Power, growth and emotional resilience in Sally Rooney’s Normal People
A woman’s skill of self-preservation in moving fluidly through domestic chaos is often overlooked in literature
Sally Rooney: writes into existence a painfully relatable identity for young Irish women in 2018. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
With the character of Marianne in Normal People, Sally Rooney writes into existence a painfully relatable identity for the young Irish woman of 2018. The power of the young woman in moving fluidly through domestic chaos is a refined skill of self-preservation often overlooked in literature or particular scenes dealing with domestic abuse which tend to lean toward the often male-centric action.
Here, Rooney deals more with domestic threat and anticipation. With emotional resilience and socially necessitated insularity, Marianne walks a tightrope of balancing minimum interaction for maximum effect. When interacting with her volatile brother “She’s beginning to feel nervous now and hopes her silence is communicating insolence rather than uncertainty”.
Uncertainty cannot be a feature of her character. It seems that her relationship with power and control is founded upon the uncertainty of her family life. To make it out of interactions with her mother or brother unscathed she must remain sure of herself while continuing to anticipate their next move. She does this through a naturally embedded reading of body language, borne undoubtedly out of fear as a young child, existing now in an almost premonitory way. The evidence of her need to exist this way is seen with her mother and brother displaying a deep lack of respect for Marianne which they blithely justify in playing suffocatingly tight gender and generational roles:
“Denise decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression towards Marianne as a way of expressing themselves. As a child Marianne resisted, but now she simply detaches, as if it isn’t of any interest to her which, in a way it isn’t. Denise considers this a symptom of her daughter’s frigid and unlovable personality. She believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth’, by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.”
Power in dialogue is revered by Marianne and is possibly reflective of her awareness of the opposite when it comes to physical interaction. Portrayed as untouchable, her façade is impenetrable. It is easier to be offended by her and her social distance than to attempt to engage with her. She plays into this actively in order to continue self-preservation but in keeping potentially positive relations at arm’s length she compounds her own vulnerability.
At the beginning of her relationship with Connell, each partner plays out a socially imposed role which, when performed in company often leaves the power residing with Connell over Marianne. In private settings and one-to-one interactions, she reclaims the power Connell is often socially afforded. She does this by using the skills she has acquired in the family setting of self-preservation and protection that manifest in linguistic prowess.
There seems to be a threat associated for Connell as her power is felt, though with his non-threatening behaviour comparative to her family, it is not a power tool she uses. It just hovers in the air, is playful and essentially forms the flirtatious beginnings of their relationship. The power in her dialogue and privacy is sensed as a lack of control for him. “He’s not frightened of her, actually she’s a pretty relaxed person, but he fears being around her, because of the confusing way he finds himself behaving, the things he says that he would never ordinarily say.”
I think there is a modern-day heroine in the character of Marianne for young female readers. I believe her reverence for power in dialogue makes sense to the young female Irish reader. Physical submission and inability to retaliate or defend oneself in scenarios of physical danger condition the young woman to equip herself with a sharpness of tongue and polished intellect that prevents difficult interactions from developing to that point. Marianne does this from a position of power and authority which, while being staunch and defiant, is self-minding and vigilant.
There is a privacy that is unshakeable for young adults who are the products of domestically volatile homes. No matter how intelligent they are or what type of safe life they carve for themselves or what type of wholesome people they reinvest their love in, there will always be moments of lack. Moments where the good people who drew you out of yourself and have grown with you for a time, with their so well-deserved inexperience of a difficult start, will for moments not know who you are at all.
When meeting again after being apart for some time the potential for awkward rekindling of a deep love, regardless of its label at that moment, is paused in a stasis of disconnect when discussing protests outside and Connell says, referencing the police: “There are worse things than getting beaten up.” Marianne pauses in motion when he says this and “He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it”. After he probes her a little further with her automatically responding in agreement, “Finally she glances up at him as if remembering he’s sitting there.” The discord that floats between them from time to time seems a protectiveness on her end not to divulge, not to fully open his mind to the depths of her history and in doing so perhaps not fully giving herself over to him.
It seems toxic traits can still be drawn out of a person when once necessary self-preservation which is no longer needed turns almost completely to submission. On an occasion when they aren’t in a relationship but sharing a bed “He’s aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to. She wouldn’t tell anyone. He finds it strangely comforting, and allows himself to think about what it would be like. Hey, he would say quietly. Lie on your back, okay? And she would just obediently lie on her back.”
It seems that when giving him increasing access to her vulnerability by revealing more of her family dynamic a gap naturally develops between them whereby he cannot consciously understand her experience, whilst a subconscious derogatory and misogynistic strand is piqued for him. One woven into him by modern Irish society that misshapes young male minds, implanting in decent young men a subconscious sense of authority and possession over women and their bodies.
By the end of the book Connell and Marianne have made each other better people. “He brought her goodness like a gift and now it belongs to her. Meanwhile his life opens out before him in all directions at once. They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another.” They have done this by actively rejecting the self-destructive or oppressive tendencies they have been taught, that would harm each other and themselves, and in moments have done. It seems to be through a deep respect for each other that they lift themselves and each other out of these potentially toxic elements of their identities. The depth of their understanding of this is seen in their final separation at the end of the book. This comes at a time when they seem to be at their best. “What they have now they can never have back again.” They agree to pursue their own paths while possibly knowing subconsciously that what they have shared with each other in order to grow is what inhibits them from growing together.
Her family experience and the vulnerability that ensues from sharing it awakens in him a strangely comforting awareness of his potential and strength over her. Simultaneously, what was initially displayed in the text as a playful reverence for verbal dominance in a family kitchen setting, sucking spoons of Nutella and commenting on his blushed cheeks has developed to a reality where her character is fundamentally darker, more experienced or exposed in a way that is inaccessible for him. Throughout the text there is a distance in his not knowing that remains – and her isolation persists. “She squeezes his hand. It’s a very sad gesture. […]But Marianne has already turned away.”
For me, Normal People is a story of two people escaping societal constraints thrust upon them, in terms of an abusive family environment for Marianne and a deep-seated culture of Irish toxic masculinity for Connell. Constraints that they have helped free each other of but that they might pull each other back down into if they remained together.
There is an agonising clarity to the closing of the book that is searing with detailed awareness. It is the type of clarity we all feel when having that break-up conversation. Floodgates of empathy open where, almost floating out of your own body and experience, you so succinctly give voice to the other perspective. This dizzying clarity makes the decision harder, teases you to stay although you know it is a fleeting symptom of a particular and rare depth of emotional pain.
What a reader might want to be idyllic golden light streaming in on a happy ending is a wall that looks like a slab of butter. Where they might want to see a fresh, sleek-haired, content Marianne emerge from the shower she “Squeezes her hair through the towel, feeling the coarse, grainy texture of the individual strands”, as they break up. People who are still upset, who are still in love, who are leaving each other, who are still recovering from trauma. Normal people. The value they place on what they have done for each other and the acceptance with which they let go is both the sadness and triumph of their relationship. It is something so uniquely portrayed in this text of Rooney’s but so often felt by young people; to grow apart beautifully and separate, not fully formed but full of the potential to do so.
Normal People by Sally Rooney is published by Faber. It has been named Irish Novel of theYear and Waterstones Novel of theYear, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and has been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. It is to be adapted for BBC TV by director Lenny Abrahamson