Sally Rooney’s book, Normal People revolves around Marianne and Connell living in the fictional town of Carricklea in Sligo, northwest Ireland. They are classmates who start being interested in each other but keep their relationship a secret. Both the book and the Hulu original series are a meticulous arrangement of incidents where Marianne and Connell keep crossing paths throughout several phases in their life, leading to unprecedented complications and jarring emotions along the way.
When the series was released in 2020, one thing that interested me was understanding how it projected the development of modern-day relationships in a complicated yet simple way.
Portrayal of young relationships in the series
When I think about the relationships I had during my teenage years, I wouldn’t use the word ‘uncomplicated’ to describe my experience. A lot of that comes from the lack of understanding of how to manage relationships and our emotions when we are so young. Marianne and Connell’s relationship strikes a chord with us because we play the part of a passive audience in observing the rollercoaster of emotions that they as a couple and as individuals go through to maintain their relationship.
In one of the episodes, Connell’s mother Lorraine says, “When I was in school, you were either going out with someone or you weren’t”. This example highlights very effectively the concept of young relationships within the series. I believe this sentence encapsulates what relationships mean for 18 to 20-year-olds. It also helps in understanding how relationships have been perceived for a long time and how their meaning has been ever changing.
For me, teenage relationships were something that needed to be managed with a lot of maturity if they were serious, because otherwise, it could take just minutes for the relationship to break down, causing years of hurt and misery. Watching Normal People I’ve discovered the same thing, while observing Marianne and Connell’s relationship over the years onscreen.
Are Marianne and Connell ‘normal people’?
The couple certainly isn’t in a picture-perfect relationship, because of the many factors that did not allow them to be together. For example, one of the biggest causes of conflict was their class difference. Marianne belongs to a well-off family, whereas Connell belongs to a family where he needed to be wary of how much money he was spending. In addition, Connell’s mother Lorraine worked as a house help at Marriane’s place, which establishes the relationship dynamics very early on in the series.
The couple is portrayed in such a manner that at times it was difficult to relate to the characters, because I felt they could have handled situations better and avoided the tumultuous pendulum of emotions that each of them went through. But when I reflect on their onscreen relationship and my own experiences, I ask myself a question – would I have known better at their age? The answer would probably be a hard no.
In a lot of ways, Marianne and Connell’s relationship is manipulative. They are both insecure as individuals, which prevents them from having any security in the relationships they are in, after breaking up with each other. Both the protagonists project the ‘normality’ of relationships – this is how teenagers in love, or even in lust, often behave.
The impact on modern-day relationships
Normal People portrays something that exists in the real world. The storyline is as simple as it gets – discovering the journey of two people who keep being together and being in an on-and-off relationship over the years. However, even if on paper this storyline sounds simple, the human characteristics and the fallacies in the relationship, make for complications. Watching Normal People wouldn’t necessarily influence couples to behave in a certain manner, but it might cause them to consider similarities and relatable patterns in their own behaviour.
This can happen with any form of art. Normal People is a story that already exists in the real world, it is not made up. Though the writer Sally Rooney, and the series creators, may have imagined the character names and situations, the way these people respond is a realistic depiction of behaviour patterns. For young people watching the series, it is likely to affect how they perceive modern-day relationships.
It’s always hard to take a subjective topic like this and place it under an objective umbrella. What I can say is, that Normal People has now become part of pop culture – from sharing quotes on Instagram because someone relates to the saying, or sharing a certain sequence from a part of an episode, all of which contributes to this pop culture.
Pop culture in turn has its way of influencing people. As such, Normal People is likely to have stirred the younger generation to dive into their perception of relationships, or at least reflect on how they individually might have behaved in certain situations when they were in teenage relationships.
Normal People by Sally Rooney is available to buy HERE
You can watch the TV series HERE