How Sally Rooney Gave Normal People Radical Politics

It's not easy to imagine a Marxist love story. But in Normal People, Sally Rooney shows how our personal relationships — and the troubles we encounter — are inextricably bound to the society around us.

Normal People, Episode 8. Enda Bowe / Hulu

Sally Rooney has been proclaimed the voice of a generation. She is the Irish author of two wildly, in literary terms, successful novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2019), the latter of which has just been adapted into a television series by the BBC.

But for Rooney herself the story is less simply generational. Much to the chagrin of Guardian columnists, she speaks quite openly about how the novel deals with class and capitalism:

It would have been really difficult for me to write about young people leaving home in the west of Ireland, moving to college, and not confront the economic disparities that were emerging at that time, like the stripping back of protections for people from working-class backgrounds who were going to college.

Today’s world is increasingly divided between the asset rich and asset poor, not just young versus old but renters versus landlords, and workers versus bosses. This exacerbates a town and city divide, as the young are forced to leave the small towns of their childhood in search of jobs and opportunity in urban centers. These dynamics of contemporary capitalism press upon the characters and narrative Normal People, as well as the work her contemporaries, as those who came of age after the 2008 financial crash begin to make a substantial impact on our cultural landscape.

The Substance that Makes the World

Normal People follows the protagonists Marianne and Connell in the last year of school in a town in Sligo and then to Trinity College in Dublin for university. For Marianne, from a wealthy background, it is expected she will attend Ireland’s most prestigious university. For Connell, however, whose mother is the cleaner at Marianne’s home, attending Trinity is not only moving away from home and his support network — it’s a fork in the road, after which his old life seems increasingly distant.

Connell’s story arc is a familiar one, but not only because increasing numbers of young people from working-class backgrounds have attended university in recent decades. It’s also particularly Irish. By the end of the novel we are left with the prospect of Connell leaving the country to study abroad. During the aftermath of the economic crash, around 400,000 people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, were forced to emigrate from Ireland to find prosperity, an exodus eerily reminiscent of waves of emigration which scarred the island in previous generations.

But forced relocation for economic reasons is a theme across the Irish Sea too. In the United Kingdom asset poor young people have moved in large numbers to urban centers for jobs, opportunity, and education. In fact, this can go some way to explain how former safe Labour seats like Workington, which saw a decrease in its young population by 28.4 percent in the last thirty years, and Bishop Auckland, which reduced by 24.9 percent in the same period, went blue.

When young people do eventually make it to the cities, they encounter sky-high rents and poor accommodation. The housing crisis is particularly acute in Dublin, one of the most expensive cities in Europe, and we see this impact the protagonists in small and large ways. Connell is unable to afford rent one summer and is forced to move back to Sligo, and as a result Marianne and he break up.

Oh, she said. You’ll be going home, then.

He rubbed his breastbone then, feeling short of breath.

Looks like it, yeah, he said.

Connell tells Marianne he’s moving back to Sligo because he can’t pay rent, hoping that she will let him stay with her. Marianne, sensitive about her own self-worth, fails to understand what Connell is trying to ask her and allows him to leave. It is at this micro-level of miscommunication that Rooney thrives in illuminating class distinctions between Marianne and Connell.

By the following summer both Connell and Marianne have won academic scholarships which include room and board. For Marianne, the scholarship was a “self-esteem boost,” but for Connell it means a change in material circumstances. He observes that “money [is] the substance that makes the world real.” The scholarship allows him to travel and “suddenly he can spend an afternoon looking at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting.” Marianne passed the same exams, but she has already seen great art in European cities — bringing home the sharp divide over who has access to culture in our societies.

An even more tragic storyline comes from Connell’s friend Rob Hagerty, who turns to drink after his friends move away and ultimately takes his own life. Again, Normal People is evoking experiences common to young people under today’s capitalism — the isolation and sense of failure for those who cannot move with the economic tides, and the proximity to serious mental health issues or suicide.

Connell struggles too, “I just felt like I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life, he says. But I hate it here and now I can never go back there again.” The alienation is a product of his transition from a young working-class man with a relatively rural background to student at an elite metropolitan university. He overcomes the material barriers to his study, only to find it is not enough to overcome the vast class differences which generations of wealth create.

But Rob’s fate demonstrates that Connell cannot return home, as there is no opportunity there. Normal People casts him as trapped between two worlds, belonging to neither. It’s little wonder then that Rooney’s protagonists consider themselves on the Left. Faced with growing inequality, those who rely on a wage to live are opting for more radical policy platforms on health and housing unlike their parents and grandparents, who dominate the smaller towns and who are somewhat secure in the economy.

