Normal People Summary

Normal People is a novel about the relationship between two Irish young people, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan.

  • Popular, working-class Connell and wealthy outcast Marianne begin seeing each other in secret during high school, but Marianne ends the relationship when Connell deeply hurts her.
  • The two again date and break up at Trinity College, where Marianne has made friends easily but Connell feels alienated. While Marianne pursues unhappy relationships, Connell falls into a depression after a friend's death.
  • After Connell confronts Marianne’s abusive brother, Connell and Marianne resume their relationship but agree that Connell will accept a place at a New York university.

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Last Updated on August 17, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People charts the relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, two friends from the fictional town of Carricklea in Sligo, Ireland.

At the beginning of the novel, the friendship between Marianne and Connell begins to develop when Connell regularly picks up his mother, Lorraine, from her...

(The entire section contains 899 words.)

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Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People charts the relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, two friends from the fictional town of Carricklea in Sligo, Ireland.

At the beginning of the novel, the friendship between Marianne and Connell begins to develop when Connell regularly picks up his mother, Lorraine, from her job working as a housekeeper for Marianne’s wealthy family. In their conversations, Connell and Marianne share a deep sense of privacy between them that eventually culminates in a kiss. Although he is attracted to Marianne, Connell, who is popular and athletic but plagued by insecurities, is worried about openly dating her, as she is the school outcast. He is painfully concerned about what his friends would say and what their relationship would do to his reputation, and when they begin sleeping together, he and Marianne decide to keep their sexual relationship a secret. Connell tells Marianne he loves her but, panicked about what he has done, asks another girl to go to the Debs (the school’s senior prom). Deeply hurt, Marianne ignores Connell’s texts and doesn’t return to school, instead spending the remainder of the year studying at home.

When school is finished and the summer is over, Marianne and Connell begin their first year at Trinity College, Dublin, where Marianne encouraged Connell to apply as an English major. While Marianne, a History and Politics student, is popular there, Connell feels isolated and struggles to make friends. After meeting each other again at a party, however, they reconnect and eventually resume their relationship. This time they do not keep it a secret. But when Connell loses his job and can’t afford rent for the summer, he puts off asking Marianne if he can stay with her. When he finally tells her about his situation, the two suffer a miscommunication and agree to see other people while Connell moves home to Carricklea.

When Marianne returns home for her father’s anniversary Mass, she runs into Connell, who volunteers to attend the Mass with her. Marianne has begun dating her friend Jamie, which Connell discovers when they return to Trinity. The relationship is an unhappy one; Jamie is privileged and arrogant, and he enjoys beating Marianne during sex. While it was Marianne who initially proposed that she act the part of a “submissive,” she does not enjoy Jamie’s sadism so much as believe she deserves it. Connell, meanwhile, has started dating a medical student named Helen, with whom he believes he is able to have a healthy, socially acceptable relationship for the first time. He and Marianne remain friends.

Marianne and Connell both receive prestigious scholarships at Trinity, which allows Connell a degree of financial freedom he has never known before. That summer he goes traveling in Europe with his friends Niall and Elaine, eventually arriving at Marianne’s family holiday home in Italy, where Marianne, Jamie, and their friend Peggy are staying. The first evening there, Connell witnesses a violent argument between Marianne and Jamie and is forced to intervene. Afterward, Marianne tells him the truth about the abuse she has endured from her family, including both her late father and her older brother, Alan. Marianne breaks up with Jamie when they return to Trinity, leading Jamie to spread rumors about Marianne’s sexual proclivities. Most of her social circle abandon her, with the exception of her friend Joanna.

The next year, Connell continues at Trinity, while Marianne studies abroad in Sweden. There she begins another sadomasochistic relationship, with a photographer called Lukas. Their relationship, particularly the verbal abuse Lukas subjects her to after sex, confirms Marianne’s feelings of worthlessness. Marianne ultimately ends the relationship after Lukas ignores her lack of consent while insisting that he loves her.

In Dublin, Connell falls into a deep depression following the suicide of his old school friend Rob, and Helen breaks up with him. He begins taking medication and seeing a therapist through Trinity’s mental health service, and that spring, one of his short stories is published anonymously in the college literary journal. 

When Marianne returns from Sweden that summer, she moves back into her family home in Carricklea. Connell visits her every weekend, and the two enjoy a stable friendship. Eventually, however, they confess their continuing attraction to one another and have sex. But when Marianne asks Connell to be violent with her, he refuses, and Marianne leaves his house believing herself to be unlovable. When she returns to her family home, her brother, Alan, warns her not to see Connell again and breaks her nose. Marianne calls Connell, who sees her safely into his car before warning Alan that if he ever touches or insults Marianne again, Connell will kill him. In the car, Connell tells Marianne that he loves her and promises to protect her.

By that winter, Marianne and Connell are together again. Marianne has cut off contact with her family, and she and Connell spend the holidays together at Lorraine’s house in Carricklea. In Dublin, Marianne works at her first job, and she and Connell continue finishing their degrees, happy and content in their relationship. But when Connell is offered a place in a graduate program at a New York university, Marianne encourages him to go, secure in both her sense of self-worth and the knowledge of the impact they have had on one another’s lives.

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