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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 1–2 | Summary



Chapter 1

Conrad Jarrett, 17 years old, lives with his parents in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Illinois, in the mid-1970s. Anxious, he reflects on the one month since his release from the hospital. He does not like mornings because "too many details crowd his mind." His psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr. Crawford, told him it is okay to have bad days. But Conrad does not want yet another "razor-blade bad" day. His father, Calvin, calls out to Conrad to check on him. Conrad prepares for his day by telling himself to "follow routines" and "get the motions right."

Chapter 2

Calvin Jarrett stands and shaves next to his wife, Beth. Calvin thinks about fatherhood and his own fatherless childhood—he was orphaned at 11 and lived at the Evangelical Home for Orphans and Old People since he was four. Later at breakfast Calvin asks Conrad what he is reading, which turns out to be Jude the Obscure. They chat. Calvin is concerned, and Conrad jokes dryly. Finally Calvin brings up going to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. Conrad does not want to, but Calvin insists Conrad call the doctor from school on his lunch hour.


These chapters set up both Conrad's and Calvin's points of view. Both like to spout aphorisms to get them through the day. Both are introspective and carefully respectful of each other after Conrad's attempted suicide and hospital stay. Both are trying to put the past behind them and do things "the right way" in the future. For Conrad, the right way means "Keep moving, keep busy, everything will fall into place, it always does." And for Calvin it means "A balance must be struck between pressure and concern."

It is no accident that Guest introduces Calvin in Chapter 2 with "razor in hand," as it is a razor—Conrad uses one for his suicide attempt—that caused the current crisis in the Jarrett family. While Calvin seems genuinely open to communicating with Conrad, Beth just wants things to get back to normal. Beth's method of "not ... talking about anything important," and not "about him," however, is the current status quo. As Conrad puts it in Chapter 1, "they are people of good taste," and such people do not "discuss a problem in the presence of the problem." This establishes Guest's theme of the importance of communication because it is clear the Jarrett family is not communicating about important issues.

It is significant to note Conrad is reading Jude the Obscure, the novel by Thomas Hardy in which the protagonist's son kills his two younger half-siblings and then himself, believing the parents would be better off without children. Although Conrad's assignment is about Hardy's determinism, the children's deaths and suicide echo aspects of the Jarrett family's situation.

Guest chose to tell the story from the points of view of the males in the family, leaving Beth to be interpreted through her interactions with her husband and son. While Conrad and Calvin both end up connecting with their emotions, Beth refuses to engage and remains superficial. In other words, Beth wants to maintain the surface illusion of the "ordinary," normal family, whereas Conrad and Calvin face the messier facts that distinguish them from others. This tension between illusion and reality drives the story.

Readers will notice Guest's style beginning in Chapter 1 and continuing throughout is to narrate story events in the present tense and reflections in the past tense. Her characters' thoughts are written as stream of consciousness, often set in italics, without standard sentence structure.

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