- Kate McCaughey
How BBC's adaptation of Normal People explores feelings of working class isolation at university
There were many elements of the TV adaptation Normal People that I anticipated to be moved by. I knew that in these boring and lonely lockdown times I would be in bits watching the heartache of a complicated first love and the tension of fraught familial relationships. I adored the series from start to finish; the actors were perfectly cast and explored the original novel’s themes magically. The seaside and city locations, the pared back yet generous script, the soothing soundtrack and even the costumes culminated in an ultimately gorgeous viewing experience (I’ll be swooning over both protagonists for the rest of lockdown, at least).
What I didn’t expect, however, was to be so struck by the portrayal of class divisions in university. The issue is something that the original writer, Sally Rooney, expertly addresses in her 2018 award-winning novel, and I was so pleasantly surprised by its deft and tactful weaving throughout the series. The story follows two young lovers as they navigate social expectations, their overwhelming feelings for each-other as well as how they perceive themselves in 2008 Ireland. Marianne (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) is the witty and outspoken outsider in school, whose eye is caught by the quiet but popular Connell (Paul Mescal), equally as smart. Their union is catalysed by their mothers; that is, Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s. Thus the two enter a secret dynamic in which they are synced up perfectly in private, but completely incompatible in the eyes of their peers and the society around them.
It is when Marianne and Connell embark upon their new university lives that their experiences of class disparity become even clearer to them. When they leave their small town of Sligo to attend Trinity College Dublin, a predominantly middle class institution, the dynamics of their individual isolation changes. Marianne’s lively brazen attitude and upper middle-class childhood means she is no longer the wealthy loner amongst working class kids with different interests to her, and Connell becomes the one who feels separate from his classmates due his lower financial standing and shyness.
In my own experience, social class in university would often show up like a brutally honest friend who wasn’t invited. We would feel it creep in, much like Connell does at Trinity, when talk turned to parents’ jobs or early retirements, to gap years and holidays, or even simply when we shared how our families felt about us going to university; whether there were savings put aside or even just encouragement to attend. An ESRI study in 2014 found, “Young people who attended socially-mixed schools and middle-class schools, were more likely than those from working-class schools to go on to some form of post-school education and training, all else being equal.” The adaptation is written collaboratively by Rooney herself and Alice Birch, illuminating how the script is a seamless progression from the original novel. It is written in a refreshing and considered way, whether it's in contrast of quality of student housing in the set design or the climactic orchestral music on Connell’s first day in Dublin.
Through Marianne, Connell observes and tries to engage in typically middle class sensibilities with her friends; art galleries, holidays, casual bottles of wine followed by ‘casual’ political debates. When Connell receives his scholarship, he is able to use his student loan to travel, revelling in his realisation that “foreign cities are real”. A particular scene that shone a light on Connell’s discomfort is an evening meal in Italy, where Marianne’s boyfriend, Jamie (Fionn O’Shea), mocks Connell’s choice to interrail, reminding him in a patronising tone that the scholarship he received really did change everything for him. Here, O’Shea’s cold and sycophantic performance gives a pseudo-welcome to a charity case who has been granted permission to enter his world. The scene was reminiscent of scenes in F. Scott Fizgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, opening conversations that classic literature has explored before. The plentiful dinner in a luxurious home is jarringly set against the extreme heat of the environment echoing the tension of conversation, as talk turns from wealth to racial issues. Connell’s inability to connect with students whose intelligence he easily matches, if not surpasses, as well as their lack of attempt to connect with him, renders him extremely lonely; he attends parties and gatherings but is unable to form close relationships, or feel that he is liked at all. In Connell’s relationship with Marianne, the writers’ very cleverly illustrate that this barrier of class can be overcome when a friendship acknowledges it candidly, but doesn’t identify itself by differences.
The series’ use of props and set perfectly summarise its portrayal of wealth and the wealthy. Marianne’s family home in Sligo is modern and spotless; unfeeling and arrogant. The home she inherits from her Aunt in Dublin is still grandiose, but its furnishings are soft and kitsch, the warm, cosy lighting mirroring this. Thus the show illustrates how Marianne’s quieter attitude to her wealth sets her apart from her arrogant family, and we are genuinely welcomed into her space as viewers, interestingly exploring middle-classness in a more rounded way.
In a tender and grounding discussion between Marianne and Connell, he tells her “It’s money though isn’t it, the substance that makes the world real.” She replies, saying that she “should think about it [financial disparity] more”, recognising her own ignorance and later apologising for it. The smart dialogue highlights the writers’ abilities to explore taboo and uncomfortable issues appropriately; Marianne allows Connell to lead with his feelings before pausing and offering her own kind and careful contribution. Mescal’s and Edgar-Jones’ interactions are simultaneously effortless and daring, as they show Marianne’s and Connell’s friendship to be so close that anything can be discussed.
What I found striking and valuable about Normal People’s portrayal of class, is that it doesn’t pretend to have all of the moral answers, and the story doesn’t condemn the middle class characters necessarily. Granted, select characters such as Jamie are quite rightly villanised. However, it is when Marianne and some of her friends shoot Jamie disproving looks or try to fight Connell’s corner, that we are reminded nobody can choose the circumstances they are born into, and many financially stable people are aware of their privilege, and sometimes even experience middle-class guilt. It is through these three dimensional portrayals that we view the characters as people rather than examples of class. Normal People doesn’t condemn the middle class characters necessarily; it condemns the isolating and sometimes unkind world that they live in, be it knowingly or not.
As a huge fan of Sally Rooney’s work, I found the adaptation true to the novel whilst being nuanced, with the actors embodying this thoughtfully and transgressively. As a graduate from the 22.5% of working class students at the University of Leeds, I found the series completely validating and vitally, vitally important.