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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 11–12 | Summary



Chapter 11

On his lunch break Calvin runs into Carole Lazenby, and they eat together at the University Sandwich Shop. They have a pleasant chat about their families and the class Carole is taking, called "Search for Identity," which, Carole assures him, is something most people actually do search for. Carole says she has a hard time seeing Beth searching for identity, however, and Calvin then recalls how miserable Beth was when their boys were young. At the time he didn't mind her perfectionist ways because he liked order. But being unable to tolerate toys out place or scraps of food on the floor made Beth miserable.

Calvin also recalls the conversation with Nancy Hanley after Ray revealed his affair with his secretary. Nancy claimed she would rather not have known, preferring to keep her illusions about her husband. Calvin understands her point as he reflects that "Depending upon the reality one must face, one may prefer to opt for illusion."

That evening Conrad tells Calvin that he got an A on his math test and feels he is "getting back in the swing of things." Calvin is happy to hear this news, which makes him feel as though "they are ordinary people, after all," instead of a "newspaper statistic."

Chapter 12

At school Joe Lazenby tries to talk to Conrad about rejoining swim team, but Conrad doesn't want to engage. Later, when Conrad admits to Dr. Berger he still hasn't told his father about quitting the swim team and he his mother "do not connect," Dr. Berger encourages Conrad to feel things because, in his professional opinion, "you gotta feel lousy sometime, in order to feel better."

On a shopping trip Conrad runs into Jeannine Pratt, who compliments him as "the tenor who stays on pitch." At first Conrad takes her remark as a reprimand for singing louder than the others, but he understands her to be an authority on music. She accepts his invitation to get a Coke with him, and at the coffee shop their conversation flows easily. After their encounter Conrad has a memory of Buck, but instead of hurting him the memory feels pleasant. He walks home "at peace with himself."


These chapters delve deeper into Guest's main themes. First she addresses the identity theme explicitly through Carole and her course in "search for identity." Carole's claim that everybody has these kinds of problems is a truth Calvin is slowly beginning to realize. Even Beth in her perfectionism is holding on to an illusion of what an ideal wife and mother should be. Carole believes Beth "never lets herself get trapped," but Calvin knows she felt trapped in motherhood. Beth would be furious if toys were out of place or food was thrown or if fingermarks were left on the walls. "Everything had to be perfect ... never mind the utter lack of meaning in such perfection." This behavior dovetails into an exploration of Guest's next main theme: illusion versus reality. Where once Calvin was able to accept Beth's clinging to illusion, he is beginning to realize that her needs for perfection and keeping up appearances are becoming hindrances to dealing effectively with the reality of their situation.

Guest compares Calvin and Beth's marriage to that of his partner Ray and his wife, Nancy. Nancy believes "people are entitled to ... their illusions." Calvin disagrees, saying "illusions are for fairy tales." He is under the impression Ray and Nancy's marriage is stronger for surviving Ray's infidelity. Nancy, however, implies that she has lost her faith in Ray. Calvin realizes that "depending on the reality one must face, one may prefer to opt for illusion." This is certainly true of Beth, who holds on to her illusions, and even he would like to believe "they are ordinary people" and everything will return to normal.

Meanwhile, Conrad's work with Dr. Berger seems to be showing signs of paying off. Perhaps in modeling himself after Beth, Conrad has tried not to feel his emotions because he is afraid of feeling too sad. But Dr. Berger confirms feelings may indeed cause pain. Conrad cannot be open with Beth, who holds him at arm's length emotionally, but he feels able to be himself with Jeannine. Guest signals that Jeannine is safe and healing for Conrad by giving her "Dr. Berger's [blue] eyes." They engage in real communication, and, later, when a poster triggers a memory of Buck, Conrad is able to enjoy it for the first time instead of being frightened of it. Recognizing this new sensation as a major breakthrough, and he feels at peace.

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