Most millennials have been conditioned to believe that to become a grown up, you have to be independent. Hailed as “the first great millennial author” by The New York Times, Sally Rooney questions this received wisdom. She said in a recent interview that she doesn’t “really believe in the idea of the individual.” This non-belief is evident in Rooney’s latest novel, Normal People, an unconventional bildungsroman that explores not the power of self-determination but the idea of the self as something generated between people. By her own admission, Rooney is fascinated with “the way we construct one another.”
Normal People, published earlier this month, introduces Connell as a popular schoolboy in Carricklea, a small town in West Ireland. Naturally reserved and secretly anxious, Connell recognizes that he has little control over his own identity: “His personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others rather than anything he individually did or produced.” Nevertheless, he feels compelled to live up to the public perception that he is cool, even when he falls in love with school pariah Marianne.
Ostracised by both her family and her peers, who maintain that she is not a “normal” person, Marianne exists at the periphery of Carricklea’s social structures. This gives her “the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away,” and that her unstructured reality in Carricklea is insubstantial. Connell, meanwhile, sees her as “independent.” He envies her “drastically free life,” even as he conforms to social expectations and insists that he and Marianne keep their relationship secret. After all, if people found out about it, “his life would be over:” His entire identity would be destabilized.
Connell prefers “to keep both worlds, both versions of his life, and to move between them.” With Marianne, he occupies a kind of otherworld; their relationship blossoms in the margins of Carricklea, including “the ghost,” a derelict, empty estate where cool kids go to drink and smoke. Not having friends to drink or smoke with, Marianne’s never heard of the ghost, so Connell drives her there and shows her around, having exited the car first “to make sure no one was around.” This may seem callous on his part, but Connell and Marianne find their otherworld alluring because of its separateness from the parallel version of their lives. Her social unacceptability creates a space between them that is secure, meaning they can both be authentic. In an abandoned house at the estate, they have an awkward, difficult conversation about their feelings, which deepens their intimacy. “People go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.”
Still, their relationship falls apart, because Connell chooses to be normal rather than happy. He asks a popular girl whom he dislikes to the end-of-school ball. Marianne, upset, stops answering his calls. But at this very ball, Connell’s friend Eric tells him that everyone knows about “the secret for which he sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person.” Connell finds this revelation horrifying, “not because it ended his life, but because it didn’t.” His reputation survives this minor scandal, and even if it hadn’t, the ball marks the end of the era when the opinions of his classmates are influential. “Life in Carricklea, which they had imbued with such drama and significance, just ended like that.” At the ball, Eric’s complexion appears ghostly to Connell, as he begins to realize that his school friends, rather than Marianne, will take on a lifeless quality over the next few years.
And so, Rooney shows that whole social structures can become destabilized, in the same way that identities can be. After all, the individual, in Normal People, is a microcosmic social structure, made up of webbed relationships and collective agreements. This might be the premise of any young adult novel—a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing your personality to be governed by peers. To allow others to construct us can be destructive. But Rooney doesn’t settle for this conclusion.
Connell and Marianne begin new lives as students at Trinity College, Dublin, where they are nothing more than estranged former schoolfellows. Marianne’s sense that her real life was far removed from Carricklea proves prescient: At university, she becomes instantly and immensely popular. Meanwhile, Connell becomes the “lonely, unpopular one.” Unlike Marianne, he’s from a working-class family, meaning that at a prestigious university he is an outsider. Travelling back to Carricklea every weekend to work at a garage, and finding that his school friends have dispersed, Connell loses any sense of having a “real life” either at home or in Dublin. Whereas he used to be able to move between two “versions of his life,” he now finds himself “trapped between two places,” unable to feel comfortable in either.
Connell originally applied to Trinity because of Marianne’s encouragement, but predicted that she “would pretend not to know him” if she bumped into him there. Marianne swore she’d do no such thing, and is true to her word. Despite being humiliated by Connell at school, when she meets him at a house party months later and miles away, she happily exclaims in front of her new friends: “Connell Waldron! From beyond the grave.” Here in Dublin, it is Connell, rather than Marianne, who is ghostly—a manifestation of a time that was the opposite of “life” for her—but once again, Marianne pulls Connell into her world. After this encounter, they grow close again, and she introduces Connell to everyone, telling “them all what great company he was, how sensitive and intelligent.” She constructs him, in other words, in the minds of others, in order to make Connell socially acceptable. She does for him what he was too afraid to do for her.
As a millennial author interested in the construction of identities, Rooney naturally considers the role technology plays in Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Again, she rejects received wisdom, refusing any lazy generalizations about the evils of social media, and avoiding the temptation to be snobbish about online writing. She stated in an interview that, “A large part of my style has definitely developed through writing emails,” and in Normal People, Connell develops his writing in a similar way. While traveling around Europe one summer, he composes long emails for Marianne, which he redrafts, “reviewing all the elements of prose, moving clauses around to make the sentences fit together correctly.” He reflects that writing these emails “feels like an expression of a broader and more fundamental principle, something in his identity, or something even more abstract, to do with life itself.” When physically distant from Marianne, Connell finds that the intangible, technological space between them solidifies both his sense of self and something bigger, beyond himself.
Connell is “not someone who feels comfortable confiding in others, or demanding things from them. He needs Marianne for this reason.” At school, he depended on others to give him a shape; at university, he depends on Marianne. Their intimacy is a secure space in which their identities are collaboratively and positively constructed. Connell reflects on his schooldays, when “He had just wanted to be normal, to conceal the parts of himself that he found shameful or confusing. It was Marianne who had shown him other things were possible.” In Normal People, Rooney shows us the constructive power of nurturing, tolerant relationships in opposition to the destructiveness of superficial relationships.
While Connell felt pressure to live up to his peers’ positive construction of him in Carricklea, Marianne was struggling to resist her abusive family’s negative construction of her. She learns from them that she is unlovable. Her relationships at university are profoundly affected by this narrative, particularly with a boyfriend named Jamie, who she asks to “beat me up. Just during sex, that is. Not during arguments.” This proclivity, Rooney suggests, is a symptom of the narrative Marianne absorbed in Carricklea: “‘Maybe I want to be treated badly,’ she says. ‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think I deserve bad things because I’m a bad person.’”
But Marianne’s desire to submit to Jamie arises from feeling independent of him. When Connell mentions that she “never said any of this to” him, when they were together, Marianne explains:
I didn’t need to play any games with you, she says. It was real. With Jamie it’s like I’m acting a part, I just pretend to feel that way, like I’m in his power. But with you that really was the dynamic, I actually had those feelings, I would have done anything you wanted me to.
In other words, the sexual preferences she expresses are a response to the dynamic she finds herself a part of. She longs to escape her sense of independence from those around her—a sense that causes intense loneliness—even as she is afraid of the effects other people might have on her. Connell helps Marianne break out of this cycle. Though misunderstandings between them hurt her, Connell never abuses Marianne. Consistently, he counters her internalized narrative that she is a bad person who deserves mistreatment. Instead, “He brought her goodness like a gift,” enabling her to ultimately embrace the novel’s underlying philosophy: “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.”
Rooney reaches back for her novel’s epigraph, long before the dawn of our postmodern society that determinedly lionizes the independent individual. She quotes a central idea from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “To many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence.” She thereby introduces a coming-of-age story that emphasises not independence but interdependence. Eliot’s “peculiar influence” is another form of what Rooney describes as the special relationship between the “facts” people know about Connell’s and Marianne’s lives—a relationship that finds the protagonists, several years after their first kiss, unable to “leave one another alone.” Marianne and Connell grow up “like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another,” as do we all, leaning on one another, unable to sustain independence.