It is no surprise that, in the Ireland described by Normal People, Sinn Féin would ultimately end up as the most popular party, or that their success would be driven substantially by younger voters. We can see similar patterns across the world.

The Marxism of Romance

The relationship between romance novels and capitalism is an interesting one: in many respects, they came into being alongside each other in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In many ways, Rooney’s Normal People is archetypal of the genre. Although Normal People doesn’t end with marriage – as romance novels with female protagonists tend to – she builds on most of the other formal requirements established in the tradition: the realism and the centrality of the couple, especially, a great deal of which comes through the representation of their physical relationship.

Both the novel and the television adaptation of Normal People have garnered praise for their use of sex. The New York Times posited that “Rooney presents sexuality as a transformative, healing, complicated form of communication for both characters.” The sex between Connell and Marianne is indeed these things — but it stands in contrast with the sex Marianne has with the other men she dates over the course of the novel. Marianne engages in kinkier sex with these men and the experience is coded as harmful and as a form of self-punishment; when she asks Connell to hit her during sex, he panics and says no.

We are left with questions about both characters after the incident. To what degree was Marianne’s desire to be hit a sign of a lack of self-worth? Is Connell’s desire to be “normal” leading to a repression or an anxiety about other experiences? The characters part and Marianne is hit that same night, by her abusive brother banging a door in her face. She calls Connell to come and get her. This creates the association between the sex Marianne has had with other partners and what she experiences at the hands of her brother. Connell saves her from both.

However, the sex that Connell and Marianne engage in is also complicated because of the ways heterosexual sex has been used to reinforce capitalist, patriarchal and religious norms. The issue isn’t that Connell and Marianne only engage in a more traditional form of sex — that sex can be, and is in Normal People, transformative. The issue is the opposition created between different types of sex and how one is placed side by side with the abuse Marianne experiences.

Rooney herself questions whether there can be such a thing as a Marxist love story considering how entwined the novel is with capitalism. However, Marianne and Connell exist together not separately, it’s their dynamic which is the subject of the novel and Rooney gives relatively little time to their lives outside of their relationship. She is interested in the impact her protagonists have on each other, on how people may be changed by those around them. Perhaps it is in this rejection of individual narratives, in the insistence on interrelation and mutual dependence, that we see anti-capitalist influences.

Common Sense

Under capitalism, what is considered common sense is determined by a network of different institutions, everything from schools, to the news media, to our culture. These determine the terms of debate and the bounds of acceptable opinion. For Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, this was a hegemony exercised through culture which served capital’s political and economic ends.

But Gramsci also left open the possibility of a counter-hegemony, one in which a common sense rooted in opposition to capital could develop. In many ways, we can see this in Sally Rooney’s writing. Her characters’ politics are not merely youthful idealism, they stem from the world around them. The uncertainty and precarity the characters experience explain the appeal of socialist ideas. By including these politics, and especially in light of its mainstream success, Normal People contributes to this construction of a counter-hegemony more widely in society — reinforcing the ideas many of her readership are developing as a result of their material conditions which they can see mirrored in the novel.

The politics of Rooney’s novels are less a great red flag than a strand of red thread woven through a more complex composition — they have the potential to be picked out and set aside, and to some extent they have been in the television adaptation of Normal People, which Rooney co-wrote. Disappointingly, the main intrusion of politics is a university debate over free speech and no-platforming, in place of more rigorous critiques of the class divides in the novel. In other respects, the adaptation remained close to the source text, which gives evidence that politics aren’t the essential feature of the story Rooney wanted to tell.

Capitalism is constantly in motion which enables it to absorb phenomena which challenge it, and sell them back to us. This is the challenge for Marxist writers like Rooney, whose work gains widespread popularity. All novels are to some degree commodities, but even Sally Rooney must have been surprised at just how swiftly the politics was evacuated from her work to make it an accessory for the cultural elite. A recent Vanity Fair photoshoot combined Normal People with a Mansur Gavriel bag carrying a price tag of $595.

As countless thinkpieces on Rooney as the voice of her generation show, Normal People belongs as much, now, to those who watch and read it as it does to Rooney. But where others might aim to diminish the novel’s radical potential, socialists should endeavor to embrace it. We need books, television, drama, to tell the stories of life under capitalism in ways that people will want to turn to after often uninspiring days of work. Reading Normal People isn’t a substitute for union meetings or other political projects, but it might make the harder slogs easier, especially after the defeats of recent months. Capitalism is in crisis, and signs of it are increasingly prevalent in our culture — we would be fools not to seize them.