Reading Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People is a compulsive experience. After the navy blue Faber & Faber proofs were sent out in early summer, a trickle of people began to post online about having finished it in a single day, often accompanied by tears of recognition and complicated nostalgia for their own early romantic experiences. Rooney, the laureate of interpersonal miscommunication, clarifies its agonies in spare prose as the central characters miss each other’s meanings: the painful ambiguity of the ‘cool see you soon’ text; the prickliness of teenage vulnerability (‘Some people are even saying that he tried to add her on Facebook, which he didn’t and would never do’); and the small, specific tenderness of domestic intimacy: ‘He wipes crumbs out from under the toaster and she reads him jokes from Twitter.’ The novel follows Connell and Marianne from their brief affair during their schooldays in Sligo – where he, a popular footballer, is too ashamed to be seen with her, the ‘weirdest’ girl in school – to their time at Trinity College Dublin, where Marianne – always wealthy, now beautiful and popular too – has the social upper hand. Normal People is a love story in the truest sense, by which I mean a novel intimately concerned with the things two people can do to each other, and how much we each might want to hurt or be hurt.
Observation is Rooney’s primary strength as a novelist, and Normal People, like her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), has been hailed for its portrayal of life as it is lived now. The contemporary political landscape is internalised, digested and refracted out to the reader through the lives of the characters: international conflicts, abortion protests and war breaking out in Gaza and Syria all feature as footnotes to the relationship playing itself out in the text. This primary plot is curiously trope-like, a fairytale reversal of fortune that draws on the characters’ socioeconomic circumstances and fits the pair into a narrative of false equivalences. Connell is poor and popular, Marianne is rich and a social outcast; they go to university and the roles reverse – except that Marianne is still rich: winner takes all. In a recent Guardian profile, Rooney spoke about her novels, alongside Irish fiction of the past decade, as being linked to what she termed ‘the cultural conditions generated by the financial crisis’: the end of the Celtic Tiger, she believes, ‘inaugurated a period of serious social critique, and from that we’ve seen a change – referendums and so on’.
Most reviews of Normal People have touched on the fact that, as with any love story, power is the novel’s central concern. Olivia Laing in the New Statesman wrote of it as ‘a meditation on power: the way that beauty, intelligence and class are currencies that fluctuate as unpredictably as pounds and dollars’. This is a peculiar way of thinking about class, which is the axis upon which the financial differences between Connell and Marianne turn: socioeconomic circumstances change, certainly, but the anxieties of class difference are not so easily discarded – and, crucially, there is nothing more predictable than the way power operates in this novel. In many ways, that’s a textual strength. The description, told through Connell’s eyes, of arriving at Trinity as a ‘culchie’ is a case in point:
This is what it’s like in Dublin. All Connell’s classmates have identical accents and carry the same size MacBook under their arms. In seminars they express their opinions passionately and conduct impromptu debates […] He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read.
Even after his elevation, through his association with Marianne, to the status of ‘rich-adjacent’, Connell never quite fits in; even Marianne can’t grasp that the scholarships that offer free tuition and accommodation are for him a matter of necessity rather than prestige. Connell’s feeling of discombobulation – of class treachery, perhaps – is the source of some of the funniest lines in the novel, as he imagines a new life at Trinity:
Life would be different then. He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual. I’ve read The Golden Notebook, he could tell them. It’s true, he has read it.
It gets less funny as time goes on. The suicide of Rob, a school friend, functions more as a manifestation of the division between home and away and the catalyst for Connell’s own bout of depression than as an event in its own right; throughout the novel, those outside of Connell and Marianne’s universe of two – normal people? – are mostly bereft of narrative kindness. The novel never lets the reader forget that its protagonists are extremely attractive, extremely complicated, extremely clever; their taut high-achieving neuroticism is a stylistic coup de grace, but it allows no room for other possible manifestations of value and complexity in other characters.
