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“Normal People”: why be normal when you could be happy?

Normal People, BBC/Element/Hulu, 2020

Shakespeare was wrong when he said that all the world’s a stage. Instead, the world is a series of smaller stages, and the challenge comes from altering the ways in which everyday acts are performed for the different audiences and performers that inhabit each of these small stages. 

In many ways, Normal People – Sally Rooney’s wildly successful novel that’s been adapted into a TV series – is about this kind of performance; the ways in which the places we go and the people we surround ourselves with change how we act. Not how we are, but how we act. The distinction is important, and it’s where a lot of the tension is drawn out in Normal People, and the cause of the power shifts in the dynamic between on-again-off-again couple Marianne and Connell.

In one early scene, Connell’s mum discovers that he’s been mistreating Marianne – sleeping with her in secret but not wanting to be seen with her or talk to her in school – and, while her son is driving her home, she gets out of the car at a set of traffic lights and walks the rest of the way; she can’t be around him. Connell’s response, before his mum storms out, is to say “act normal, would ya?” The important thing here is how normality is framed, not as something for a person to be, but as something that one needs to act. Normality is playing a part, and depending on where you are;, the definition of normal changes to fit its surroundings.

At the beginning of the story, when Marianne and Connell are in secondary school together, he’s the normal one. He’s popular, athletic, and has girls seemingly lining up for a chance to date him. As Marianne says in one of their intimate moments together: “there are much prettier girls in school that like you.” By comparison, Marianne isn’t normal – or at least, isn’t normal by the standards of a school in Sligo – she’s aloof, insular, and – as we’re told endlessly, although this is a tougher sell when it comes to a TV series where everyone needs to look good – apparently unattractive. So the reason Connell doesn’t want to be seen with her is because to do so would shatter the image that he’s projected, his finely tuned performance in the role of Popular Athlete would come crashing down around him. He’s trading in happiness for normality.



But normality never lasts, and when Connell goes to Trinity, something he was talked into doing by Marianne, he’s anything but normal. He struggles to make friends, and the adaptation evokes his increasing loneliness well in a few short scenes. So when he meets Marianne again at a party, the tables have turned and she’s the normal one. Her intellect serves her well, and so does her wealth; she’s in her element here in a way that Connell isn’t. Connell doesn’t know how to be, whereas for Marianne this type of performance comes naturally.

When talking about Normal People, there’s a strong temptation to put the word normal in air quotes; to take a step away from it and approach it with a certain kind of ironic detachment. After all, both Rooney’s novel and the TV series that came from it acknowledge that normality, if it even exists, isn’t a simply binary of (ab)normal. But that’s the reason why it should always be approached seriously in all of its different forms. Rather than simply shrugging off and saying  “well, nobody’s really normal so it doesn’t matter”, the best thing to do is to understand that, like so many other things, normality simply doesn’t exist in a vacuum, whatever it is, it draws heavily on the circumstances of the world around it. I’m sitting down and writing this essay in circumstances that are strange but, in context, normal: it’s the spring of 2020, and in the last few months the world has changed rapidly, but these changes have led to something that’s rapidly being called the New Normal. 

Marianne and Connell have their own New Normal to adjust to as well, one where he’s the outsider. The spectre of the damage that he did to her when they were at school together still lingers, and Connell’s asking for forgiveness from her is a moment of power and growth, a reminder of the real person behind the many performances, what he calls the act of “walking around trying on 100 different versions of myself.” This idea of trying on versions of yourself dovetails nicely with one of the big themes of Normal People – and one of the ways in which it treats a certain kind of white heterosexual normality as being universality – and that’s what it means to grow up.

I told a friend about this essay when the trailer for the Normal People TV series dropped, and she was complaining about it on Instagram; complaining about the overuse of music, the ways in which the series seemed to be turning Rooney’s novel into something cleaner, more traditionally romantic. Maybe even more universal... whatever that means. She watched all of Normal People in one sitting overnight, and I watched it in a few 3-4 episode blocks, and we talked about it a lot. We talked about relating to Marianne instead of Connell, about growing up, and the danger of being normal; letting the façade of performance slip away, even for a moment.

In one message, she said: “I wonder if there is a way to make high school less fucked up for everyone?”

The experience of secondary school/high school is one that seems based on not knowing who you are; it explains why there are so many coming-of-age films based around graduation, the idea that once this part of life is over, you’ll know who you are; you won’t need to change yourself to fit what’s expected. Maybe you’ll even be happy. 

One of my messages reads: “I think I’m slowly coming to terms with the idea of being at peace with changing, which I think can be very difficult esp when you think about it w/r/t your like, essence as a person??”

