A couple of weeks before I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People my best friend told me he didn’t believe in love. He wasn’t heartbroken or disillusioned—on the contrary, he has recently married and moved overseas to start a new life with his wife. My friend didn’t believe in love because he couldn’t describe it, even to himself, as a discrete feeling separate from the “lots of powerful stuff, much of it positive” he felt for his partner. If love couldn’t be told apart from the feelings of attachment and vulnerability invoked by other people, did it exist at all? Or was it merely the invention of teary twelfth-century poets, superimposed on the reality of everyday relationships? Was love real, or was it ideology?
In Normal People, the answer to both questions is yes. Yes, love exists in all its dazzling power, and yes, it is a malleable human creation that responds to changing times and contingencies. Rooney tells a traditional love story with firm roots in the nineteenth-century novel to explore the possibilities of love under capitalism, where its inscrutable, irresistible force can nevertheless become a form of conscious resistance to the current economical and political system.
The novel follows the relationship of the bright and confrontational Marianne, and Connell, who is athletic and reserved. During the course of several years, Connell and Marianne remain within each other’s purview, sometimes together, at other times pursuing one another, or seeing other people. Over time, power shifts between them in its many currencies—emotional investment, social status, and of course, money. At school in small-town Ireland, Marianne is socially ostracized and Connell is popular. She lives in a luxury house with “grounds” rather than a yard, which Connell’s mother cleans. When they start college in Dublin, however, Marianne’s economic background and wit make her at home among the guys in “waxed hunting jackets and plum-colored chinos” who make Connell feel invisible.
Though deferred love triumphing over class disparities is an old trope, and belief in the power of love to reform hearts and societies has been with us for even longer, Rooney expertly uses the former to explore the current possibilities for the latter. For her characters, love is both a deeply felt personal attachment and a microcosm of the systems of power and valuation that govern public life. To love anyone is to give them power over your happiness, and then hope they use this power with care.
The seventeenth-century poet Anne Killigrew observed as much when she wrote, “Remember when you love, from that same hour / Your peace you put into your lover’s power.” Killigrew’s warning was especially patent for the women of her time, whom marriage put literally under their husbands’ authority, but as far as it describes the predicament of a heart in fetters, the warning is futile. Nobody chooses whom to love. Instead, we one day find ourselves already under the power of the beloved, surprised by it but also feeling it could not have been otherwise. In Normal People, Marianne welcomes what she sees as Connell’s complete power over her, and by the end of the novel she comes to embrace radical interdependence as an alternative to our contemporary valorizing of independence:
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.
The ordinariness of being under another’s control results from the familiarity of Connell and Marianne’s intimacy, but also from the everyday reality in which we are always already influenced by other people—those who have direct power over us as well as those who continuously participate in building the world we live in. Doesn’t love simply accentuate the social truth that we all need each other deeply? And isn’t romantic love the avenue where we can give in to this need without shame?
For Marianne, the interdependence that love fosters reveals an even more foundational truth to counter capitalism. Not only are we completely dependent on one another for our wellbeing, but we are also not individuals at all to begin with. Marianne describes herself and Connell as “two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room.” Their mutual molding of each other shows that nobody is the way that Milton’s Satan claims to be, “self begot, self raised.” In a novel explicitly concerned with human relationships in an exploitative economy, love combats capitalism by challenging the myth of the individual person who navigates the world in pursuit of personal happiness or personal gain. A loving relationship offers an alternative model to individualism and operates like a just society, where the lovers acknowledge their radical interdependence and share resources with each other generously. To answer my friend’s question, love makes raw attachment and vulnerability into a system of mutual care.
The revolutionary power of love and the concurrent desire to revolutionize love have inflamed hearts as early as the commandment to love thy neighbor, a fact that Rooney addresses in her first novel, Conversations with Friends. The two novels read like fraternal twins: published only one year apart, they repeat themes, plot devices, and even entire scenes. But whereas the characters of Conversations take the question of love under capitalism head on and consequently adopt ideological and experimental approaches to their relationships, those of Normal People are more conservative (if also more emotionally sincere).
