality, Tóibín is himself a master of fiction and critical works, which makes this collection of his writings on Henry James essential reading for literary critics. But he also writes for general readers. Until now, these writings have been scattered in introductions, essays in the Dublin Times, reviews in the New York Review of Books, and other disparate venues.

With humor and verve, Tóibín approaches Henry James’s life and work in many and various ways. He reveals a novelist haunted by George Eliot and shows how thoroughly James was a New Yorker. He demonstrates how a new edition of Henry James’s letters along with a biography of James’s sister-in-law alter and enlarge our understanding of the master. His "Afterword" is a fictional meditation on the written and the unwritten.

Tóibín’s remarkable insights provide scholars, students, and general readers a fresh encounter with James’s well-known texts.

Susan M. Griffin is a professor of English at the University of Louisville and editor of the Henry James Review.

"The book does not disappoint. The essays may be incidental—reviews, introductions, lectures—but each conveys a sense of Tóibín’s deep engagement with his subject and his writer's way with words."

— Irish Times

"Anyone interested in Tóibín's process of transforming the life of James into a novel of immense subtlety should look carefully at a recent volume of essays."

— Jay Parini - Chronicle of Higher Education

— Bernard Richards - Essays in Criticism

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It is clear within the first 20 pages of the novel that its narrative and thematic thrust is built around the tensions that arise through juxtaposition, where opposites are placed together. On a visit to Eilis' home, for instance, the Catholic priest, Father Flood is at once an uncomfortably disruptive force in that "his accent was a mixture of Irish and American".

Flood is a linchpin between the parish and the wide world, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, the past and the future. In effect, drawing upon his traditional and unassailable local status he operates like an American salesman, an entrepreneur persuasively "selling" the concept of employment in America to Eilis: "It's very far away, though," her mother said. "Parts of Brooklyn," Father Flood replied, "are just like Ireland. They're full of Irish."

Throughout this sequence the docile Eilis is incapable of speaking and acting for herself, already perceiving her life to have changed forever as a result of decisions made by others elsewhere: "Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect ... And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance."

Not long before this turning point, though, there has been a sequence which appears, now, to be redundant, included merely to dramatise the mediocre small-town expectations of Eilis and her girlfriends. At a dance Eilis is introduced to a young man of great provincial expectations, Jim Farrell, who behaves rudely towards her (as conveyed to us through her perceptions), and is then summarily dismissed from the narrative by the time Eilis departs for America. Or is he?

We should guess that in a conventionally presented work of classic realist fiction such as Brooklyn, Farrell will return at some point, because he has been signposted, or "seeded", as a potentially dramatic ingredient to the narrative, to Eilis' development, her life, and to the moral choices she will eventually have to make.

On arrival, and for many weeks after, it is also of little surprise that the entity and pulse of Brooklyn and lodgings at Clinton Street are juxtaposed in Eilis' perceptions with those of Enniscorthy and her family home in Friary Street. This is encapsulated in a brief observation signifying the onset of physical and nervous collapse wrought by a dreadful homesickness: "She was nobody here ... There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away."

By degrees it is inevitable Eilis will adjust, yet again this is through the ministration of others. Having been tossed and thrown about on the high seas of her journey across the Atlantic, she has, in metaphor, entered less threatening waters. A vital aspect to this sense of adapting into her new environment is the relationship she develops with a young Italian-American, Tony, who, in contrast to Jim Farrell, almost literally sweeps her off her feet at a dance.

Tony is adept at "reading" Eilis' acquiescent nature, insisting on a hasty civil marriage ceremony before she is compelled to return to Ireland. For when Toibin has Eilis uttering, "I promise you I will come back", we should immediately intuit there will be obstacles, and those impediments are within Eilis herself. This is exemplified after she and Farrell strike up a relationship: "She had to make an effort now to remember that she really was married to Tony."

It is only in these latter sequences of Brooklyn that we might dislike Eilis, as Toibin lays bare her weakness, her vacillation, and her refusal to confront a moral issue she has created, to fulfil a promise. In fact it is only through fear of her secret's exposure that she is finally goaded into action.

Are we justified, though, in feeling uncomfortable at the manner in which Eilis dismisses the innocent Farrell from her life, by slipping a farewell note "through the letter box of the hall door" as she departs forever? It seems to conform to a pattern of avoidance.

Further reading:

Jody Allen Randolph, Close to the Next Moment: Interviews from a Changing Ireland, Carcanet, New York, 2010. (Includes interview with Toibin about contemporary Ireland.)

Colm Toibin, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2012.

Angela McCarthy, Personal Narratives of Irish and Scottish Migration, 1921-65: 'For Spirit and Adventure', Manchester University Press, Manchester, New York, 2007.


Colm Toibin:

Toibin interview on Brooklyn, BBC podcast:

Archived articles at The Guardian:

Irish emigration, 1950s:

Roger Stitson is a former secondary teacher, a freelance writer, and developer of on-line material at

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