The epigraph to Normal People is from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), and Rooney’s combination of social realism and a firm narrative drive that relies upon certain familiar set-pieces seems to be in extended conversation with novels of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This is something Rooney has spoken about before: in a 2017 interview with Michael Nolan for The Tangerine, talking about the many people who read Conversations with Friends autobiographically, she refers to her deliberate implementation of a ‘classic adultery plot’:
I mean, it’s very clearly a novel, and novels fundamentally resemble other novels. They don’t resemble life, as such. There are a lot of experimental novels that test the boundaries of what the novel is, and Conversations is not one of those.
Many reviews have compared Rooney’s work to that of Henry James, but for me, Normal People is far more akin to Eliot, who is clearly a key figure in Rooney’s personal fictional genealogy. Traditionally, Eliot is a writer lauded for her empathy, her wide-ranging approach to the characters she creates, and her emphasis on the importance of context: ‘There is no creature,’ states the narrator of Middlemarch (1871), ‘whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.’ So far, so similar: Rooney, too, is heralded as an empathetic novelist. Yet there is a difference between the acknowledgment of the socioeconomic pressures experienced by characters – a feature of both authors’ work – and a true democracy of approach. Eliot writes famously in Adam Bede of the need to appreciate the beauty of ‘deep human sympathy’ as well as ‘the divine beauty of form’:
There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities: I want a great deal of those feelings for my every-day fellow-men, especially for the few in the foreground of the great multitude, whose faces I know, whose hands I touch, for whom I have to make way with kindly courtesy.
Yet, as Raymond Williams noted in 1973 in The Country and the City, when it comes to these normal people, Eliot can’t quite practice what she preaches:
Into a novel still predicated on the analysis of individual conduct, the farmers and craftsmen can be included as ‘country people’ but much less significantly as the active bearers of personal experience […] Another way of putting this would be to say that though George Eliot restores the real inhabitants of rural England to their places in what had been a socially selective landscape, she does not get much further than restoring them as a landscape.
Here, I think, lies the most interesting affinity between Rooney and Eliot. In Normal People – and, to a similar extent, in Conversations with Friends – the affective power of the narrative depends upon the characterisation of the protagonists as exceptional. This requires the relegation of everyone else to supporting roles. Part of this, of course, is an inevitability of the conscious construction of a fictional world that so closely mirrors the inequalities and conditions of our own. Yet there is a curious rift in Normal People, that deepens as the plot progresses, between the realism of the character portraits, and the mounting pressure of a narrative reaching its conclusion. Rooney’s most brilliant moments of characterisation, of the deeply felt impossibility of being a person in the world, are subsumed and overpowered by the relentless drive of a traditional love story.
Daniel Deronda is a revealing choice for an epigraph. Eliot’s most ‘difficult’ work, it follows two interlinking plots: that of Gwendolen Harleth’s unhappy marriage and the eponymous Daniel’s search for identity, which he finds in his estranged and unrepentant mother and his Jewish ancestry. The relationship between Gwendolen and Daniel is both intensely moving and frustratingly unfulfilled: oddly drawn to each other from the moment they meet, they remain connected despite Gwendolen’s marriage to a heartless aristocrat and Daniel’s leaving England to build a new life in Israel. The quotation that begins Normal People focuses, ironically perhaps, on the power of communication:
It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.
This comes from a passage where – thinking about Daniel – Gwendolen wishes ‘he could know everything about me without my telling him’. Her infatuation with him stems from her notion of him as a special person, different from everyone else she knows:
It had been Gwendolen’s habit to think of the persons around her as stale books, too familiar to be interesting. Deronda had lit up her attention with a sense of novelty: not by words only, but by imagined facts, his influence had entered into the current of that self-suspicion and self-blame which awakens a new consciousness.
An infatuation that arouses suspicion and self-blame is remarkably similar to the relationship between Connell and Marianne. The parallels between Gwendolen and Marianne are certainly not accidental. Towards the end of Rooney’s novel, Marianne observes in prose strikingly reminiscent of Eliot that she and Connell ‘have been two plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions.’ In Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s narrator applies the same metaphor to Gwendolen’s inability to feel truly at home in her mother’s house:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge.
