Finally Normal - Normal People
This week, I want to finish looking at Normal People, although this rich book could easily yield more discussion. However, certain audience members have a tendency to become…restless, shall we say. You know who you are.
Last time, we looked at a key sequence in the book, beginning on page 229 of the 2020 Hogarth paperback edition, in a chapter entitled Four Months Later (July 2014), followed by Five Minutes Later (July 2014). The first chapter is from Marianne’s perspective, the second, Connell’s. During the course of an evening, Marianne and Connell are at his mother’s house watching the World Cup semi-finals. They have not been lovers for a long time, but—"Then he lifts her hand to his mouth and kisses it. She feels pleasurably crushed under the weight of his power over her, the vast ecstatic depth of her will to please him.”
As I described last time, they have sex, during which Marianne asks Connell to hit her. He refuses, and she leaves for her mother’s house where she is attacked by her brother Alan. She calls Connell, who arrives and takes Marianne away, first threatening Alan with death.
These are the broad actions of the two chapters, but a lot is shown about the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
After Marianne leaves, Connell’s mother returns, and Connell is upset:
“It is extremely irritating that his mother thinks he and Marianne are together, when the closest they have come in years to actually being together was earlier this evening and it ended with him crying alone in his room…
“She (Marianne) asked him to hit her and when he said he didn’t want to, she wanted to stop having sex. So why, despite its factual accuracy, does this feel like a dishonest way of narrating what happened? What is the missing element, the excluded part of the story that explains what upset them both? (this is the implied author communicating with the reader). It has something to do with their history, he knows that. Ever since school he has understood his power over her. How she responds to his look or the touch of his hand. The way her face colors, and she goes still as if awaiting some spoken order. His effortless tyranny over someone who seems, to other people, so invulnerable. He has never been able to reconcile himself to the idea of losing his hold over her, like a key to an empty property, left available for future use. In fact he has cultivated it, and he knows he has.…
What’s left for them, then? There doesn’t seem to be a half-way position anymore. Too much has passed between them for that. So it’s over and there’s just nothing? What would it even mean, to be nothing to her? He could avoid her…but the glance could not contain nothing…He has sincerely wanted to die, but he has never sincerely wanted Marianne to forget about him. That’s the only part of himself he wants to protect, the part that exists inside her.”
Some aspects of this passage are troubling in that Connell appears to be thinking of Marianne in a rather narcissistic way. This narcissism seems to drive his behavior.
When Marianne calls him, he becomes very anxious—angrier. “A colored haze sweeps over the driveway…Connell, his sight even blurrier bow…His vision is swimming so severely that he notices he has to keep a hand on the door to stay upright. Connell’s face is wet with perspiration. Alan’s face is visible only as a pattern of colored dots…
After he gets in the car with Marianne, he feels his power over her again. His vision settles…he can breathe.”
Of course, following this dramatic chapter, we have a break of seven months and then land back in Dublin where Connell and Marianne are living together, I think. They are happy—it’s clear that Marianne—whose perspective the reader is shown—is content and “normal.” Does this mean she has given up abusive sex? Yes, but…
“In bed, he would say lovingly: You’re going to do exactly what I say now, aren’t you? He knew how to give her what she wanted, to leave her open, weak, powerless, sometimes crying. He understood that it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence. This all seemed to happen on the deepest possible level of her personality. But on what level did it happen to him? Was it just a game, or a favor he was doing her? Did he feel it the way she did? Every day, in the ordinary activity of their lives, he showed patience and consideration for her feelings. He took care of her when she was sick, he read drafts of her college essays…”
It would seem that Marianne and Connell have maintained the dynamic in their relationship where Marianne willingly submits to Connell, and he is dominant, but there is no physical violence. No violence at all, it’s loving. Just…kind of controlling.
In this final chapter, Marianne muses about their love and about life, and at times, it’s hard to determine who is speaking: the character Marianne or the implied author. Free indirect speech, best beloved.
“She was in his power, he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed. It was so unlike him to behave that way in public that he must have been doing it on purpose, to please her. How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not. She knows he loves her, she doesn’t wonder about that anymore.”
The scenes of Connell refusing to hit Marianne during sex and then his “rescue” of her and his denouncement of Alan are very significant, especially for Marianne. It frees the couple to love each other; perhaps, Marianne is reassured by Connell’s standing up for her, and he is strengthened by the knowledge that he has really helped her.
The ending of Normal People is open to the reader’s interpretation. Connell, who has apparently graduated from university, has applied for a MFA program in writing in NYC–without telling Marianne. He is accepted, and tells her, but presents this as something he wouldn’t want to do unless she accompanied him. She says she does not want to leave Dublin, but that he should go.
“…I’m not going to New York without you. I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for you.”
“It’s true, she thinks, he wouldn’t be. He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life. He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different. And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely. Would she ever have been happy? And what kind of happiness might it have been? All these years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same pot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, talking certain unlikely positions. But in the end she has done something for him, she’s made a new life possible, and she can always feel good about that.
She closes her eyes. He probably won’t come back, she thinks. Or he will, differently. What they have now they can never have back again. But for her the pain of loneliness will be nothing to the pain that she used to feel, of being unworthy. 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.
You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.”
(And here, let’s be reminded of the epigram from George Eliot: “It is one of the secrets in that change in mental poise which has been fitfully named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven nor earth has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.”).
Who is speaking in these passages? The Narrator, through Marianne? The implied author?
Prraps. We see that Marianne transforms dramatically, going from being a sort of ugly duckling to someone capable of selfless love. Connell, I’m not so sure about. Over the course of the book, he transforms from being a naïve youth plagued by self-doubt and depression into a talented writer of fiction (?) who nevertheless maintains a benignly controlling relationship with Marianne. He’s not a bad sort, but he isn’t really so good either. He does have a new life and feels redeemed by Marianne’s love, but I’m not so sure he recovers from the depression.
At the end, the reader wonders: will Connell go to NYC? Will they re-unite when he’s done? Or is this a further separation?
Open and unanswered questions. You can answer them yourself.
Thank you, Sally Rooney for writing such a meaningful and intelligent book.
Next week, a new one. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.