The Marianne that we meet at the beginning of this great novel is plagued by feelings of inferiority and a lack of self-worth. These feelings are exacerbated by the fact that she is a social outcast at school and naturally intensified when she and Connell start dating but Connell requests that their relationship be kept a secret for the sake of his reputation.
By the time our protagonist reaches Trinity College, her blossoming process has already begun. At college, the tables are turned, and it is Marianne who is the popular one, while Connell struggles to fit in. Needless to say, their relationship no longer needs to be a secret after they leave school.
Later, however, she seems to take a step backwards when she gets into a long-term relationship with an abusive man named Jamie. I would argue that it is only in the aftermath of Marianne and Jamie's breakup, when she finally confides in Connell about the abuse that she endured as a child, that she can truly start to grow, let go of the past, and become the best possible version of herself.
By the end, this growth really starts to show itself in Marianne's actions, especially when she encourages Connell to go and study in New York and leave her behind.
Marianne, a classic poor little rich girl with a troubled home life, grows in self worth over the course of the novel. At the beginning, she is a high school social outcast who is so needy that she goes along with Connell's stricture that their sexual relationship be kept secret. Connell, though he has a special bond with Marianne, is afraid he will lose status in the eyes of his friends if they know he is in a relationship with her.
When they are both at Trinity College, the tables turn. Marianne reinvents herself and becomes popular, while the lower-class Connell feels out of place and peripheral. Nevertheless, Marianne still struggles with self worth, as she allows herself to stay in an abusive relationship with Jamie: it seems right to her, given her family background, to allow him to hit her, hurt her, and call her worthless, because she feels worthless inside.
Gradually, as her special relationship with Connell undergoes various permutations, Marianne is able to trust in him and realize that he will always be there for her. She realizes, too, that she has been able to help him. A turning point comes when she calls Connell for help after her older brother hurts her by slamming a door into her nose. Marianne, by the end, is strong enough to encourage Connell to go when he gets the chance to study writing in New York City, knowing the relationship, though it will change, can withstand the separation.
Marianne’s growth in Sally Rooney’s second novel is a more-or-less standard character arc. When we meet her she is arrogant, unfeeling, and flippant, supporting the reputation she has at school, where “a lot of people really hate her.” In the first meeting we see with Connell and Marianne, it’s the flippancy, the devil-may-care attitude made possible by the security her family’s money provides, that upsets Connell.
What were you talking about with Miss Neary today? says Marianne.
Oh. Nothing. I don’t know. Exams.
Does she fancy you or something? Marianne says.
Why do you say that? he says.
God, you’re not having an affair with her, are you?
Obviously not. Do you think it’s funny joking about that?
Though he’s as smart as Marianne, Connell comes from a lower-class background and objects to Marianne’s easy use of a serious topic for humor. It works both ways, however, as Connell does not want people to know when the two start seeing each other in a mainly sexual capacity. Marianne is hurt by this fact but acknowledges Connell’s impact on her.
With other people she seemed so independent and remote, but with Connell she was different, a different person. He was the only one who knew her like that.
Of course what Connell does not know, initially, is that behind Marianne’s confident and competent façade lurks her difficult family life, which includes a verbally abusive mother and a physically abusive brother. Mainly she absorbs it passively, but here Marianne changes with Connell’s help. When her brother Alan breaks her nose, Marianne calls Connell, who in turn confronts Alan.
If you ever touch Marianne again, I’ll kill you, he says. Okay? That’s all. Say one bad thing to her ever again and I’ll come back here myself and kill you, that’s it.
As they sit in Connell’s car afterward, the last veneer of Marianne’s independence and remoteness falls away.
She looks at him above the veil of the white tissue, and in a rush he feels his power over her again, the openness in her eyes … for a second or two she holds his gaze and then finally she closes her eyes.
Thank you, she says.
It’s tempting to worry about Marianne and an unbalanced power structure here, but it’s a two-way street. She has power over him, too. Given the chance to study in New York, Connell demurs at first.
I’m not going to New York without you. I wouldn’t even be here without you.
It’s true, she thinks… and Marianne herself, she would be another person entirely.
Once separated by money and opportunity, Marianne and Connell are now equals. They might not be normal people, but they are, at the end, different people.