Normal People, Jane Austen, and the Romance of Walking Around
So often, the biggest criticism of any romance-based media is that the characters would so easily solve their conflict if they just communicated with each other. I haven’t figured out yet if everyone else is trying to avoid the fact that they too, in their own relationships, cause conflict with their own communication problems or if I just have unusually poor communication skills. I think, mostly, people dislike seeing themselves reflected in fiction when it is not in a Buzzfeed-quiz-friendly way. You’re not a Pam, you’re not a Hufflepuff, you are just you. And you cause problems the way everyone does.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney, faces similar criticism for the character’s lack of communication skills. Additionally, its critics have called it boring, its characters unlikable, and its portrayal of sensitive subject matter handled irresponsibly. What seemed to be the biggest problems with the novel, according to Goodreads reviewers, was that it was actually, as the title promised, about normal people. Not normal characters — real, irritating, flawed, and barely interesting normal people. Normal People understands what many other romance novels do not: there is nothing more romantic than people moving day to day, location to location, and acknowledging the changing and growing of their love as they go.
Connell and Marianne, the normal people of the novel, began their romantic relationship in high school, keeping it secret from their classmates to protect Connell’s reputation. As they shift into college, Marianne takes the spot of the most popular person between them, Connell finding it difficult to fit in at Trinity College. The rest of the novel follows their on and off relationship, as well as each character’s struggle with their family, mental health, academic career, and relationships outside of one another. Yet, despite the way their relationship frequently crashes and burns, they find their way to each other again and again, their declarations of love to each other more subdued than climactic. The plot, or lack thereof, consists mostly of conversations between the two characters, the places they go together and find each other in, and their sides in each conflict.
It is this idea of writing romance that seemed to be most notably understood by Jane Austen; her protagonists frequently ran in and out of each other’s lives, struggling to express the depths of their emotions each time, misunderstanding each other all the while. Elizabeth Bennet turned down Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, angry he misunderstood the relationship between Jane and Mr. Bingley, and herself misunderstanding his inability to express himself as a belief he thought he was better than her. Emma Woodhouse continuously interrupts Mr. Knightley during his proposal, believing he is instead attempting to explain to her his feelings for her friend Harriet Smith. This moment is felt deeply by Connell as well, having “to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation.”
Not only does this allusion to Austen’s Emma reflect the miscommunication present throughout the book in the relationship between Connell and Marianne, it reflects how the reader interprets the novel in their own hands. It is through Connell and Marianne that Rooney shows the reader something about themselves, it is through Emma and Mr. Knightley that Austen demonstrates the romance of falling for one’s best friend without ever realizing it. The less aspirational romantic literature is, the less people want to engage with it as it refuses to allow them the escapism that romance usually promises. However, looking into a novel like Normal People, or looking deeper into one of Austen’s flawed protagonists allows the reader to plant themselves firmly into the novel, the pages mirrored.
What seems to separate many of Austen’s novels as well as Normal People from regular rom-coms or romantic media is the lack of attempting to appeal to aspirationalism. In most romantic media, it feels like a window to a relationship that exists in a moment in time. I’m happy for the couple at the end, but they cease to exist when I am done with them, and never once do I feel like I could be any element of that relationship. With these romances, it so often feels less as though I want to be in the relationship, but more as though I already have been.
To be fair, many of Austen’s novels are now treated as aspirational in nature, the further we stray from the 19th century, with their balls and eloquently spoken men. But at their heart, they are often about normal people going about their normal lives from day to day. She does not spare us of the monotony of daily life for these women. As put by my favorite Amazon review of Pride and Prejudice, her books are “just a bunch of people going to each other’s houses.”
But what isn’t romantic about people going to each other’s houses? And not in the “showing up on the doorstep in the rain with a boombox” type of way. I mean, the familiarity, the routine. I mean knowing where the extra toilet paper in the bathroom is, which burner on the stove doesn’t work, where to park when you get there, and where the extra blankets are for when you need to sleep over. To go to another person’s house, to be in their space continuously, is inherently romantic. For Connell and Marianne, Marianne’s college apartment occupies the space of home between them for a while. Connell considers asking Marianne to move in with her when he has to go home for the summer, but never does, ending the best portion of their relationship. Marianne thinks, “he had repaid her by staying in her apartment almost every night for three months, drinking the beer she bought for him, and then abruptly dumping her.” For Marianne, having shared her space with Connell makes the breakup that much harder. For Elizabeth Bennet, visiting the home of Mr. Darcy makes her understand the depth of her feelings for him.
The romance of the home is inextricably intertwined with the romance of knowing and being known. Unsurprisingly, this level of romance is only achieved by talking to someone a lot, which often coincides with a lot of walking around. In the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film, Elizabeth tells Mr. Darcy, “I’m very fond of walking.” To which Darcy responds, “Yes, I know.” In the director’s commentary, however, Joe Wright insists that he is trying to say “Yes, I know you.” He does not just know this very simple fact about Elizabeth, but it is in knowing it that he knows the rest of her. To know about another person to this extent is romance, devoid of big gestures.
It is in Marianne and Connell’s relationship, however, that to know someone is tragic as well. To know someone is to know what you cannot give them. To know someone is to know the flaws you cannot overlook, and the very details that make the relationship uninhabitable. At one point in the novel, Connell knows that Marianne “would have lain on the ground and let him walk over her body if he wanted, he knew that” and “that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him.” These knowings, the most intimate and terrible details of their relationship, are all mixed in with the rest. Many times, what Connell knows about Marianne and just how much she would do for him is what ends their relationship. While it’s what fuels Marianne’s other relationships, the willingness to be controlled by another, it is only Connell who not only is able to know her completely, but to know it is worse for her than even she knows. Marianne and Connell do not just know what the other tells them, but what the other suggests to them and not even to themselves.
In addition to the tragedy of the knowledge passed between them, their knowing each other so deeply also deprives the narrative of dramatic love confessions. While the love confession is an important convention of the romance genre, the loved shared between the couple in Normal People is just another piece of knowledge they pass between them. One of the final times they share this with each other in the novel, Connell says, “‘you know I love you.’ He didn’t say anything else. She said she loved him too and he nodded and continued driving as if nothing at all had happened, which in a way it hadn’t.” Without having to say it, most of the time, they both already know about the love that passes between them. Not only do they know each other, they have extensive knowledge of their shared emotional space.
The ending is what seems to give most reviewers the most trouble, feeling as though they have gone on an extensive — and mostly boring — journey with these characters and received nothing in return. Connell and Marianne aren’t guaranteed to stay together, and the novel ends. Here, Normal People definitely deviates from the track created by Austen novels. To be fair to Jane, though, casual dating wasn’t really a thing in the 1800’s, almost forcing a marriage or proposal at the ending of these arcs. However, rather than the finite end that many romance novels give their couples, assuring the reader they no longer have to worry about further conflict between them, Normal People allows Connell and Marianne to be infinite. Marianne knows that Connell loves her at the end of the novel, and they know firmly that their lives having been intertwined has set them on a course for the rest of their lives.
I cannot think of any relationship in my life that has ended permanently, even if we haven’t spoken in years. Still, my life has been set on a course determined by every close relationship in my life. With most fictional couples, we are asked to stop thinking about them the moment the book closes, assuming they will be forever frozen in happiness. For Marianne and Connell, it is up to us to determine what comes next. But, no matter the conclusion, the two of them will be there. Growing because of each other, continuing to be normal and boring and real. Rather than closing the book and feeling as though I had let myself indulge in a romantic fantasy, I felt as though I had lived through something magnetic and so truly real.