Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 13–14 | Summary



Chapter 13

Conrad goes with Calvin to pick out a Christmas tree. Conrad insists on a giant blue spruce, which they put up in the family room. When Beth comes home, she regards it coolly, indicating her preference for their artificial tree. She then informs them that Carole Lazenby told her Conrad quit the swim team. Calvin does not understand why Conrad did not tell them, and an argument ensues. Conrad vents his anger at Beth for never coming to see him at the hospital and storms upstairs. Beth criticizes Calvin for defending Conrad's behavior. Calvin begs her not to fight with him before he goes up to talk to Conrad, which Beth refuses to do. When he does, Conrad reveals to his father that he thinks his mother hates him.

Chapter 14

Blaming himself for the outburst and slandering his mother, Conrad believes he is irredeemable. He tells this to Dr. Berger, who asks him what he has done that makes him "such a rotten kid." Conrad reveals he thinks his mother can never forgive him for the suicide attempt because he made such a mess. However, he comes to realize that it is he who cannot forgive her. Dr. Berger advises him to "recognize her limitations." She loves Conrad "as much as she's able." He also suggests Conrad forgive himself. Dr. Berger insinuates that Conrad's suicide attempt was to get his mother's attention and to punish her for ignoring him.


Calvin sees Conrad's interest in the Christmas tree as evidence of his emotional health. The tree the two agree on is "huge, dense and full," and "blue," indicating a step toward healing. Conrad wants to decorate with mostly natural things: lights, popcorn, cranberries, and "maybe a few candy canes," no other ornaments. The vision of this tree is symbolic of the two men's progress in coming to terms with loss. In contrast, Beth would prefer the artificial tree that Calvin dismisses as "probably flat and limp as hell." She does not want to deal with the mess of a real tree, whose needles will get stuck in the carpeting. And her preference for an artificial tree underscores her preference for the superficial, just as she wants to avoid real emotions and the "mess" Conrad is making in her world of illusions.

During their argument about the swim team, Beth asserts Conrad is trying to hurt her "by making [her] look a fool in front of a roomful of people." She is angry not only for his deception but also, and more so, because others knew what her son was doing before she did. Such family matters do not reflect an enviable situation at home and underscore a lack of communication between mother and son, and worse, for Beth, an illusion is broken. In his emotional outburst Conrad reveals he did not tell her because she "just wanted [him] to leave [her] alone." He accuses his father of never telling his mother "a goddamn thing," especially about the reality of his life in the hospital. Conrad knows she did not want to hear about it, preferring to immerse herself in avoidance and the illusion of perfection foreign travel could give her. They cannot communicate because Beth does not want to hear what he and his father have to say and face the truth that her family is falling apart.

In their session following the argument at home, Dr. Berger explains to Conrad the dangers of trying to live like Beth. "When you bury [your] junk," he says, "it keeps resurfacing. Won't leave you alone." In an emotional outburst Conrad shouts that his mother hates him because his suicide attempt made a mess: "all that blood on her rug," on her towels, on the tile. This revelation makes him realize slashing his wrists was meant to punish his mother because he knew she would hate it. He cannot forgive her for not loving him as much as she loves his father and loved his brother. But he has never been able to communicate these thoughts to his mother and probably never will.

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