This week, Insight publisher and author Robert Beardwood discusses the comparison texts Reckoning and Brooklyn.
At first glance, Reckoning and Brooklyn seem to be very different texts. As usual for text pairs on the VCE English and EAL Text List, the two texts for comparison are in different forms: in this case, the nonfiction form of a memoir versus the fiction form of a novel. That is just the beginning of the differences between these two texts. In Reckoning Magda Szubanski reflects on her life from childhood to middle age; in Brooklyn Colm Tóibín describes just a few months in the early adulthood of his protagonist Eilis Lacey. Magda’s parents play central, loving and supportive roles in her narrative; Eilis’ only living parent, her mother, is a reserved figure who is both emotionally distant and, for much of the novel, physically remote from Eilis.
Yet beneath these structural differences are a number of similar emotional and psychological challenges that are faced by Magda and Eilis, as well as by other individuals in both texts. Experiences of displacement, sudden change and loss run through both narratives. Upheavals in Eilis’ life result first from her move from Ireland to New York for work and study, and then from the unexpected death of her beloved older sister, Rose. Both experiences give rise to profound feelings of grief and hopelessness, as Eilis questions her identity and her place in the world. Helping her to confront these challenges in Brooklyn are her growing self-confidence as she gains qualifications and establishes herself at Bartocci’s department store, and the unwavering love of Tony Fiorello, a second-generation Italian American whom Eilis secretly marries.
Magda begins her memoir with the death and funeral of her father, Zbigniew, but the trauma that haunts the family lies further back in the past, when Zbigniew was an assassin in the Polish resistance during World War II. Magda’s attempts to understand her father run in parallel to her attempts to understand herself, as she comes to terms with her sexuality and her anxiety about how others might judge her if she were to live openly as a lesbian. She achieves success and fame as an actor and comedian but, until she finally comes out to the public, never feels completely accepted.
In both narratives, then, the concepts of identity and belonging are intertwined, as Magda and Eilis engage in quests to find acceptance and a more secure sense of self. Sometimes these quests involve journeys, sometimes they depend on relationships (new and old), and sometimes they are introspective and reflective. Both Magda and Eilis must also make major, life-changing decisions that devolve from these quests. Eilis returns to Ireland after Rose’s death and becomes close to Jim Farrell: she must then choose whether to stay in Enniscorthy and end her engagement to Tony, or to return to Brooklyn, disappointing her mother as well as Jim. Magda’s biggest decision is whether (and, later, when and how) to come out. Like Eilis, who is ambushed by Miss Kelly, Magda’s decision is partly forced on her by others, as she fears that her sexuality will be publicly revealed without her consent.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the two texts is the way in which Magda and Eilis’ life-changing decisions end. Magda experiences a sense of triumph and peace following her appearance on The Project. In contrast, the reader never knows if Eilis’ return to Brooklyn is truly the best decision for her future happiness. Magda ends her narrative affirming her closeness to her mother; Brooklyn ends with Eilis travelling away from her mother, possibly never to see her again.
Although Magda and Eilis dominate these narratives, the many minor characters in each text have highly significant roles to play. Magda’s father, Zbigniew, is determined to create a new life for himself in Australia, as Eilis does in Brooklyn, but to do so he distances himself from his European heritage. Only gradually is Magda able to extract from him some of the truths about his past, as she seeks to know and understand more about what has shaped her parents’ lives. In Brooklyn Eilis comes to know other members of the Irish expatriate community, such as Father Flood and Mrs Kehoe, who cling to their Irishness and their conservative ways. Eilis’ relationship with Tony suggests a bridging of cultures and traditions, and an openness to the new, just as Magda’s sense of freedom after announcing her sexuality to the world signals new possibilities, not just for herself but for the whole society.
Sample essay questions:
- Compare how Reckoning and Brooklyn portray the experience of being an outsider.
- Compare the ways in which Eilis and Magda deal with unexpected changes.
- Compare the effects of loss in Reckoning and Brooklyn.
- ‘We can never know the consequences of the choices we make until after we make them.’
Compare how this idea is explored in Reckoning and Brooklyn.
- “I’m not interested in the past. I’m only interested in tomorrow, and the next day.” (Reckoning)
“… her own life in Enniscorthy, the life she had lost and would never have again, she had kept out of her mind.” (Brooklyn)
Compare the role the past plays in Reckoning and Brooklyn.
Need more help with comparing and analysing Reckoning and Brooklyn? Make sure you purchase our Insight Comparison Guide for these two texts! Written by Julia Carlomagno and Robert Beardwood, the Reckoning/Brooklyn Comparison Guide features a detailed study of each text’s key features and a close analysis of their ideas, issues and themes. It also contains essay topics, a sample analysis of a topic and a complete sample response.
Insight Comparison Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.
- Brooklyn Bridge: Songquan Deng/shutterstock
- Warsaw: Roxana Bashyrova/shutterstock