Marianne, like Gwendolen, has no familial sense of rootedness; Marianne, like Gwendolen, is very beautiful, and this beauty operates as a kind of curse. The fetishisation of Marianne’s beauty and in particular her conspicuous thinness is a narrative device that leaves a sour taste. The move from the initial description of Marianne as plain, weird and ugly, to an unironic reliance on tropes that code feminine worth as heterosexual attractiveness – turning up at a school dance in a ‘filmy black dress’ and looking sexy; the explicit acknowledgement at a first year party that ‘it’s classic me. I came to college and got pretty’ – are linked to both her fragile, thin body and to the repetition throughout the novel of the notion of her as ‘damaged’; as sexually degenerate or deviant. In Jacqueline Rose’s reading of Daniel Deronda in 1986’s Sexuality in the Field of Vision, she locates in the very opening lines of the novel Eliot’s positioning of Gwendolen as ‘the spectacle of woman’:
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
For Rose – who was on the judging panel that longlisted Normal People for the 2018 Man Booker Prize – this anticipates the mastery and hysteria of Freudian psychoanalysis; the fact that ‘the wider culture sees the same relationship between the sexual morality of the woman and social decay’. For Eliot, writing in a period when concern about social cohesion and moral decline was expressed through the language of hygiene and sanitation, the female body was the locus for wider anxieties: ‘the image of woman’s moral purity always harboured within it that of female vice.’
Rooney’s representation of Marianne’s oscillation between popularity and social ostracism engages with this idea, and deftly diagnoses the hypocrisy of the society that enforces the paradigm. Yet in its treatment of Marianne’s sexuality and the power dynamics of her relationships, the novel ultimately loses its nerve. Much of the narrative turns on Marianne’s submissive nature, and her desire to be beaten by her male sexual partners, but its portrayal of the complexities of submission, dominance and consent can never quite shake the suggestion that Marianne is somehow abnormal, or damaged. Rooney writes interestingly and candidly about sex, but with telling lapses and absences: in Conversations with Friends, the sexual encounters between Frances and Nick danced lightly over the potential for violence encoded within certain kinds of sexual desire, but the lesbian sexual encounters were completely absent from the narrative.
In Normal People, the descriptions of Connell and Marianne’s desire for each other are intricately mapped out, as Marianne’s teenage desire, watching Connell play football, to see him having sex with someone – ‘it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him’ – is mirrored by Connell’s later thought, when declining a threesome with a university friend, that ‘maybe he could fuck Peggy in front of Marianne’. Both these moments engage with the perception and performance – Rose’s ‘spectacle’, perhaps – of sexual desire, and are fraught with social anxieties as the two attempt to regulate their ‘unusual’ impulses: Marianne ‘knew these were the kind of thoughts that made her different from other people in school, and weirder’; Connell thinks ‘it would be awkward, not necessarily enjoyable’.
This awkwardness is central to Connell’s sexual development: the privacy and intensity of his sexual relationship with Marianne is what creates their particular intimacy, but so is the fierce shame he feels about it. ‘Weird’ is a qualifier that appears throughout the early account of their relationship; the familiar teenage desperation to be a normal person. Marianne and Connell both accept the social hierarchy that dictates the terms of desire, forcing Connell to ask himself, ‘What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it’. Crucially, it is Marianne’s sexuality that is responsible for threatening his already fragile social identity. ‘His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: Is it okay if I come in your mouth?’; later, he tells her, ‘You’re always making me do such weird things’.
Marianne, then – ‘unhealthy’, ‘abnormal’ – is a scapegoat for the failings of their social environment. After her humiliation at the hands of Connell’s determined passivity causes her to leave school, she pities him
because he has to live with the fact that he had sex with her, of his own free choice, and he liked it. That says more about him, the supposedly ordinary and healthy person, than it does about her.
