Normal People Themes

The themes of Normal People are normality and social status, class, and identity.

  • Normality: Both Marianne and Connell struggle with internalized societal ideas of what is considered normal and abnormal, finding that these distinctions cease to matter in a relationship founded on mutual authenticity and acceptance.
  • Social status, class, and identity: Connell and Marianne’s relationship, as well as their individual identities, is affected by the protagonists’ differing social and socioeconomic statuses. Ultimately, however, the novel suggests that class and social status, while not insignificant, need define neither a relationship nor a person’s sense of self.

Themes

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Last Updated on August 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315

Normality

As the title of the novel suggests, the protagonists of Normal People struggle with what it means to be “normal” in their surroundings and how important their aspirations, and perceived failures, of normality might be in comparison with their love for one another and the integrity of their own senses of self.

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In the final section of the novel, Marianne reflects that she is “neither admired nor reviled anymore. People have forgotten about her. She’s a normal person now.” For Marianne, being normal means that she is able to live her life without being scrutinized and judged by others: on campus, “She walks by and no one looks up.” Most significantly, she is free from the need to punish herself for being “abnormal,” “evil,” “a bad person, corrupted, wrong”—all the things she once believed herself to be and which she sought to confirm through her sadomasochistic relationships with Jamie and Lukas. These beliefs about herself nearly overwhelm Marianne completely at the novel’s climax, after she has asked Connell to hit her during sex and been met with his awkward refusal. Marianne takes Connell’s explanation that he doesn’t want things to be “weird” between them to mean that he considers her to be “weird” as well; she believes that while Connell has been progressing steadily toward normality over the past few years, she has conversely become so abnormal, so socially unacceptable and “degraded,” that even the connection between herself and Connell—one based on a shared sense of near total intimacy and acceptance—has deteriorated, leaving her utterly alone. Connell himself privately observes that there is a “terrible dark emptiness” in Marianne and that she is “missing some primal instinct, self-defense or self-preservation, which makes other human beings comprehensible.” Nevertheless, Connell feels he would die for Marianne, and it is this feeling that constitutes the source of his own self-respect. 

By contrast, Connell’s relationship with Helen affords him the appearance of normality but, in so doing, denies him the authenticity he experiences in his much more intense and complicated relationship with Marianne. Helen is a “nice person” who, like Connell, was popular in school, and Connell believes that “What they had together was normal, a good relationship. The life they were living was the right kind of life.” This assurance of his normality is what gives Connell the confidence to tell Helen that he loves her without fear or shame, but ultimately the illusion is unsustainable: after Rob dies, Connell experiences severe depression and anxiety, which place him well beyond the boundaries of what is considered normal—at least by characters such as Helen, who ends their relationship, or Alan, who refers to Connell as “fucked in the head” and reports that people in town are gossiping about him. Connell’s perceived abnormality also arises in connection to his relationship with Marianne; when Helen questions Connell about why he acts so “weird” around his former girlfriend, Connell replies, “How I act with her is my...

(The entire section contains 1315 words.)

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