Last Updated on August 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1270
Normal People is the second novel by Irish author Sally Rooney, following her successful debut, Conversations With Friends (2017). Published in 2018, Normal People is a coming-of-age tale exploring the relationship between two young people growing up in Sligo and Dublin as they navigate complex issues facing the millennial generation. From miscommunication to mental health crises and the changing political and social landscape of modern Ireland, Normal People questions matters of identity and the performative nature of social dynamics.
Connell and Marianne are differentiated by their contrasting attitudes toward social expectations and the status quo. Marianne is considered an outcast due to her antisocial attitude at school and her rejection of society’s expectations of women. She does not wear makeup or attempt to attract the attention of boys. A popular rumor that circulates around the school is that, after spilling chocolate ice cream on her blouse, Marianne took her blouse off in the girls’ bathroom to wash it in the sink. Marianne is completely inaccessible to her peers, and these rumors serve as a means of placing her under surveillance and mythologizing her identity. Connell, in contrast, is popular and respected at school. Yet despite this appearance of normalcy, he is inwardly plagued by insecurities and an inability to experience intimacy in his sexual relationships.
Connell’s desire to fit in within his social group becomes even more pronounced when he begins a sexual relationship with Marianne. His thoughts surrounding the relationship are embroiled in shame, and he even tries to persuade himself that he slept with Marianne as a social experiment, so as to rationalize his desires. He compares remembering telling Marianne that he loved her to “watching himself committing a terrible crime on CCTV.” This simile gestures toward the relentless nature of Connell’s mental torture, in addition to signifying the overwhelming sense of surveillance that characterizes his social life. Marianne is more interrogative of the institutional nature of school. She considers how, at school, “even her eye movements fell under the jurisdiction of school rules.” It is Marianne’s refusal to adhere to these arbitrary rules or participate in artificial social customs that mark her out as a social pariah. When Connell later discovers that everyone at school knew about their relationship, he is forced to confront the reality that not only has he sacrificed their relationship and happiness for the opinions of others, but he has overestimated the importance of those opinions.
Rooney disrupts the concept of “normal” by subverting the reader’s expectations when Connell and Marianne experience a role reversal at university, with Marianne becoming popular and respected, while Connell becomes a loner. For much of the novel, Connell demonstrates a deep desire to live a conventional life, with his belief that attending Trinity College would mean he could “live the life he had always planned on, getting a good degree, having a nice girlfriend.” Connell’s prescriptive notion of what makes for a good life is defined partly by social expectations, and it is this prescriptive model that frequently leads to his unhappiness. In just a few months, Marianne goes from being perceived as an “ugly loser” to having a wide circle of friends. Rooney thus indicates that both the labels of “popular” and “unpopular” are partially performative, supported by the environment that the individual inhabits, rather than being an inherent part of their personality.
Despite Connell and Marianne both having a desire to be “normal people,” the very notion of normality is shown to be contingent. Although there is a fundamental change in how Marianne is perceived by her peers, she...
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