Rethinking Normal People

Margaux Emmanuel 14 January 2021

Sally Rooney’s works are tender, obsessive and all-consuming. They derive their popularity from their portrayal of complex issues in an accessible, touching manner. Rooney is praised as the totemic novelist of this generation.

Her two novels are considered predominantly Marxist, limning the struggles and themes of class and education. In Normal People, the social commentary aspect of the novel is Manichean: Marianne is from a wealthy background, expected to go to the most prestigious university in Ireland; on the other hand, Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s family. Marianne and Connell’s relationship does not  fail to show the disparity of expectations and opportunities that are engendered by different social backgrounds.

As well as demonstrating the vision of identity as a socially-determined construct, the strength of these texts also teem with another theme: sex. Sally Rooney’s Marxist vision is most visible in the intricacies of the intimacy between Connell and Marianne. If identity in Normal People is politicized, the body, and sex, is as well. The author explained that for her, there was a dialogic dimension to sex, surpassing the mere erotica: “When I hear the phrase ‘sex scene’, I think about a dialogue scene.” If Sally Rooney’s comment was mostly made to illuminate the language-like communication between bodies, the idea of the body as being a vector of something more than mere materiality is also expressed. The notion of body politic becomes replaced by that of a politicized body : not simply a passive receptacle of Marxist ideals, conditioned by social, religious and political forces, but a site for material symbolic struggle. Depicting the act of sex in itself powerfully presents the body as a locus of the dynamic of desire and power.

In Marxism, materialism and the body are intrinsically linked: Marx writes how “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations” : ‘practice’, which can be understood as action, begins in ‘sensuousness’- the dynamism of action begins in the body. In Normal People, sex, more than coinciding with the trope of vulnerability, is also accompanied with the idea of dispossession. This novel, more than anything, is about the loss of self, in society, in the other. The title ‘Normal People’ itself expresses this identity tending towards an abstraction: Normal People is about the self becoming other and the other becoming self. This is mirrored by the dialogic style of the novel, the dialogue becoming absorbed by the text, one sentence becoming another.

The beauty of Normal People comes in its ability to find the balance between manifesto and emotional realism- we sense that Connell and Marianne’s intimacy roots from a profoundly human need for comfort, and understanding. The narrative of Normal People is driven by both a love story, and a political story. Yet the political force of the novel seeps into the tragic cracks of the narrative. The rawness of their relationship makes it difficult to characterize Connell and Marianne as the puppets of a Marxist demonstration- they become a Levinassian “face”, a mode of “pure” alterity: their social identities are almost superseded by the face of the human fragility that we see in ourselves,  even if they also exist as a representation of the political forces that construct society.

The beauty of Normal People comes in its ability to find the balance between manifesto and emotional realism

In terms of sex, instead of being the metaphorical union of two beings, it also becomes all the more isolating. It becomes unsatisfying-it is not about bodily satisfaction, or the emotional fulfillment between two beings, but instead engenders a hyper-awareness of a loss of control.

The concept of sex as an instrument for control is especially harrowing for Marianne in the novel: “There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love. In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality.” This is also reflected in her relationship with Lukas, where this idea of loss of control is amplified by the bondage pictures her Swedish boyfriend takes, resulting in her breaking up with him.

The vision of the loss of control over our own body may be symptomatic of Marxism, yet Sally Rooney surpasses this: the loss of self is more introspective. It becomes what makes us feel ever so independent – can Marianne truly be with Connell considering their social differences?  And yet, we become isolated from our own dependence on others: Marianne says “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

Normal People’s strength comes from its portrayal of the vulnerable individual, and the forces of politics that regiment who we are. This popular novel is misunderstood- characterising it as a “Marxist” work is reductive. It speaks to us on a far more complex level, its depiction of love, desire, and class, nuanced and ever so relatable.