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Master Thesis

"Blankly Performing a Memorised Task": Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends and Normal People in Dialogue with James Joyce's Dubliners

Abstract : This dissertation looks at the relationship between Sally Rooney’s novels and traditional tropes of Irish fiction that go back to James Joyce’s Dubliners.
In their stories depicting ordinary comings-of-age and relationships in contemporary Irish society, Sally Rooney’s novels Conversations With Friends and Normal People engage contemporary Irish fiction in a dialogue with James Joyce’s Dubliners. The powerful but imprisoning tropes in Dubliners explore varied expressions of paralysis, despair, and futility, which have marked the Irish literary landscape since its publication in 1914. Rooney’s novels lean on similar tropes of social and moral disorientation, the anguish of class division, depression, and the internalization of oppression.
In depicting an Ireland transformed and globalized over the past century, the novels resist conventional tropes of Irishness, even appearing to escape the long shadow of Dubliners. In reality, however, they enter into an extended dialogue with Dubliners, one that reveals that Ireland remains locked in a two-tier machinery similar to that depicted by Joyce, operating on the societal level and on the intimate level. The imprisoning societal machinery has changed; Catholic Ireland has given way to globalized, neoliberal Ireland. But the intimate machinery, caused by past traumas passed on from one generation to the next, remains.
Rooney’s characters are to a certain extent intellectually aware of their social predicament, but they remain blind to their personal emotions: they try to abstract and avoid them, and thus remain unconscious of how these two levels of machinery interlock and interact to run their lives. They are unaware that they are “blankly performing a memorised task” (Normal People, 180). In suggesting that the Joycean sense of blind imprisonment no longer prevails in the contemporary, globalized moment, Rooney’s literary project presents its own quandaries. Her two acclaimed novels exemplify an ambition to enshrine in her fiction a 21st-century Ireland largely liberated from received notions of Irishness, yet the books lay bare that shaking off the influence of Joyce’s depiction of Irishness in Dubliners is, in fact, a daunting task.
Rather than seeking the universal in the particular, Rooney instead looks to a globalized normalcy as expressed through her contemporary characters, who dilute their localized and particularized experience from Yeats country in the contemporary and globalized Ireland of Dublin.
Rooney’s young protagonists adopt an intellectual pose of seeing little or no redeeming value in their roots in the West, and they tend to deflect or ignore any guidance on offer from their elders, instead regarding themselves as their own best teachers. This complacency distorts their attempts to shed the status of ‘Culchie’ and enjoy more cosmopolitan experiences, leaving them largely rootless and leading them to confine themselves in different but no less debilitating ways. The reality beneath that pose is that they refuse to face their roots and learn from them—and that their attempts to break free of their pasts keep them imprisoned in the dysfunction of their early lives.
In lieu of epiphanies like those of Joyce’s Dubliners, Rooney’s novels depict character developments that are entirely dependent on the idea of romantic love. This is what has replaced the older and more conventional forms of futility and despair: the characters are so estranged from themselves that they are not aware of what might eventually offer them fulfillment, nor are they aware of their estrangement.
Normal People and Conversations With Friends attempt nothing less than renewing Irish fiction as it has been influenced by Joyce’s Dubliners which depicts the Irish as mired in paralysis, despair, and futility. But the novels reveal the Irish in the 21st century to be equally confined in forms of paralysis, despair, and futility that may be more globalized and abstract, but are just as withering as those in Dubliners.
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Clémence Legrand. "Blankly Performing a Memorised Task": Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends and Normal People in Dialogue with James Joyce's Dubliners. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2020. ⟨dumas-02883400⟩

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