When it was announced that filming had begun for the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends, it reminded me how much I enjoyed that novel. I loved the way it captured the categorical blurriness that so often defines 21st century Western culture. Rooney deftly confronts the kinds of binaries so breezily cited at dinner tables with elders (or in far too many literature classes still) and knocks them out of focus.
Rooney redraws the solid lines between women and men, heterosexuality and homosexuality, married life and single life, digital and face to face communication, and erotic and platonic love–first as dashes then as dots, and ultimately as shadows.
Pronouns are our friends
I was curious about the main character, Frances, and her relationships with two other key figures: Bobbi and Nick. Bobbi, who identifies as female, is introduced as Frances’ former lover, current best friend, and future co-star performative poet. Nick, who identifies as male, becomes Frances’ love interest–despite his being married to Melissa.
I wondered: How does Rooney’s use of pronouns in the story reflect the gender and sexual fluidity of some of the characters?
Bring on the data
So I dug into the literary data to explore things more closely. Computationally analyzing every word in the book, I created a series of topics related to pronouns. (Please note, I created my topics based on traditional gender assumptions while also acknowledging the problematic nature of such labels. In the end, the words being tallied are directly the author’s, while the topic names are mine.) With that limitation in mind, here are the topics I identified:
- Individual Self (i.e. me, myself, mine, my, I, I’m, I’d, I’ll, I’ve)
- Collective Self (i.e. we, our, we’re, we’d, we’ll, we’ve, ourselves, us, ours)
- Individual Other (i.e. you, you’re, your, yourself, you’ve, you’d, you’ll, yourselves, yours)
- Collective Other (i.e. they, their, they’re, they’d, theirs, they’ve, they’ll)
- Neuter (i.e. it, it’s, itself, it’ll)
- Feminine (i.e. she, she’s, she’d, she’ll, her, herself, hers)
- Masculine (i.e. he, him, his, he’s, he’d, himself, he’ll)
Bring on the chart
Each data point refers to the total number of times words associated with the topic were used in the novel. After exploring the data a bit, I found the most interesting data to relate to Individual, Feminine, and Masculine pronoun topics. Here’s what I saw.
Making sense of the data
Let’s look at the data together
To start, I observe how much more frequently the words associated with Individual Self appear in the novel. The book is written in the first person, so you’d expect to see so many references to the self. Not so interesting. Next, I look for patterns in the relationships between the topics. Do any topics ebb or flow together? Are any topics inversely related?
This is where things get more interesting. First, the frequency patterns for Individual Self and Masculine pronouns appear more correlated than with Feminine words. See how in Chapters 6, 9, 14, 25, and 31 the use of Masculine pronouns surge at the same time Individual Self pronouns surge? Compare that to the frequencies of Feminine pronouns. It seemed to me that despite the fluid identities presented in the book, Frances’ story might be more heteronormative than I first thought.
(As an aside, I calculated the correlation coefficients of these data sets, and it proved my suspicion. The Individual Self data and the Masculine data correlate pretty high at 0.63, compared to Individual Self/Feminine data at 0.20 and Masculine/Feminine data at 0.14.)
Second, when I focus on the Masculine and Feminine words, I observe that Feminine pronouns appear more frequently than Masculine words a few times in the book, including Chapters 1-3, 8, and 30. A rereading of those chapters might offer me a new insight into Frances. For example, Chapter 30 focuses on Bobbi and Frances finally talking honestly about their own breakup–as well as the demise of Frances’ relationship with Nick. The chapter begins:
Between the data and rereading a few sections of the book where Feminine word usage outperforms Masculine words, I am beginning to wonder whether Frances’s relationship with Nick was her way of making sense of her love for Bobbi. Not to say she didn’t also love Nick, but to what extent did the ghost of Bobbi invisibly guide Frances’s feelings and actions? And in Chapter 31, where the book concludes with Frances asserting boldly to Nick on the phone, “Come and get me, I said,” I can’t help but feel that the source of her boldness is a newfound peace she feels in her relationship with Bobbi.
It’s also one of the finest final lines in all of literature as far as I’m concerned!
Knowing Frances a little better
Ultimately, the data helped me reconsider Frances more deeply as a character, and gain a deeper appreciation for the centrifugal role Bobbi played in Frances’s emotional life. Though Frances may be telling Nick to “come and get me,” the spirit guiding those words is Bobbi’s, through and through.
If you are interested in exploring Conversations with Friends further, I have a couple tools for your. The first is the Plot a Plot page for the novel, which you can find here. It will allow you to chart any word in the book. The second is the searchable chart below, which allows you to explore all the pronoun data more fully. Enjoy!