Review: Sally Rooney and “non-feminist” feminist literature | Opinion


Editor’s Note: This article contains minor spoilers for the book “Normal People”

The novel “Normal People,” written in 2018 by Sally Rooney, quickly became a worldwide sensation after its publication, eventually leading to a Hulu Original TV spin-off in 2020.

The story involves two young adults, Connell and Marianne, navigating high school and college in Ireland. Through mutual feelings of social isolation, trauma, and role confusion, they develop a strong kinship and ultimately a love for each other. However, their social pressures and internal conflicts keep them apart repeatedly throughout the novel as Rooney explores how various external factors can build and damage relationships.

The book has been acclaimed as a beautiful depiction of contemporary, melancholic Irish romance of the right person at the wrong time. Rooney uses Connell and Marianne’s relationship to weave readers through layers of immiscible class. Given the nuanced inclusions of social commentary through peer insults and conscious self-doubt, the book has been defined primarily as a psychological coming-of-age romance novel.

This surprises me.

It is true that Connell’s journey depends heavily, if not entirely, on his relationship to perceived status and self-esteem. However, despite the predominance of romance and classism, I believe that this book is above all a feminist novel. Rather, I believe it to be, what I like to call informally, a “non-feminist feminist” novel.

What is a non-feminist feminist novel?

Feminist writing often uses prose to explore women’s empowerment and share positive journeys to gender recognition and equality. However, there are select written works that describe the opposite. One author who adheres to the non-feminist feminist construct is Kate Chopin. In his short story, “The Story of an Hour”, Chopin speaks of the protagonist of the emancipation that Louise Mallard achieves upon learning of the death of her husband. When Mallard’s husband inexplicably appears at the end of the play, she has a heart attack and dies. Mallard demonstrates that, when locked up in a prison, the only weapon and the only enemy present is yourself, and Mallard would not return to her cage of domesticity.

Non-feminist feminist literature explores how women end up suffocating under a glass ceiling. When reading an article exploring feminism, readers expect to see a flower bloom through the carefully laid permafrost of authors like Louisa May Alcott. However, reading a play with non-feminist feminism is like pulling that flower out of its soil at the end of a harsh winter, placing it in a vase of water on your dining table, and watching it slowly wither in a dehydrated brown shell with the passing of each hot meal.

So what about “normal people?”

Well, in addition to Connell, there is a second, if not more significant protagonist: Marianne, his lover.

Throughout the book, the reader sees Marianne lose her identity and her value. At home, her brother physically assaults her with the approval of her unloving mother, who “decided a long time ago that it’s okay for men to use aggression towards Marianne as a way of expressing themselves.”

She leaves home with a subconscious belief in submitting to the men in her life. She pursues a masochistic relationship with a college student named Jamie, who leaves her body “feeling like a carcass, something immensely heavy and horrible that she has to carry around.” She becomes a soul charged with carrying her own body, divorced from the object of men’s desires but still connected to her damaged physical form. Finally, she finds herself in a position of complete submission with Lukas, her partner in Sweden, who uses her for his own sexual agenda. “You see, I love you, [Lukas] said. And I know you love me.

However, despite the damage done by her brother and his lovers, Marianne’s worst abuser is Connell. In one scene, Marianne is assaulted by members of the upper class at a social event. Connell takes her away and she apologizes, believing it was her actions that led to their violation. Connell then tells Marianne that he loves her, setting their relationship under his ownership.

He offers the truest sense of love she believes she can find and, in return, she obeys. Connell knows Marianne’s complete submission to him, and it terrifies him.

“[Marianne] comes and sits with him and he touches his cheek,” Rooney wrote. “[Connor] suddenly feels terrible that he could punch her in the face, even really hard, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so much that he pushes his chair back and stands up.

Connell disappears, to return, as always, a few months later. His deadliest weapon is his compassion. He loves Marianne and he appreciates her submission until she scares him. Then, rather than helping her heal, he leaves her weaker with each escape.

At the end of the book, Connell and Marianne reunite once more and live together until Connell reveals that he will be leaving for America. The last words of the novel are those of Marianne: “You should go, she says. I will always be here. You know.”

As a reader, you watch Marianne slide again and again, and you pray that she finds a hold to stop her descent, if not a path to the peak of her self-esteem. However, by the end of the book, you realize that Sally Rooney doesn’t want you to think about Marianne’s weakness, but rather about the steepness of the slope on which she must exist. Only then do you realize that she is on the edge of a cliff.

In our society today, where progress toward equality seems unsteady and female voices are drowned out by the fall of a mallet, we must reflect on books like “Normal People.” This book reminds us that women continue to fight and lose an invisible battle against outside perceptions of their own identity. In the absence of comments like “Normal People”, many believe that the glass ceiling has disappeared forgetting its opacity.

We need more non-feminist feminist writers like Sally Rooney.

Maya Pimentel is a medical student at EnMed and opinion writer for The Battalion.


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