In this mostly secular Ireland the marks of religiously inscribed sexual shame reside, but the morality that relentlessly targets Marianne’s body as something simultaneously fragile and dangerous is primarily a social one. In the Tangerine interview, Rooney elaborated on the parallels drawn between the Catholic Church and capitalism in Ireland in Alexandra Schwartz’s New Yorker review of Conversations with Friends:
It seems to me that in many ways the deterioration of the power of the Catholic Church was replaced pretty much wholesale with the power of the free market, and free market ideology has replaced Catholic ideology […] To me, it doesn’t seem like straightforward progress. We got rid of the Catholic Church and replaced it with predatory capitalism.
The massive shifts that accompanied the development of the nineteenth-century novel –capitalism and alongside it the burgeoning discipline of political economy, as well as a shift in the theological make-up of the population – are played out, as they are in Rooney’s work, at the level of the characters and their relationships. Under capitalism, the female body will always be problematised. In setting up the opposition between Connell, ‘the supposedly ordinary and healthy person’ and herself, Marianne is locating the contamination of this masculine ‘health’ in shared sexual experience.
Indeed, there is something curiously Victorian not only about the way Marianne is reviled, desired and ostracised by her peers, but in the narrative desire to pathologise her in some way. We discover fairly early in the novel that Marianne’s childhood was marred by domestic abuse; the narrative turns on her later desire for sexual submission as something solely related to those experiences of trauma. At the end of the first section of the novel, we learn Marianne’s mother ‘decided long ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression towards Marianne as a way of expressing themselves […] She believes Marianne lacks “warmth”, by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.’ The internalisation of this familial violence is a crucial part of Marianne’s psychological make-up; she believes herself to be unloveable and, in some way, at fault.
When Marianne discloses her history to Connell, his response is another kind of revulsion: a desire for normality. Marianne keeps much of her home life secret from Connell for fear he will think of her as ‘damaged’; when she tells him, he ‘feels terribly ashamed and confused […] But he always thought she was damaged, he thought it anyway.’ This distressing, fragmented disclosure of abuse is painfully accurate: there is something in the moment of intimacy when you tell someone that your family life was not normal – or, rather, that its particular violence exceeded the varieties of abnormal contained within the usual – that is both the furthest and closest you can be to them. But Connell recoils from Marianne’s revelation in the way he recoils from her need: both, it is implied, cement his uncomfortable power over her. From the very beginning of their relationship Marianne ‘would have lain on the ground and let him walk all over her body if he wanted, she knew that’; later, during their time at university, this dynamic is made more explicit:
She comes to sit down with him and he touches her cheek. He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.
‘Maybe he wants to do it’; maybe she wants him to, but the novel continually represses the potential for a consensual exploration and/or subversion of these power dynamics. Instead, Marianne’s desire to be sexually submissive is played out through a relationship with the one dimensional Bad Guy Jamie – ‘he likes to beat me up’ – whose ‘sadism’ is more linked to emotional abuse than sexual dominance, conveyed as it is through set-piece dinner party arguments in Italy, his weak chin and his wealth. The unconvincing interlude with Lukas, the tall Swedish goth with whom Marianne has some kind of BDSM relationship, ends with her fleeing his studio after he tells her he loves her:
Could he really do the gruesome things he does to her and believe at the same time he’s acting out of love? Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?
Marianne’s own relationship to her desire to be dominated is coloured completely by her experience of abuse: ‘Maybe I want to be treated badly, she says, I don’t know. Maybe I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.’ This statement comes in the middle of her revelation of Jamie’s ‘sadism’ to Connell in a cafe, and is juxtaposed with a tender description of Marianne and Connell’s sex life: ‘In the spring he would sometimes wake up at night beside Marianne, and if she was awake too they would move into each other’s arms until he could feel himself inside her.’ The insinuation, then, is that Connell is a ‘good thing’, that this gentle intercourse is the opposite of ‘bad’ power play, yet the fact that Marianne does want to submit to Connell is a motif repeated throughout the text, culminating in the excruciating scene at the crescendo of the narrative, where she asks him ‘Will you hit me?’ and he says no. This rejection places Marianne’s mind firmly back on the furious track of self-hatred that diagnoses her own desires as a contamination, a debasement:
She is someone even Connell finds disgusting, she has gone past what he can tolerate. In school they were both in the same place, both confused and somehow suffering, and ever since then she has believed that if they could return to that place together it would be the same. Now she knows that in the intervening years Connell has been growing slowly more adjusted to the world, a process of adjustment that has been steady if sometimes painful, while she herself has been degenerating, moving further and further from wholesomeness, becoming something unrecognisably debased, and they have nothing left in common at all.
