Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Lord, what fools these normal people be!

Young people take themselves too seriously. It’s part of growing up and easy for grown-ups to make fun of.

Marianne and Connell, the young protagonists in Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People, take themselves very seriously. Sally Rooney takes them seriously too and never makes fun of them.

Normal People is half Romeo and Juliet and half Wuthering Heights. Shakespeare, who can always see the funny side, begins his play with a serious prologue about the feud between two households, which is the mainspring of the plot, and follows it with a parody in which the servants of those two households enact a comic version of their masters’ feud. Before it can get out of hand, their elders and betters step in and snuff out the quarrel.

Young love, the other mainspring of the plot, gets similar treatment in the scene that follows, when Benvolio, one of Romeo’s young friends, makes fun of his love-sickness, the real cause of which Benvolio is quick to point out.

Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?

Sex, which plays such an important part in Normal People, plays a part in Romeo and Juliet too, as when Romeo meets Friar Lawrence after the famous Balcony Scene. Seeing him so early in the morning, the friar guesses that “Our Romeo hath not been in bed tonight.” When Romeo answers, “That last is true; the sweeter rest was mine,” the friar thinks he knows what he means. “God pardon sin! Wast thou with Rosaline?”

There is no Friar Lawrence in Normal People, unless it is Lorraine, Connell’s mother, who turns a blind eye to everything. Nor is there a Mercutio, a young man who is at least part of the way to being a grown-up and takes no one seriously.

Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead! stabb’d with a white wench’s black eye; shot through the ear with a love-song

With none of her characters playing the part of a grown-up and grown-ups themselves being thin on the ground, the novelist has only herself to rely on. But it is clear from the outset that her sympathies are with Marianne and Connell. She takes her task very seriously, speaking for them as an omniscient narrator. She describes their actions and thoughts with apparent objectivity.

Now Marianne starts crying, the most embarrassing thing that has happened to her in her entire adult life. Her back is turned but she feels her shoulders jerk upwards in a horrible involuntary spasm.
Jesus, says Connell. Marianne.
Fuck off.
Connell touches her back and she jolts away from him, like he’s trying to hurt her. She puts the cup down on the counter to wipe her face roughly with her sleeve.
Just go away, she says. Leave me alone.

Apparent objectivity is often a disguise for irony. But there is no irony in the objective stance taken by the narrator of Normal People. She really does want her readers to take her seriously.

There is no Puck in Normal People, as there is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to observe the young lovers and say, “Lord! what fools these mortals be!”

There are parallels to be found in other characters too. Shakespeare’s characters are all types, taken directly from the Italian short story on which his play was based, indirectly from the stock characters of medieval fable and commedia dell’arte. The same is true of Sally Rooney’s novel. Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is the single mum of contemporary fable. Marianne’s brother, Alan, is the cowardly bully destined to be given a thrashing by the hero.

The comedy of young love in Romeo and Juliet turns into tragedy, not through any fault of the lovers themselves, but through the faults of their elders and a certain amount of bad luck. Wuthering Heights is neither comedy nor tragedy. Instead, Emily Brontë relies on narrative and character, through a semi-transparent authorial voice, to create an emotional landscape which has its counterpart in its physical setting – Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, the moors – leaving her readers free to identify with any or all of her characters.

It would be easy to see Marianne as another Cathy and Connell as another Heathcliff. Both are prototypes of their sex, though neither remains fixed in one mould but changes with age and experience. The trajectory in Emily Brontë’s novel is longer and more complex than in Sally Rooney’s, but the essential similarity remains, even in their endings.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky… and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that.

The tone is strikingly similar, though as an alternative ending to Wuthering Heights, in which Heathcliff goes to New York to write his debut novel and Cathy stays at home to wait for him, it falls a little short.

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This entry was posted on September 12, 2021 by in Fiction, Literature and tagged , , , .
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