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How obvious is Sally Rooney’s Marxism in Normal People?

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is not just a story of love, but a story of the effect living within a contemporary capitalist society has on two young people. The novel highlights the social and economic inequalities of the classist system in which we live.

Irish novelist Rooney often discusses her Marxist persuasion in interviews and does not shy away from including political messages within her work, as seen in the BBC/Hulu 2020 television adaptation of Normal People. Her close involvement with the series, through co-writing the first six episodes with playwright Alice Birch, ensured it expressed its focus on the effects of society on people in rural and urban Ireland after the 2008 financial crash. 

Main characters Marianne and Connell meet at school, and we follow their relationship through university. Marianne is from a wealthy, middle-class home, and Connell is from a working-class background. The struggles and opportunities they have differ due to their economic positions, and this is shown throughout the series. As a teenager living in rural Sligo, Connell fits in, is normal, and therefore popular. Marianne’s wealthy status sets her apart from the other people at school and she is isolated. Rooney then presents the transition to adulthood in a capitalist society, as the move of both characters to the elitist Trinity College Dublin reverses their situations of normalcy.

Marianne prospers due to her financial security. She is expected to go to university, lives in her family's second home in Dublin and has opportunities to attend parties and societies with other middle-class students. Connell struggles with leaving his friends and mother, for whom he is a support network. He is only able to afford a shared room in a house in Dublin, restricting him from many opportunities to meet people and have a social life. 

In an interview at the Louisiana Literature festival, Rooney related her own experiences of university. While people from all backgrounds can attend university nowadays, there is still an elite divide within higher education. She described the struggles that young people face today at university if they lack the financial aid they need, in comparison to those with financial security. Connell works constantly as he needs to achieve the best degree to gain opportunities, while Marianne enjoys student life to the fullest with no need to fear for her future.

While, upon closer inspection, Rooney’s Marxism is clear, it is subtle in her novel and series. At a London Review Bookshop talk, she says that she did not intend to write a Marxist novel and convince people of Marxism. Instead, she claims, she writes realistically about how society affects individuals and their relationships. Rooney stated that her characters would be “floating in the void if they didn't have positions within the class system, positions within the gender system; they wouldn't be real characters”. She said she feels it necessary to address the effects of society's structures on normal people’s daily lives.

A key point in the series is when Marianne and Connell end their relationship. This is subtly shown to be a result of the economic disparity between the characters. Marianne’s economic privilege is evident when Connell goes home to work in summer. Marianne is hurt and completely blind to him wanting to stay with her, and his having to leave as a result of being unable to afford rent in Dublin. At the aforementioned London Review Bookshop talk, Rooney said that one of her biggest considerations is how normal people can be together within society's structures. Her message, she says, is that of the difficulties people face in their interpersonal relationships and their positions within society. 

The series also covers the destructive nature of capitalism on people’s mental health. It highlights the isolating nature of a competitive society and the fear of failure young people today face. Rooney explores this through Connell’s best friend, Rob, who remains in rural Sligo. Rob’s depression results in suicide, a sad reality of modern-day when many young people, especially men, take their own lives after failing to deal with issues resulting from societal pressures. 

This event leads to Connell himself falling into depression as he struggles with the options of returning home to a lack of opportunity, or continuing at an elitist university. This struggle of feeling in between the classes and not belonging anywhere is something many university students face, torn between home and middle-class university life. At the Louisiana Literature festival, Rooney said she writes from her own encounters of attending the most elitist university in Ireland and being university educated, yet not financially stable. She herself struggles to identify with a class.

Issues of the patriarchy are also acknowledged within the series. While we mostly see Marianne in a more privileged position and Connell as the one struggling, in Rooney’s writings she makes sure to entwine the issue of being female within a capitalist society. Patriarchal views remain dominant in privileged households such as Marianne’s. She is faced with both a mentally and physically abusive brother, while also facing harsh sexual experiences in her relationships. Rooney involves these issues to highlight that even for privileged women, capitalism is not beneficial. They continue to struggle against the patriarchy. The series makes sure to critique capitalism even for the privileged, truly expressing Rooney’s Marxist views that capitalism is of benefit to very few.

On our first viewing of Normal People, we may have believed it to be a story solely of love and its difficulties. However, a deeper look, with Rooney’s Marxist lens, presents a story of two normal people and their struggle in being together as societal forces put pressure on their relationship. While the series ends with Connell emigrating to New York to do creative writing, Marianne remains in Dublin. Her economic security allows her to wait for more opportunities. Even though they want to be together, societal pressures force them apart. This leaves viewers with the final sad thought that this is not a happily ever after, but a realistic story of the classist system in which we live, and its effects on normal people.


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