The Marxist Politics of Sally Rooney's 'Normal People'
Between layers of love Is an anti-capitalist mantra
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
By now, you know the name Sally Rooney, the literary world’s wunderkind, and 28-year-old author of two best-selling novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. Her stories are sparse and introspective, exploring what love looks like in a post-Great Recession world where the young, precariat class often walk a tightrope between pursuit of higher education and meaningful employment. Rooney dissects what it means to be part of that—dare we say it— “millennial” generation where success no longer has a clear defined path, and relationships often feel like nothing more than a balm for the consternation one feels about the future.
In Normal People, the protagonists Marianne and Connell navigate an undefined romance from high school through university, enduring see-sawing power dynamics. Connell’s mom is a house cleaner employed by Marianne’s mother—something that Marianne can easily ignore but Connell cannot—but that class difference doesn’t impact where either of them fit in amongst their classmates. At the start of the novel, Connell is the one with an advantage—good looking, athletic, well-liked, and secretly bookish—while Marianne, despite wealth and presumed social status, is actively despised. She’s an outspoken, unpopular, ugly-duckling that prefers reading to socializing with her peers. Their romance starts in secret, as if inside a Russian nesting doll—beneath layers and layers of class and family and social expectations, there’s Marianne and Connell, building a private world outside of view.
Outside of their West Ireland hometown and in the urban center of Dublin, the power dynamic flips—Marianne find herself enviable, popular, and desired, while Connell struggles to fit in, slowly becoming consumed by his own imposter syndrome and depression. These dynamics change again and again throughout the novel, and the power-play that ensues—quietly, but ever present—defines the next four years of Marianne and Connell’s relationship.
In synopsis, Normal People reads as a typical romance—boy meets girl, boy likes girl, cue sex and love and a marriage plot. But the consistent undercurrent is one of anxiety—anxiety over being liked, of having money, of succeeding, of being “normal.” It’s this anxiety over class and Euros that results in one of the first critical misunderstandings in Connell and Marianne’s relationship: Connell can’t afford to stay in Dublin on his own income and wants to ask to stay with Marianne in her apartment, but somehow the moment to do so passes before he can really formulate the question.
But it doesn’t pass, not really—Marianne misunderstands what Connell is trying to say and Connell, out of embarrassment, fails to ever clarify what he means. You could argue that it’s a youthful error born out of pride, but you can also argue that he’s silenced by the invisible yet ubiquitous class differences that intrude in on his and Marianne's relationship. So, without a place to stay, Connell and Marianne break up and start seeing other people. It’s the first of many half-hearted breakups.
It’s hard to read this scene and not think of the Marxist mantra that’s guided Rooney and that the author often repeats: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Marianne has means (and arguably excess) and Connell has need, but in a capitalist system that values individualism and inserts judgment where empathy should be, a request as simple as asking to crash on your girlfriend’s couch until the start of term is suddenly shameful. And that shame exists because Connell is always, in some way, concerned about money, thinking about debts accrued and fixated on the invisible class divides between him and Marianne. However, Marianne is free to ignore the divide because she has money, and whether or not there is enough of it never seems to be a concern. Money affords Marianne freedom to be and do as she pleases, while it anchors Connell very much to the material world—to ledgers where all that he doesn’t have is tallied and compared to all that Marianne does:
In their West Ireland hometown, Connell’s lack of wealth didn’t matter—he didn’t need to rely on money to make friends or succeed. In Dublin, a fine line divides the have and have-nots, and Marianne’s inherited wealth immediately earns her a place of respect. Her charm and intelligence secure her social status, but it’s her money that opens the door—without money, Connell is left banging for someone to let him in.
But Rooney never calls this unseen barrier by its name—instead it’s portrayed as a holiday home or a dinner party; good health or flagrant confidence. When Connell first begins his studies at university, he feels as if he’s lost his footing. Conversations are abstract, theories and discussions are difficult to follow, but he quickly realizes that his peers are not actually reading the texts assigned, they are just overly confident in their knowledge. Their money and their status insulate them from criticism:
Normal People posits the same question that guided Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends: can we create new models for love that exist within a capitalist system? New models that are not disrupted by class and social expectations, new models that aren’t confined to being “normal.”
Rooney’s writing has no frills, no real excess. At its cruelest, it is silent and sharp, widening the spaces between characters and leaving us feeling bone-bared. At its most tender, it is vulnerable and revels in the perverse beauty of submission and need: