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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Free The Speech!

Normal People by Sally Rooney Book Cover

As we continue our exploration of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, let’s take a look at some structural issues. The story concerns two main characters, Marianne and Connell, and is told by an unnamed narrator in intriguing and adept fashion, a narrator who is able to whiz around and get inside all the characters’ heads. This busy and dare we say omniscient narrator entity however, is not an “I” in the story. It is not a character narrator as we have encountered before, actually just last time when we looked at Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. The narrator remains anonymous and apart and is pretty close to our old friend the implied author.

Your old friend.

There is liberal use of an element called free indirect speech or discourse. We’ve encountered this before too. Mario Vargas Llosa, in his book The Perpetual Orgy (a favorite at my house), writing of Gustave Flaubert, writes, “Flaubert’s great technical contribution lies in his bringing the omniscient narrator so close to the character that the boundary lines between the two vanish, in his creating of an ambivalence in which the reader does not know whether what the narrator says comes from the invisible teller or from the character…”

It should be said that the device of free indirect speech was not invented by Flaubert; it goes back to at least the eighteenth-century and was used brilliantly by Jane Austen.

What is it and why are you talking about it in the context of Normal People? What is the point?


Free indirect speech is what happens when the subordinate clause from reported speech becomes a contained unit, dispensing with the “she said” or “she thought.” For instance: Kate looked at her bank statement. Why had she spent her money so recklessly?

Who the devil is Kate?

She’s an example. More to the point, who is speaking here, Kate or the narrator? Or both?

Normal People begins with this passage. Although I don’t think it’s free indirect speech, it is ambiguous as to who is speaking. “Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.” Pretty straightforward, I suppose—but whose perspective is being described here? It could be that Marianne is shown answering the door when she is alerted by Connell ringing the bell. Or it could be that when Connell rings the bell, he perceives Marianne answering the door.

Oh, oh. Down the rabbit hole, my friends.

In a third reading, it could be that the narrator is showing this sequence to the reader.

The passage continues: “She’s still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights.”

‘Kay, who’s noticing this? Is it the narrator telling the reader what Marianne is wearing, or is it the narrator describing what Connell notices about Marianne? Or is the narrator describing Marianne’s own awareness of her attire?

And this is just the first paragraph.

But, you say (you actually did say) why is this important? The reader could blissfully read this paragraph with the belief that she/he knows exactly what’s going on. No need for some “pretentious bully” to ‘splain the hidden meanings.

The point is that there’s a lot of ambiguity here, and it creates an effect. At the very least, it brings Connell and Marianne close together; it puts the focus on their relationship, and this, we shall see, is the point of the book.

Still on the first page, we have this passage: “Lorraine folds the rubber gloves up neatly…” Lorraine is Connell’s mother, an important but not central character, so it’s probably the narrator here who’s describing her folding the gloves “neatly.” This use of an adverb is what we get from a narrator describing something vs. a character’s own thoughts. “We” don’t usually think using adverbs.

On page two, we have: “He (Connell) presses his hands down further into his pockets, as if trying to store his entire body in his pockets all at once.”

Huh, again this is probably not something Connell would think about himself unless he’s unusually poetic. It could be the narrator describing how he’s arranging his hands using a metaphor, it could also be the narrator showing Marianne’s perspective on Connell’s behavior.

Most of chapter one is the narrator observing the encounter between Connell and Marianne and generally showing Connell’s perspective and reactive thoughts. There is a skosh of exposition: “People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows of the special relationship between these facts.” Marianne and Connell may “know” this but wouldn’t “say” it in this way. It is the narrator’s language and perspective.

What about free indirect speech, you say. Well, here’s an example from later on in the first chapter. “When he (Connell) talks to Marianne he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a doorway from normal life and then closing it behind him.” Yes, the narrator is showing Connell’s inner experience, but it’s in his language (“weird things). Please contrast this with a more traditional showing of inner-ness. “Connell thinks, when I talk to Marianne, I have a sense of total privacy between us. I could tell her anything, even weird stuff, and she’d never repeat it.”

Incidentally, the quoted passage mentions “normal life,” which refers to the title. We will investigate this theme of “normal-ity” as we go. I promise you.

Perhaps this is a good time as any to bring up Gérard Genette's distinction between “the world in which one tells” and “the world of which one tells.” This refers to two different modes of storytelling, one in which the storyteller is part of the story being told and one in which it is outside of it, showing and describing. The narrator of Normal People is outside in the sense of not being a character in the story whom the other characters affect but who is right there in the room like a phantom the other characters are not aware of. There is a boundary between the narrator, and Marianne and Connell, and it is different from the boundary between the story and the reader. Marianne and Connell are not shown affecting the narrator, but Normal People affects me.


Till next time.


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