This ‘degeneration’ stems from the trauma of her home life; here, we see the return of the soil metaphor so similar to Eliot’s description of Gwendolen’s lack of a home:
From a young age her life has been abnormal, she knows that. But so much is covered over in time now, the way leaves fall and cover a piece of earth, and eventually mingle with the soil. Things that happened to her then are buried in the earth of her body. She tries to be a good person but deep down she knows she is a bad person, corrupted, wrong, and all her efforts to be right, to have the right opinions, to say the right things, these efforts only disguise what is buried inside her, the evil part of herself.
This ‘evil’ part of herself, like the ‘evil genius’ present in Gwendolen’s beautiful face, is clearly equated with her sexuality, itself inextricable from ‘things that happened to her then’. Abuse is intensely complicated, and there is no ‘typical’ way to respond to experiences like Marianne’s: it is not her response that it is troubling, but the way the ending of the novel, and the culmination of the love story, tacitly confirms this perception of her as ‘damaged’ for enjoying ‘deviant’ sexual activity. Immediately after his refusal to hit her, Connell has a moment of revelation: despite the ‘factual accuracy’ of the story that ‘Marianne is a masochist and Connell is simply too nice of a guy to hit a woman’, he knows that since their school days he has held an ‘effortless tyranny’ over her:
He has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing his hold over her, like a key to an empty property, left available for future use. In fact, he has cultivated it, and he knows he has.
This feels like a moment rich with emancipatory potential for both of them: power play goes both ways, and in exploring his own relationship to desire and control, Connell could reconcile himself to the shame and social anxiety that has dogged their relationship. The demands of the plot, however, allow for no such freedom. Marianne, returning to her house, has her nose broken by her brother. Connell arrives and picks up the frail, bloodied victim, fulfilling the trope of masculine rescue set up earlier in the narrative when he ‘saves’ her from the older man who grabs her breasts at the school dance: he takes her home, warning Alan, in a transference of masculine possession, that if he ever hurts Marianne again, ‘I’ll kill you’. In the final chapter, which feels like an epilogue, Rooney sketches out a kind of compromise of desire that feels, to me, like disappointment:
In bed he would say lovingly: You’re going to do exactly what I want now, aren’t you? He knew how to give her what she wanted, to leave her open, weak, powerless, sometimes crying. He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence. This all seemed to happen on the deepest possible level of her personality.
‘He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her’; but what about the possibility for a recuperation of past hurt through a less conventional sexual practice, a relationship that breaks the confines of social anxiety that has limited it so painfully? By the end of the book, the repetition of ‘normal people’ has transitioned, touchingly, to them and ‘others’:
It’s not like this with other people.
Well, I like you a lot more than other people.
Within that acceptance of difference there could be room for a more radical ‘otherness’ that allows for the complexities of violence to have equally complex remedies and restitution; instead, the novel ends on an ambivalent conflation of love and ‘good’ power.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Normal People is, above all, a novel that knowingly commits to its traditional narrative structures. At moments, Rooney’s characters seem to be pushing against the limits the tropes of the story are imposing upon them; if Daniel Deronda, at the end of Eliot’s writing career, marked a transitional moment for the literature that came after, perhaps Normal People will reset the limits of Rooney’s fictional practice. By the time we leave them, Marianne and Connell are only at the beginning of their twenties. It is best, perhaps, to leave the last word to Eliot – not Deronda this time, but her most socially generous novel, Middlemarch:
Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.