The characters in Normal People aren’t at peace with changing; the changes in their lives are what cause them to drift apart. When Connell loses his job, he can’t communicate this to Marianne. He can’t make himself ask if it’s okay for him to move in with her temporarily – he draws out the difference between staying overnight most of the week and living there full time in detail, insisting that one is very different to the other – and it’s the catalyst of one of their breakups. It’s easy to get annoyed at Marianne and Connell for not communicating, to throw your hands up in the air and say “if only they talked to each other, all of their problems would be solved.” This is as true for Marianne and Connell as it is for so many other couples. The thing that’s interesting about Normal People is the question of why they’re not communicating. In a moment that one message in my Instagram conversation about the show describes as “Normal People hitting close to home,” Marianne reveals why she struggles to communicate with Connell.

“I didn’t want you to think I’m damaged. I was probably afraid you wouldn’t love me anymore.”

Normal People has a relationship with damage that seems rooted in the physical. Conversations around sex and intimacy often loop around hitting someone in the context of light S&M. Submissiveness is often rooted in a kind of trauma; much has been made of the ways in which Marianne says she’d offer herself to Connell, informed by the fact that her dad used to hit her (the violence in her family is largely taken out of the adaptation). One area where Normal People likes things to be very normal is in the bedroom; Marianne’s sadistic Swedish photographer boyfriend is one of the most contemptible people in the story, and it’s clear that he abuses Marianne and misuses that consent that she gives him. But the strangeness here is the way that Normal People approaches it from the beginning, with this deviance and deviation seemingly being rooted entirely in Marianne’s issues around self-esteem, her not wanting to be liked. In her first meeting with Lukas, she says she wants the exact opposite of someone saying that they really like her. And later, when she and Connell are back together (again) and seeing each other in Sligo, she asks if he’d hit her, and he’s clearly uncomfortable. 

The show is most interesting on sex and submission when Marianne talks to Connell about Jamie, another of her boyfriends who she says is “into pain. Inflicting it.” She talks about the ways in which this sex, and the feelings that come with it, are a kind of performance. 

“It’s a bit like I’m acting a part. I just pretend to feel a certain way. Like, I’m in his power. But with you I actually had those feelings. I’d have done anything you wanted me to.”

There’s something about Connell that’s irresistible to Marianne, given the many times she says things along those lines, that she’d have done whatever he wanted, let him do whatever he wanted (the distinction here is fine, but matters a lot). Marianne’s relationship with submissions moves between a performance and simply how she is, depending on who she’s with; again, Normal People understands very well that a lot of life is performance, and that finding someone around whom we can allow the mask to slip is something rare and wonderful. Being “yourself” is something that Normal People presents as an antidote to loneliness, a way of letting walls fall down. Late in the story, as Connell deals with depression – the catalyst for his breakup with Helen – he and Marianne talk about the relationship that he and Helen had.


“You weren’t lonely with Helen, were you?”

“I dunno. Sometimes. Didn’t always feel like myself around her.”

“I’m never lonely when I’m with you.”


In the end, so much of Normal People is about being lonely, about the sadness and isolation that comes from ever-changing ideas of normality, and the feeling of being forced to prescribe to them. Fitting outside of what’s deemed normal is what makes both Connell and Marianne lonely at different points in time. When Connell and Helen talk about Marianne, and the idea that Connell acts different around her, he says “how I act around her is my normal personality.” The interesting thing here is that the word “act,” is meaningless. Connell acknowledges that when he’s around Marianne he’s himself. He isn’t acting around her, he just is. Normality no longer matters; the mask can slip away, and Marianne and Connell are able to know each other. 



In The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard talks about knowing in the biblical sense. This is tied to sex, and the physical relationship between Connell and Marianne seems to be the crux of their connection. Stoppard describers this kind of biblical knowing, and giving oneself over to the other as “personal, final, uncompromised.” And that’s what makes the relationship between normality and happiness so interesting; one is a compromise, a way of saying this is how I’ll navigate the world in order to move through it unharmed, while the other is about being open. Accepting the possibilities of pain, of heartbreak, of love. One is about being the way that others think you are or want you to be, but the other is, in the end, about freedom. 

What Marianne and Connell find in each other, irrespective of if they stay together in the end, is freedom, is an understanding of who they are, an understanding that they no longer have to pretend. They no longer have to be normal. 


Sam is a writer, artist, and editor, and one of the founding editors of Powder, a forthcoming queer zine of art and literature, and is @Sam_Moore1994.