The power of Normal People is its familiarity

Normal People’s appeal lies not only in its geographical familiarity, but in its skilful depiction of love and alienation

Kehoe’s pub on South Anne Street has a mural on its wall of a James Joyce quote which reads: “In the particular is contained the universal.” The full quote is preceded with the declaration that “for myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world”.

BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been much anticipated by Trinity students, especially given the novelty of being able to point to a scene filmed on campus and think, “I’ve been drunk in there/cried in there/studied in there”. Following the on-again-off-again romance of Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) as they move from secondary school in Carricklea to Trinity, the series has garnered deserved international fame for its outstanding script, acting and direction by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald.

Campus was periodically closed during July and August of last year in order to facilitate filming, the end result being beautifully shot scenes all across Trinity: Connell walking through a bustling front gate on his first day, intimate close ups of the characters perusing the Berkeley, stepping through the towering doorway of the GMB, or anxiously scribbling away in the exam hall. 

“While Normal People has gained attention for its setting in Trinity, its true power lies in its depiction of universal student experiences such as first love, alienation, mental illness”

While Normal People has gained attention for its setting in Trinity, its true power lies in its depiction of universal student experiences such as first love, alienation, mental illness, and the impact of social and economic forces on the microcosms of everyday life. The appealing familiarity of the series is not just geographical, but psychological and emotional. For this reason, the location in Trinity is far from the most important thing in the series; rather, the setting is a vehicle for broader commentary on issues such as social class in a post-2008 world. Rooney, a self-described Marxist, does not present overtly political events in the series bar a student politico leafleting outside the GMB (perhaps an embryonic member of Trinity People Before Profit). However, Normal People considers how Marianne and Connell’s fluctuating degrees of social, economic and cultural capital influences the intimacies and intricacies of the relationship. 

Normal People brings how students from contrasting backgrounds experience Trinity differently into sharp focus. While Marianne, who comes from a wealthy family, immediately finds a social group who host pool parties, speak of lavish holidays, and defend their questionable politics with impunity, Connell, who comes from a working-class background is often put down and dismissed by his elitist peers. Connell must work a part time job to make ends meet as he rents a shared room, while Marianne lives in a large house owned by her family. Becoming a scholar is a nice bonus for Marianne, while it is an economically transformative experience for Connell.

Connell is also snubbed by students who view travel or appreciating art as a marker of cultural capital, rather than a means of genuine fulfilment or enjoyment. For example, Marianne’s incredibly unlikable and all too familiar boyfriend Jamie drawls that “everyone’s been to Berlin” and that visiting museums is for the uncultured who are so stuck in guidebooks that they “don’t get to really experience a place”.

In what is perhaps a critique of popularity driven by posturing, or criticism of campus culture motivated by corporatism, this is arguably a fair representation of an often stifling atmosphere in Trinity’s societies, in which a genuine love for hobbies and activities can be overridden by an overly competitive and careerist atmosphere aimed at CV building.  

Normal People also effectively conveys the misery of mental illness and alienation that often presents itself in early adulthood, pervading Trinity’s campus and beyond. Connell’s burgeoning depression is explored with immense skill; from sitting pale and glassy-eyed in a lecture theatre, to circling “I dislike myself” on a mental health assessment sheet – the feeling of being surrounded by crowds of fellow students each day, yet still feeling isolated, is captured masterfully. In what is perhaps one of the best pieces of acting in the series, Connell sits in the student counselling centre and confesses he felt he lacked likeminded people in Sligo, and thought he could have a different life in Trinity yet still feels as alienated and lonely as ever. The expectation that students will “find their place” immediately in college does not ring true for many, and this scene accurately represents the all too common experience of failing to adjust from school to college, feeling in transience between two different worlds, yet belonging in neither. This makes Connell’s eventual integration into the college community (as editor of Icarus, Trinity’s literary magazine) all the more poignant as he gains confidence as both a writer, and a person.  

“If there are any bones to pick over lack of accurate representation of Trinity in this series, it is perhaps the absence of scenes in the Pav”

Normal People is clearly not a massively favourable depiction of Trinity students, and admittedly, Trinity is often a lonely, elitist and alienating place. But, like any college, it is also somewhere where eventually, as indicated in the series, people can find their place and their real friends (perhaps after going through a few Peggies or Jamies first). While there are tongue in cheek references to Gareth’s obsession with BNOCery, Peggy’s casual cocaine habit, or the men who talk over women in tutorials, there is also intimate portrait of lasting and genuine friendship, and an exploration of how we are changed by those around us. It is fitting that it is through creative writing that Connell gains confidence, and in the finale, an opportunity to study in America. It is almost metatextual in a way; the protagonist and the series itself illustrate that the function of creating art is a means for us to recognise commonalities and gain access to the inner world of others. In a confusing and often lonely world, maybe that’s the most “normal” thing we can do. 

If there are any bones to pick over lack of accurate representation of Trinity in this series, it is perhaps the absence of scenes in the Pav, and an overestimation of how full an English lit lecture is at any given time. 

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.