Marianne: Things we Can Learn from a Normal Person
Sally Rooney’s fascinating characters, Marianne and Connell, have entranced TV fans over the lockdown period. Their love story models the turbulent relationship that often exists between two young adults. From breakups to makeups, their love transforms from an innocent flame to a burning fire over the course of twelve episodes.
Memorable, captivating and, most importantly, relatable, the deep bond that Marianne and Connell develop over the course of the series is the Rose and Jack, the Ross and Rachel, the Romeo and Juliet of the 21st Century.
The character of Marianne has gathered a lot of attention from media and critics since her arrival on screen in the BBC series Normal People (adapted from the book for television by none other than Rooney herself). The character of Marianne has come under intense scrutiny due to the show’s depiction of the sexual relationship between the star-crossed lovers, some even classifying it as something out of a ‘porno movie’.
It was these words that motivated me to delve into this story, particularly from Marianne’s point of view. Firstly, I personally struggled to pinpoint any problem with the moments of intimacy shown on screen. On the contrary, I applaud the BBC for breaking the taboos that still exist around sex and young people in this country. For me, the relationship between Marianne and Connell is nothing short of iconic as it shows the audience that teenagers experience real and complicated feelings.
The depiction of Marianne’s ‘unconventional’ sexual relationships raises important issues of how people relate to their sexuality and their bodies, including as the result of trauma. It also poses interesting questions about whether such relationships are inherently liberating or damaging or if this depends on the context. This is something that I have not seen explored in such detail before and, while the show has faced some criticism that it gets BDSM wrong, it is fuelling conversations on these issues which is positive.
I spent many days agonising over the complex character of Marianne. Due to the negativity which has arisen in some quarters since the show has aired in Ireland, I wanted to look at the real Marianne, the one that exists behind the titillating headlines.
Marianne is a girl who dances to the beat of her own drum and remains true to her idea of herself in countless ways. At the same time she finds herself in situations that suppress her freedom and appear damaging to her, in particular her relationship with Jamie. However, these contradictions also add a layer of complexity which is essential for any realistic character, especially a character who is on a path of discovery as Marianne is.
Her individuality is first shown at the beginning of the series. It is evident that Marianne’s ideas about school life differ from those of many other students in her school. Marianne refuses to follow the crowd and she suffers the consequences in the form of bullying from her classmates who target her refusal to conform.
“Marianne is a girl who dances to the beat of her own drum and remains true to her idea of herself in countless ways.”
Marianne’s devastation at Connell’s behaviour surrounding the Debs Ball and her own vulnerability arising from his actions is also something she doesn’t try to hide or suppress. She comes to the conclusion that Connell doesn’t treat her exactly how she wants, or how she deserves. I was impressed by her courage to put her own feelings first and step away from a person that simultaneously causes her both joy and pain (an action which also foreshadows her final action in the story in removing herself from her abusive family situation).
When accidentally reunited in college, Marianne’s kindness towards Connell at her boyfriend’s party is a testament to her moral attitude and personal strength. She gives Connell a second chance, something that cannot be underestimated as it takes courage to let someone back into your heart. Marianne is not perfect, and she understands that nobody is, not even Connell.
The full horror of Marianne’s home life is brought to the forefront in later episodes. The abuse she suffers at the hands of her brother is vile and abominable. It is also an inescapable element of everyday life for people, especially women, all around the world. When we meet Marianne she is submerged in this toxic environment, but her ability to move away from the abuse and create the life that she deserves is inspirational. Thus, while the ending to Marianne’s story is not as obviously exciting as that of Connell’s (he is presumably on his way to a prestigious writing career in New York while she chooses to remain behind in Ireland), it is equally momentous because she finally frees herself from her oppressive family environment in a true display of power and resilience. This makes her character arc extremely satisfying as it signals the promise of future growth for Marianne.
Although this is only a brief insight into the character of Marianne, these characteristics are the most poignant to me. Yes, Marianne is not perfect, and she makes mistakes; she doesn’t have an ideal life, and she is the victim of her life’s circumstances in some respects. But she holds many desirable qualities which I feel have been underrepresented in the media to date. Her courage, resilience and strength throughout the series, and particularly in the closing scene, act as a reminder to everybody who is struggling that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That changing your life circumstances is possible, even if it sometimes involves sacrifice.
This is my message to all of you normal people out there: We all have some sort of cross to bear and we are all massively flawed and inconsistent. In this respect, Marianne is someone we can identify with and even aspire to be like. She is a real person with real experience. She is a normal person.
Featured photo Caroline Johnston