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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17

On Conrad's birthday Calvin has him help clean the garage, and Calvin notices Conrad seems in a good mood. Calvin asks about Dr. Berger and what they talk about. Conrad says they can talk about whatever because "he's an easy guy to talk to." Calvin asks if Conrad would mind if he, too, went to talk to Dr. Berger. Conrad doesn't think he needs to but gives his blessing nevertheless. Calvin is feeling the "tremors" beneath the surface of his relationships. For the most part Beth is closed off to him, opening up only while making love.

When Calvin visits Dr. Berger, they briefly discuss Conrad, and Calvin admits he "always thought that intelligent people could work out their own problems." Calvin implies he feels torn between Beth and Conrad, who sees her "not being able to forgive him." Calvin thinks it is indeed possible Beth blames Conrad for surviving when Buck did not. Finally Calvin realizes he has come to Dr. Berger to talk about himself.

Chapter 18

Conrad takes his exams, starting with his English essay exam. He tries to relax, reminding himself he knows the material. After the exam he spots Jeannine and offers her a ride home. While in the car Jeannine apologizes for their previous conversation. He asks if she "knows about" him, and she confirms she does. It is an awkward moment, and after she gets out of the car he realizes that she probably does not want to associate with him now. When he gets home, he has to be polite to his mother's friends who are at the house. He then tries to call Karen, but her mother says she is not home. He briefly gets down on himself but decides to try talking to Jeannine again. He asks her out, and she says yes.


Beth accuses Calvin of not being "very friendly, lately." She "opens to him only in darkness" and one night begs of him: "I need you to love me, Cal! Please promise!" This is one of the only times she communicates her inner desires, and the revelation scares Calvin "because it was not like her." He then feels "beneath them a fault, imperceptibly widening, threatening." This feeling prompts him to see Dr. Berger.

Conrad has assured Calvin that, unlike Beth, Dr. Berger is easy to talk to. Calvin notices that Beth does not speak so much as issue directives. Beth neither waits for nor shows "any interest in" replies. In contrast Dr. Berger weighs the words of his patients and probes for the meaning underneath the easy phrases of their acquired social personas. When Calvin proclaims "all life is an accident," Dr. Berger points out he sounds more like "a drifter than a tax attorney from Lake Forest." What Dr. Berger is getting at is the core of his identity: his private self. While Calvin's public self might seem confident, Dr. Berger recognizes the inner self is struggling.

Thanks to Dr. Berger, Conrad now has strategies for coming out of his downward anxiety spiral. After his awkward encounter with Jeannine and his failed attempt to call Karen, he feels as though no woman would want to talk to him. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Conrad takes action. He calls Jeannine to ask for a date. Does man have "control over his inner/outer environment?" Miss Mellon asks such a question on Conrad's English exam referring to Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. The sequence of events in Chapter 18 implies Guest believes Conrad does not have to be entirely "powerless in the grip of circumstance." Certainly no person exists in a vacuum, but Guest seems to advocate the theory that although one cannot control the actions of others, one can at least have some power over their own reactions.

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