In Conversations with Friends, twenty-one-year-old Frances and her enviably charismatic best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi meet Nick and Melissa, an artistic married couple in their early thirties. Powerfully drawn to each other, Frances and Nick start an affair that later develops into an openly non-monogamous relationship. The socioeconomic structures that contextualize romantic relationships are an explicit point of discussion in the novel. In a text conversation with Bobbi, they consider how love might resist capitalism or become exploited by it:
Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality
Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory
me: capitalism harnesses ‘love’ for profit
me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things
Can we determine the meaning of the things we do for love, or are they determined for us by existing power structures? Considered as part of the system, love becomes suspect, and Frances moves back and forth between the possibilities. When she distances herself from her alcoholic father, she asserts: “as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone.” But as the novel approaches its end, she confesses to Bobbi in an email: “To love someone under capitalism you have to love everyone.” The totality of oppression under capitalism doesn’t allow for enclaves of loving refuge like the one Connell and Marianne create in Normal People. Instead, to wield love as a form of resistance, we must extend a loving attitude to the entire world.
Contrary to the “total privacy” that Connell and Marianne share, the characters of Conversations with Friends seem to never be alone. Each encounter tugs at the whole web of relationships in the novel. At the end, Frances comes to see personal relationships as an incomplete picture: “nothing consists of two people,” she says, “or even three.” In her insight she expresses the view of William James: “Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.” Every person and every relationship is constructed and sustained by countless other people, and the many relationships they have with each other as well as with their own past selves. Frances’s emerging vision of non-monogamy is therefore not motivated by a view of individuals possessing too many needs for one person to ever satisfy, as the current argument for non-monogamy goes. Instead, she sees free love as a kind of social realism: no couple can be truly individuated from the rest of humanity, so why restrict love to whatever happens between only two people?
Like Conversations with Friends, Normal People is acutely aware of the revolutionary potential of love, but it is far less inclusive. The refrain of the novel, “It’s not like this with other people,” conveys the deeply personal nature of love for its characters. This is evident in the writing of the novel as well as the attitudes of its characters: Whereas Connell and Marianne receive vivid psychological portraits, critics have complained that many of the other characters are underdeveloped, serving merely as backdrop. Love may reveal our dependence on each other; it might even lay the foundations for a just society. But it also leads to withdrawal from the world. In Normal People, the tension between the world of the lovers and the rest of the society takes the expression of privacy versus normalcy: “Being alone with her,” Connell thinks of Marianne, “is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him.”
Rooney considers this insular nature of love a serious challenge to its revolutionary potential. For one, withdrawing from the public into privacy risks hurting the lovers. This risk materializes when Connell confuses the secure privacy he feels with Marianne with the secrecy he imposes on their relationship to save face in school: “With his friends he acts normal. He and Marianne have their own private life in his room where no one can bother them, so there’s no reason to mix up the separate worlds.” More broadly, the antithesis of “privacy” and “normalcy” excludes other people from the just society of the lovers. If the privacy of love is the realm of mutual reliance and generosity, is the “normal” world to be left to its own devices? Is justice the privilege of the loved?
Against this bleak possibility, Rooney erects a parallel image of normalcy as an index for social health and belonging. Describing her encounters with campaigners for reproductive rights when going to vote in the Irish 2018 referendum, Rooney told the New York Times that she “felt incredibly happy to feel normal.” Her statement equates normalcy with public morality and echoes the meme “This is not normal” that prevailed on social media following the election of President Donald Trump. The meme drew criticism for its implied lack of inclusivity, however, and the dark connotations of normalcy reached a peak in my home country of Israel where “The courage to be normal” became a political slogan for bashing same-sex couples and their families.
Rooney’s use of the term “normal” does not escape this ambivalence, and she navigates it with nuance. Normal People is a novel about normal people, regular folk who sometimes want to be accepted by the world and sometimes want to escape it. Marianne expresses the first mood when she says, “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people… why I can’t make people love me.” When Connell says (about another lover), “What they had together was normal, a good relationship,” he also uses normalcy to signify the way things ought to be. But the novel also depicts the cruelty of normalcy when it lacks love—the worst scenes of abuse in it result from people’s desire for social acceptance without the attending care of love. Whereas Conversations with Friends is optimistic about the ability of love to reflect the invisible web of connections that sustains our personal relationships, in Normal People love acts as a school. We might not be able to love everyone in the same way that I love my friend, or he loves his partner, but we can look to love for perspective on how we should live with other people, and what kind of society we consider to be normal: a place where people recognize their radical power over and consequent dependence on one another, and therefore create systems to treat each other with care.