Normal People: the self-at-worst and the self-at-best

Vol 8 #5

Sally Rooney

Normal People

Reviewed by Alan Eppel

Sally Rooney, a 27-year-old Trinity graduate, authored this masterful story of two young lovers embroiled in an emotionally conflicted romantic and sexual entanglement. The relationship between the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, is evinced by Rooney with a sophisticated level of psychological and relational complexity that is conveyed with a direct and economic writing style.

Director Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant casting and directorial ingenuity resulted in the television adaptation “going viral”.

Marianne and Connell are first encountered at their high school in a small town in Sligo in the West of Ireland (Rooney grew up in nearby Castlebar). Marianne and Connell are in the final year of school and are studying for the brutally difficult state exam, the Leaving Certificate. In these early scenes the oppressive burden of the impending exam hangs over them. The students’ destiny depends on the results of the examination if they wish to enter University.

Both Marianne and Connell display troubled aspects of their personalities. Marianne is ostracized at school. She comes from a wealthy home and is possessed of superior intellectual abilities. She compensates by a false aloofness, indifference and self-reliance. Conversely Connell unconsciously struggles with the shame of being born out of wedlock and living alone with his mother and the pressure of economic duress. He also is academically brilliant, good-looking and an athletic star. The power in the relationship between the couple is subtly infused by the fact that Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is employed as a domestic help by Marianne’s mother.

By twists and turns the troubled teens begin a love affair of Shakespearean fervour.The book essentially is the story of these twists and turns in the sexual and emotional relationship between these two young conflicted individuals. Both gain entrance to Dublin’s Ivy League University, Trinity College. Marianne mixes with the fast upper class Trinity style “West Brits”. Connell is perceived by these socialites as an inarticulate “culchie” (hick). But both Marianne and Connell attain by examination Trinity Foundation scholarships which are considered the pinnacle of academic achievement.

The relationship goes through many separations and re-attachments often precipitated by miscommunication between the couple. Connell has limited access to deeper feelings and is inhibited from expressing what he really wants by shame and social anxiety. Marianne because of her own feelings of unworthiness tends to accede to Connell’s misarticulated needs.

In relationships with other men Marianne discovers an inner need for masochistic sexual intercourse. In this context it emerges that Marianne has throughout her life been emotionally abused by her mother and physically intimidated and abused by her brother. She has internalized a self representation, of being damaged, unworthy and essentially unlovable. Her object representations are abusive, demeaning and unloving.

From a psychodynamic perspective Marion presents with a ” False Self” (Winnicott). Growing up in an abusive environment her personality development is constricted. She internalizes the persecutory object which in turn is linked to submissive needs to be dominated. Pain permits the experience of pleasure with less guilt and serves to atone for internalized feelings of wrongdoing and “badness”. Connell appears to have reciprocal unconscious conflicts that lead to a complementary attachment between them. Connell is possessed by feelings of shame and inadequacy that imbues him with a sense of compassion, protectiveness, caring, love and justice.

Personalities manifest in the context of specific relationships. Some people bring out the worst in us, others elicit the Self-at-Best ( Fosha p.127).  In the Self-at-Best dyad there is access to genuine emotion, feelings of authenticity, and effectiveness. Conversely the Self-at-Worst is associated with dysphoria, feelings of inadequacy and falseness. The other is perceived in a distorted way that leads to dissatisfaction or destructiveness to either self or other(Fosha p.127).

Yet it appears that the couple only experience their true selves in their unique relationship. This experience keeps throwing them back together with feelings of love and sexual union. The book ends with another blissful reunion but their future fate continues to portend the prospect of further separation and loss.


Rooney S. Normal People. Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2018.

Winnicott DW. Ego distortion in terms of true and false self;  in: the maturational process and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis; 1965. p. 140–52

Fosha D. The transforming power of affect: a model for accelerated change. Basic Books. 2000

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