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Affective Relationships in the 21st Century: A Derridean Approach to Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends (pp. 33-51)

Sofía Alférez Mendia

University of Almería


Ireland’s progressive liberation from the strict Catholic rule involved a considerable amount of social changes, which have affected gender roles, conventions on marriage, family and even the way that ‘love’ is approached nowadays (Fine-Davis 2015). In fact, this is what Sally Rooney has so far represented in her novels. As the reader navigates through her two first novels–Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018)–, it becomes more obvious that one of Rooney’s main interests is to question much of the normative conducts of affectivity. Her novels present different relationships that struggle to fit in several conventions related to love and affection, starting from monogamy and continuing with social labels attempting to define relations, –such as ‘friends’, ‘lovers’, ‘married’, ‘single’, etc. –or what Rooney herself called as “prefabricated cultural dynamics” (2017, 306). As explained by her, “[w]e don’t have a way of speaking about these non-relationships, where someone is your friend but maybe you [sleep with them]. […] [W]e don’t have the vocabulary to describe [it]” (quoted in O’Regan 2017). In that context, this paper analyses these relationships from a philosophical point of view. Specifically, the society which is presented in both Rooney’s novels will be studied as having a structuralist organization, articulated by binary thinking. That is to say, any relation that does not conform to one of the labels previously mentioned is doomed to stay in the private and silent sphere due to the threat that these pose to conventions and normativity. Thereby, these ‘unlabelled’ relationships that Rooney presents in her novels will be compared to the ‘undecidable’, as a concept original from the Derridean philosophy, which is understood as an idea that “slip[s] across both sides of [a] [binary] opposition but [doesn’t] properly fit either. [It] [is] more than the opposition can allow. And because of that, [it] question[s] the very principle of ‘opposition’” (Collins and Mayblin 1993, 38). Following this, the main subject of study, then, will be the representation of such defiant – ‘undecidable’ – relations in a structuralist society that still intends to lead Western thinking to a binary and, on many occasions, discriminatory mind-set

Keywords: Relationships; affectivity; undecidability; structuralism; binarism


Sofía Alférez Mendia graduated in English Studies in 2020 at the University of Almería. This year she has also obtained my Master’s degree in English Studies: Professional Applications and Intercultural Communication at the same university, and has been granted a scholarship for the initiation to research which belongs to the “Plan Propio de Investigación y Transferencia” from the University of Almería. So far, her research interests lie within the fields of Irish Literature, Philosophy, Gender Studies, and Feminism. 

e-mail address: sofiaalferezmendia@gmail.com


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