This week, let’s look at one of two major themes in Normal People, social class. I realize that last time, I left off with the threat to get into a mysterious issue, the role of dialogue and whether it may represent the characters speaking directly to the reader rather than through the narrator. I don’t wish to dodge this, but I’m not sure that Normal People is a clear example, so I will postpone the matter.
Thematically, Normal People is a lot about sex and social class. Ms. Rooney, the real author, has an agenda here, I think. It’s gently put, but there’s a value judgement that sex is positive and even healing but can also be an expression of personal problems, and that some people judge others on the basis of social status and shun them unfairly.
More on sex later.
Class, like ethnicity and gender, is one of those issues not usually addressed in polite conversation in terms of recognizing and discussing differences. Money too. We like to pretend that social class doesn’t matter but Normal People does a nice job of showing that it does—especially on an emotional level. In polite conversation, and perhaps in polite books, there’s an attempt to smooth over differences and deny them. Of course, Normal People concerns an ultimate difference, the one between males and females, but addresses it more in terms of Marianne and Connell being different, particular people rather than representatives of two different genders. Perhaps class gets the same treatment.
In an amusing passage early on, Connell recommends The Communist Manifesto to Marianne, thinking, he says, she would like it. He offers to write down the title, but she assures him she already knows it.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx argues that the goal of the working class is to displace the capitalist system with socialism, changing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. This would mark the beginning of a classless society in which human needs rather than profit would be the motive for production. In a society with democratic control and production for use, there would be no class, no state and no need for financial and banking institutions and money.
Is this what Connell is advocating? No, he’s making an ironic joke pointing out the differences between he and Marianne. A flirtation, my dear.
Although at the beginning of the book they attend the same high school, Marianne and Connell have a different social status, which is determined by social prestige rather than difference in wealth. They are both white Irish people, but Connell is from a single parent family; his mother was an unmarried teenager when she had him and works as a cleaning person in Marianne’s mother’s house. His family, the Waldrons, have a reputation in the community of being “bad” although Connell is seen as one of the “good’ ones. He works and goes to school, and there is not a sense that he and his mother live in poverty—they are just significantly less well-off than Marianne’s family. His intention has been to go to law school after graduation, despite an interest in literature. It is Marianne who persuades him to go to Trinity College in Dublin to study literature, even though this may lead to less monetary success.
Marianne is the youngest offspring of a wealthy family, the Sheridans. Her father recently died; the implication is that he was older. Her mother, Denise, is a lawyer and works full-time. The family lives in a sort of mansion. In terms of social status, it is Connell who is “top dog.” Marianne, although coming from a wealthy family, is regarded in the high school caste system as being odd and marginal—because of her behavior and maybe her wealth. Connor is handsome and athletic.
So, Marianne and Connell are from different backgrounds but are drawn to one another as friends and as lovers; Connell’s mother being the connection. Connell is self-conscious about his humbler background; Marianne seems somewhat embarrassed about hers. Although Marianne and Connell tend to deny and play down their class differences, their friends accentuate them, creating a meaningful context for the theme.
Once they had off to University in Dublin, their social status is reversed. Now Marianne is part of a circle of other wealthy friends, who tend to look down on Connell’s humbler roots.
The book is well along when Marianne and Connell finally address the issue directly. When they both receive merit scholarships at the university, Connell says, I guess we’re from very different backgrounds, class-wise.
I don’t think about it much, she said. Quickly she added: Sorry, that’s an ignorant thing to say. Maybe I should think about it more.
You don’t consider me your working-class friend?
She gave a smile that was more like a grimace and said: I’m conscious of the fact that we got to know each other because your mother works for my family. I also don’t think my mother is a good employer. I don’t think she pays Lorraine very well.
No, she pays her fuck all.
I’m surprised this hasn’t come up before, she said. I think it’s totally fair if you resent me.
I just feel weird about all this, he said…You know at the dinner last night, those people serving us, they were students. They’re working to put themselves through college while we sit there eating the free food they put in front of us.
The whole idea of “meritocracy” or whatever, it’s evil, you know I think that. But what are we supposed to do, give back the scholarship money?
In excellent fashion, this conversation is not resolved in any substantive way, it’s left open which is, I believe, how “real” conversations tend to go. Our thoughts and feelings linger afterward, re-casting the original experience. In this one, Marianne reminds Connell that in high school, she was treated badly by other students in a sort of reverse discrimination, and Connell guiltily recalls that he too mistreated her.
At that moment he thought: just as their relationship in school had been on his terms, their relationship now was on hers. But she’s more generous, he thought. She’s a better person.
I think what we see is that Marianne and Connell are from different socio-economic backgrounds. They are aware of it; it effects their relationship but does not prevent it from deepening. In a sense, they overcome whatever limitations their social status and class have put on them.
‘Kay. Next week—sex!
I promise. Till then.
(We have to wait?)