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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Having Fun With Reading - Normal People

This week, let’s look more closely at the role of the narrator in Normal People.

A definition, please.

A person who narrates something, especially a character who recounts the events of a novel.

So, the narrator entity tells the story, right?

I’m afraid it’s more complicated.

Are we going down the rabbit hole?

Hang on.

Long time readers of this blog will recall that I like to make a distinction between the real author of a story, the implied author, the narrator, and the protagonist(s). Generally, the narrator tells the protagonist's story, or may even be the protagonist or some other character. (Nick in Great Gatsby). There are certain books, Dostoevsky’s come to mind, where the characters vie with the narrator in telling the story (polyphony, y’all).

The implied author is a separate entity from the real author. This is a controversial and paradoxical stance that I have attempted to explain before. Let’s just say that the implied author structures a particular story, choosing the way the story is told, including who and what the narrator is.

Let’s examine a particular scene in Normal People.

Midway through the chapter entitled, Two Months Later (April 2012), we have a paragraph break, and then this passage: “Marianne went home for a couple of days this week, and when she came back to Dublin last night she seemed quiet. They watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg together in her apartment. At the end Marianne cried but she turned her face away so it looked like she wasn’t crying. This unsettled Connell. The film had a pretty sad ending but he didn’t really see what there was to cry about.”

Appropriately, this passage is in past tense, as the previous section was in the present. However, I’m finding it difficult to contextualize things. In this passage, the use of the word “this week” fixes the time as relating to the previous scene but I don’t know if it was before or after. I think before.

It probably should be said, just to be clear, that Connell and Marianne are sexually active with each other.

Because of Marianne’s tears, Connell decides she's upset about something. “The character in the film had become pregnant unexpectedly, and Connell was trying to remember when Marianne has last had her period…Eventually, in a panic, he said: Hey, you’re not pregnant or anything, are you?”

Is this evidence of the dim-wittedness of young men?

Prraps, best B. But Connell’s a good sort, maybe a bit emotionally constrained.

Marianne laughs and assures Connell she is not pregnant. “No, she said, I got my period this morning…What would you do if I was?”

Connell states that he would support whatever decision she made. And Marianne says she probably would like to keep a baby but adds: “Do you think I’d be a bad mother?”

Connell assures her he thinks she would be a good mother. They talk about their respective families and how they’d react to Marianne being pregnant. Connell assures Marianne that his mother would also be supportive. “She loves you, don’t worry.” But about her own family, Marianne says, “I don’t think they care very much what I do.”

Connell thinks about how Marianne has described having “strained” relationships with her family. Of course, we the readers know it’s a bit more serious than strained. Marianne’s father was physically abusive to she and her mother, and we’ve seen evidence that her older brother Alan is rather like dear old dad. Connell thinks: “…she almost never goes home, or she goes and then comes back like this, distracted and sullen, saying she had a fight with her family again, and not wanting to talk about it.”

He says: “You had another falling-out with them, did you?”

Marianne acknowledges that she did. They go to bed, and Connell gives her an orgasm (I know you’re curious—read the book). Then she seems happy, and Connell is happy because he can make her happy. “He was the only one who knew her like that.”

I do not summarize this scene at length to poke fun. I have another purpose, best B.

The scene is interesting because we have the mysterious narrator entity showing us Connell’s perspective, including his inner experience. However, we the reader also possess lots of other information to contextualize things. We know things Connell doesn’t know, things Marianne knows and doesn’t know.

Things the narrator doesn’t know.

Really? How could that be?

I kind of slipped that in there. Heh, heh, heh.

Connell doesn’t know just how bad Marianne’s family is to her; he seems to have a need to think they “love” her, which is not her experience at all. Marianne doesn’t know all about Connell’s feelings about his family, about how he feels about his father (I’m not sure Connell knows this himself). She might guess that Connell feels badly about not being able to support a baby, but she doesn’t know this in the sense of Connell having told her. He didn’t.

And the narrator? How could a narrator not know what’s going on in its own story?


This reader, reading this scene, immediately wonders if the reason Marianne is crying while watching the film is not because she’s pregnant but because she isn’t. Her period represents the loss of the possibility that she was pregnant. Of course, I am unusually sensitive and know all about women.

(raucous laughter in the background. Women’s voices. Sound of a chair thrown).


But this was my interpretation, okay, maybe not the only possible one. But not Connell’s and not I think, the narrator’s who’s showing the scene from Connell’s perspective. It is the implied author who is communicating here with the authorial audience, the audience that reads critically and doesn’t just accept whatever the narrator says at face value.

Also, it could be said that the narrator doesn’t know the title of the story or how it’s structured, meaning the long passages of time between the chapters. And what did happen when Marianne visited her origin family? She never says exactly, the narrator never describes it. Connell is shown inferring things about it. Does the narrator know and is refusing to tell? I don’t think so; I think the implied author is showing that the narrator has limits, that there are things outside of the narrator’s awareness.

We are dealing with two levels of communication here. First there is the narrator of Normal People speaking to its ideal narratee, the audience who will “get” all the narrator says and not what it doesn’t. Then there is the authorial audience, whom the implied author is addressing. This is the audience that, while reading, is aware they are reading fiction, that the story has been contrived to produce certain affects, certain questions. And membership in these audiences can overlap.

It is perhaps another paradox, but there is more in the book than what the narrator shows.

Till next time.


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