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Arts & Culture

The cultural phenomenon that is Sally Rooney

Why Sally Rooney is the ‘the first great millennial author’

By
Contributing Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sally Rooney's characters engage in political discourse relevant to today's society.

Things matter to me more than they do to normal people,” says Frances, the protagonist of “Conversations with Friends.” Marianne, the protagonist of “Normal People,” frets in a similar pattern: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” “I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people.”

Characters that struggle with their identities — and the way they interact in larger social frameworks — are author Sally Rooney’s specialty. Both Frances and Marianne are unabashedly individualistic, and yet they feel this pressure to be like “normal people,” a dichotomy that most people today experience to varying degrees. Both characters navigate relationships that are dynamic and all-consuming, and both characters also tend toward a state of total vulnerability, where emotional interdependence transcends social boundaries. Rooney’s plots are simple and slow-paced, but her genius lies in the piercing insight through which she brought the power of The Character back. 

She resembles Jane Austen in this respect; in fact, she even said in an interview with The New Yorker that “a lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.”

It is not for nothing, then, that The New York Times declared Rooney “the first great millennial author.” She single-handedly reinvented the novel-of-manners for the digital era, bringing her own fresh voice and a new dimension of complexity that examines moral ambiguity with unparalleled clarity. As Swetabh Changkakoti ’24 wrote in a message to The Herald, her books are “grounded in our generation’s reality. People fumble and mess up, digital communication is a real thing, and I think her descriptions have the power to materialize connections between people characteristically disconnected from themselves.”

But that’s not the only reason Rooney has become a cultural phenomenon: Just as digital technology seamlessly becomes a part of her narrative, the social and political atmosphere of the times are absorbed into it just as naturally. The 2008 financial crash of Ireland forms the backdrop of both her novels; “Normal People” explicitly highlights class differences, and Marxism is embedded in “Conversations with Friends.” To The New Yorker, Rooney, a “lifelong Marxist,” said “I feel like you can really get away with putting a lot of your opinions — if you wanted to — in a novel.” 

It is no surprise, then, that Frances is a communist. “I’d checked what the average yearly income would be if the gross world product were divided evenly among everyone, and according to Wikipedia it would be $16,100. I saw no reason, political or financial, ever to make more money than that,” the character says. Rooney does not shy away from taking a stand — and a radical, brave one at that. The political dynamics she explores are also reflected in the relationships between her characters, which are anti-establishment and fluid in themselves.  

But to truly do justice to Sally Rooney, she needs to be appreciated as a feminist writer. Gender theory is as inextricable to her art as Marxism is, and that, among other things, is why she is heralded as the “voice of a generation.” Not only does she explore how traditional gender roles and toxic masculinity play into relationships, but also how equality is more complicated than the general narrative seems to allow for. In an interview with the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Rooney admitted that she used to view “the independent woman” as the feminist ideal, but her view has evolved over time. 

And it seems that Rooney’s view of feminism has resonated with readers. “‘Normal People’ and ‘Conversations with Friends’ helped me think about how depending on other people might actually be a great thing, and something that actually contributes to equality,” wrote Justin Ekstrom ’24. In this manner, both Frances and Marianne find a sort of freedom in being able to break out of a typical, heteronormative, family-oriented and set-in-stone relationship model.

“Normal People” also directly addresses domestic violence, and the complicated ways in which it can manifest in the victim’s lives. “Marianne is the very definition of a victim, which reminds me of how gender dynamics shape the ways in which people cope with their trauma,” wrote Jenna Cooley ’24. “Marianne does not target any lingering outrage or pain from the circumstances of her childhood and adolescence at any external sources — all of it is drawn inward and targeted at herself.” 

As an Irish woman with two wildly successful books published before she turned 28, Rooney has become a feminist icon herself. With her acute voice, she strikes the perfect balance between relatability and making you question all the establishments and norms you take for granted, making for literature that is both timely and timeless. 

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