Emma Urbanova analyses the depiction of the student experience in books.
The university experience is so well-worn and overused in the literary canon that campus novels have almost become a genre in themselves. But to what extent is their portrayal of student life authentic? Take Sally Rooney’s Normal People: its protagonists, Connell and Marianne, belong to different social classes, manifesting in different kinds of university experience. Connell’s working class upbringing results in financial struggle, and he is unsure about studying English Literature as it is often condemned as not a “real degree”. In this cost of student living crisis, every text realistically reflecting university life needs to address both the struggle to get by day-to-day, and longer term anxieties about employability.
However, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has quite a different take on campus life. Set in an elite liberal arts college, its privileged protagonists wear lavish outfits, discuss Greek mythology, and indulge in Bacchanalian-like rites (seemingly never having to actually study). Rooney’s novel is, rightfully, much more critical of high university culture. Connell struggles to embrace the intellectual dialogue pertaining to his subject, finding joy in his own writing outwith the constraints of academia. Rooney explores the isolation many first-year students grapple with in an unknown environment.
Indeed, Marine Saint has written about how “we see protagonist Connell struggling with the often-isolating periods of time at university and eventually getting support to open up about his struggles.” Having moved countries in order to study in Glasgow, this struggle resonated with me personally, and addresses the alienation and yearning for home I experienced (not only) in my first year. Unlike The Secret History, Normal People does not glamourise the university experience, and responds acutely and sensitively to the issues students currently face.
But can we even speak of a uniform university experience? Even if we assume financial instability, binge-drinking and overworking as key tenets of student life, it remains a problem how best to balance the portrayal of them in literature without the campus novel becoming a cliché.