Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 15–16 | Summary



Chapter 15

Beth's parents, Howard and Ellen, come to spend Christmas with the Jarretts. Conrad dresses nicely, "a concession to his mother." They unwrap their gifts, and Conrad and his mother "are polite and careful with each other." The last gift for Conrad is from his parents. It is a car, but Conrad is not as thrilled with it as Calvin expects him to be. Conrad's lack of enthusiasm puts Calvin in a bad mood.

Later Beth accuses Calvin of wanting her and Conrad to "perform" for him, to "make the day go right." Calvin thinks Beth is still upset that he did not take her to London and realizes they both feel disappointed in the day. He does not understand why they can never openly talk with each other about their grief.

Chapter 16

On a sunny January day Conrad decides he needs to organize his life concerning finals, exercise, friends, job, guitar, books, and girls. He is filled with good feeling and "wants to learn everything, know everything." He goes to the library, where a woman in a blue skirt tells him he is "very good-looking." He examines himself in the mirror and thinks "well of himself."

At his session with Dr. Berger, Conrad says the car from his father is "like a bribe" to "be happy." He is afraid he will not live up to such a commitment. Dr. Berger gives Conrad advice about girls—find one to go out with—and Conrad tells him he thinks of him "as a friend." Dr. Berger tells Conrad he thinks of him that way, too.


When Calvin and Beth talk, they never really solve anything because they do not say what they need to say. Beth projects her own need to protect her illusions onto Calvin's motives. She claims Conrad did not want the car, but she is only half right. Conrad does not want the trappings of a "perfect" life but does want his parents to see him for who he is. Beth accuses Calvin of refusing "to see things as they really are," a statement of situational irony because she, not he, is the one who choses illusion over reality. Beth sees Conrad graduating from high school and leaving home, at which point he will no longer be their "problem." Thus she believes Calvin is investing too much emotional energy in someone she has written off as a lost cause. Calvin wants to address the grief that lies at the core of their family's dysfunction, but all they can do is "separately grieve." "Why can't we talk about it?" he wonders. The reason is that their reliance on superficiality to get through the day does not allow them to communicate what is important, a situation in which Beth takes the lead and Calvin follows.

Conrad, however, is slowly learning that facing the reality of his emotions is freeing and healing. He is excited about life again, and "the feeling of joy exists, he knows it now." When musing about his swim team friends, Conrad realizes his identity has gone through some major changes: "their old buddy ... no longer exists. He is extinct." That former version of himself has cast off his need for control and perfection. He is "someone else, now," someone who is still figuring out who he is and what he needs. In an instance of foreshadowing, the woman in the blue skirt in the library hints at what awaits him later in the novel as Jeannine, wearing the same blue skirt she wore earlier in the story when he admired her, will be his first sexual partner.

One of the things he needs is girl advice. He admits to Dr. Berger he "doesn't know how to act ... with a girl, one-on-one." Dr. Berger tells him to pretend he knows what he is doing and "hope for the best." In this moment they are communicating more as friends, something Conrad affirms by telling Dr. Berger he thinks of him as friend. "You," he says, "I always saw inside the box. With me." The box he refers to is his private self, a self he felt was on display for the whole world to judge after his suicide attempt. That Conrad trusts Dr. Berger enough to let him into his most intimate thoughts illustrates the importance of true communication.

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