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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine - Normal People

We’ve talked about how, at times, the locus of narration in Normal People can be hard to determine. That first sentence, “Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell,” could be the narrator’s perspective reporting about Connell, or about Marianne’s perspective. It’s ambiguous, and I believe it’s deliberate. Because the two characters are so intimate, their perspectives blur.

But, as the first chapter develops, it becomes clearer that it’s from Connell’s perspective. “To Connell, this seems like something she could accomplish in the car…In school, he and Marianne affect not to know each other.”

But at the end of page two, we find, “She exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtime alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her. Her father died when she was thirteen and Connell has heard she has a mental illness now or something.” I’m reading this as a shift to the narrator reporting about Marianne—kind of from Connell’s perspective still. But this is not the sort of comment a real person would probably make. Like you know someone, and you think—they have no friends and are contemptuous of everyone. It’s too well-formed, as an inner thought and attribution about someone. It reads more like the narrator commenting, even commenting on Connell’s experience of “hearing” about Marianne.

This chapter is the narrator showing a scene between Connell, Marianne, and Connell’s mother, Lorraine. It is all about Connell reacting to Marianne, and culminates with him saying, “I never said I hated you…” And then the narrator says, describing Marianne, “That gets her attention, and she looks up.” This may be the only instance of the perspective shifting to Marianne. Connell might infer that he got her attention, especially by her behavior of looking up, but he wouldn’t know this for sure. The story doesn’t say, “Because Marianne looked up, Connell figured he’d gotten her attention by saying he never said he hated her.”

Then Marianne says, “Well, I like you…” and this is significant. The chapter describes how Connell is attracted to Marianne, albeit in a conflicted way. And he is shown as having rather constrained experiences of sex. “Any time he has had sex in real life, he has found it to be so stressful as to be largely unpleasant, leading him to suspect that there’s something wrong with him, that he’s unable to be intimate with women, that he’s somehow developmentally impaired.”

Chapter Two, entitled, “Three Weeks Later (February 2011) shifts to Marianne. “She sits at her dressing table looking at her face in the mirror.” She encounters her loathsome older brother, Alan. Here’s a description of him. “Though he’s grinning, the force and extremity of this impersonation makes him look angry.” This is the narrator using elegant prose to show Marianne’s reaction. A real person probably wouldn’t think this thought, only that “he looks angry, he’s pretending to smile. What a lout.”

After a paragraph break, time shifts to the past three weeks. From Marianne’s perspective, we learn about her watching Connell playing football (not American football), and lusting after him. We learn about what’s been happening in the past three weeks. “After their conversation in the kitchen, when she told him she liked him, (Chapter One), Connell started coming over to her house more often. The narrator comments, “She had to laugh then, and he had to laugh because she did. They couldn’t look at each other when they were laughing…” This represents a slight intrusion into Connell’s head, I believe. An explanation of his behavior. The next paragraph re-establishes the focus on Marianne’s perspective by using the word “seem.” “Connell seemed to understand how she felt about school…He seemed to think Marianne had access to a range of different identities…This surprised her.” (that he seemed to think that). The use of “seemed” establishes that through the narrator, Marianne’s thoughts about Connell are being described.

As things continue in the story’s recent past, we read about the couple’s first kiss, the powerful attraction Marianne feels towards Connell, and this culminates in a paragraph break and shift back to the present where Marianne leaves after fending off Alan and going to Connell’s house for a sexual liaison. This is the narrator showing her perspective on things—almost all.

This pattern of the narrator alternating between showing Connell’s perspective, then Marianne’s, continues throughout the book, giving the reader a double description of a relationship. It makes me remember the novel’s epigram from George Eliot:

“…to many among us neither heaven nor hell has any revelation till some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence…”

(whiny voice—‘scuse me, Mr. Pretentious Bully—‘scuse me!)

You again? Security!

(You’re making this too complicated, as usual. Isn’t the narration just omniscient? Hah, I’ve caught you making a mistake—hey, hey, hands off, I’ll go quietly. I’ll take my answer off the air).

Thank you. I thought the door was locked. Let’s move on.

(cool professional voice—But Mr. Bray, doesn’t the whiny voice have a point? Could you explain?)

‘Kay. The question concerns different kinds of narration. Omniscient narration is when the narrator entity can show all the different characters inside and out. The omniscient narrator knows the whole story from beginning to end and is relating it to the audience. In Normal People, the narrator presents one of two characters at a time, first showing Connell’s experience of the story, then Marianne’s. And as we discussed last week, there’s a sense that the story’s narrator doesn’t “know” the story from beginning to end; it’s more that the narrator is showing the on-going story of two people.

Of course, that is illusion.

We’ve also talked about how the story makes considerable use of free indirect style, which blurs the distinction between narrator and character. This is close to what’s called “third person limited point of view,” a style where a narrator sticks to one character but remains in third person. Normal People is in third person, the difference is that the narrator presents the alternating perspectives of two characters.

There is another issue lurking here, my friends. The issue of dialogue. Is dialogue merely another aspect of the narrator showing the reader the behavior of the characters, or is it the characters themselves taking over the storytelling?

Let’s wrestle with this next time. Till then.


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