There are many important and relatable issues to unpick in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and the class divide across Marianne and Connell’s relationship is a big one. Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Normal People is, first and foremost, a love story about Marianne and Connell. But it is also a deep exploration of social class – and how this dictates your life paths. Connell is the working class guy who lives in a council house and keeps his interest in academia hidden from his mates. Marianne, on the other hand, is the upper-class girl who lives in the big mansion and always has a book in hand.
It reflects a societal assumption that many of us might not want to admit to realising: poor people aren’t encouraged to go to university, whereas rich people are brought up to excel in higher education. Yes, this might sound a little Dickensian, but the frustrating thing is there is truth to this way of thinking. Last year, a report from the National Education Opportunity Network found that working class males are the group least likely to go to university. This isn’t down to talent, knowledge and potential. It is the lack of support, expectation and opportunity.
As someone who grew up with two brothers in similar circumstances to Connell, I know how having no money and just one parent can prevent a young person from even knowing what university really is. Both my brothers dropped out of higher education weeks after starting – it was just such an alien world to them. And I certainly didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I applied. It makes sense, then, why Marianne is the only person Connell feels he can talk to about wanting to go to university. She is the only person around him who can guide him – because she was always ‘destined’ to go.
When Connell overcomes his odds and joins Marianne at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College, the class divide between them simmers on in their classes and parties. Connell doesn’t have the confidence to speak out in class because he hasn’t been brought up with the same self-belief as his peers had. It’s hard to suddenly realise your voice is important when, all your life, people haven’t even expected you to have an opinion on anything. He is clearly uncomfortable around Marianne’s red wine-sipping, well spoken, wealthy friends, knowing he has to go home to share a bedroom in a tiny house. At one point, he thinks about quitting university – something that just under 10% of working class students in the real world do before graduating.
Meanwhile, Marianne thrives in this environment. She lives in a beautiful apartment given to her by a family member. And she always speaks up in groups because she completely believes in her voice. However, we do need to note that she also had to overcome her abusive brother and some school bullies who have tried to silence her – being middle-class certainly does not mean you are exempt from hardships by default. But it does usually give you a leg up in so many ways compared to people from low income backgrounds. Because, ultimately – unlike Connell – Marianne knows she has every right to her place at university and to want more for her future.
All this in turn plays a huge part in Marianne and Connell’s relationship. How can it not? After years of the issue bubbling away, they openly address it during a scene during the holiday to Italy.
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“It’s money though, isn’t it?” Connells says, reflecting on the fact that he never thought he’d be on a cultural holiday in Italy while taking a break from his scholarship. “The substance that makes the world real. It’s so corrupt… and sexy. I feel like the scholarship has made everything seem possible.”
Marianne acknowledges her privileges, insisting he deserves the funded scholarship more than her simply because he is a better student – and for no other reason. “I don’t actually think about it that much, the financial side,” she says, before realising his silent reaction. “Sorry, that was an ignorant thing to say. Maybe I should think about it more. I am conscious of the fact that we got to know each other because your mother works for my family.”
She then asks why the issue hasn’t come up before, explaining she wouldn’t mind if Connell “resented” her.
“I don’t resent you, why would I?” he asks. “I just don’t think I’m processing the change all that well.”
“If you think that people should be able to go to college and get English degrees and go to Europe and look at art, then you shouldn’t feel guilty for yourself because you have every right to.”
You can read Connell’s silence as his way of agreeing with Marianne, because she has hit the nail on the head. She admits that she should see the class divide for what it is, rather than denying it exists – because it’s going to follow them for the rest of their relationship. It’s a short conversation but it helps them move forward with a better, more honest, understanding.
The ending to Normal People is another perfect example of how class will continue to dictate big parts of their lives. Connell is given another opportunity that so many people from his background just don’t get. He is offered the chance to study creative writing in New York. Marianne, knowing just how much this means, encourages him to go pursue his new-found dreams. It turns those societal expectations on their heads.
There are so many hurdles in Marianne and Connell’s relationship, and social class is an ongoing one. But how they properly address it is exactly why it’s still a brilliant love story.
Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…