Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 21–22 | Summary



Chapter 21

Calvin and Beth make plans to visit her brother Ward and his wife in Texas. Calvin recalls their trip to Europe while Conrad was in the hospital, when "away from home" everything "seemed orderly and safe." He also recalls his discussion about Beth with his mentor Arnold, who had withdrawn his support and friendship because he thought Beth was a bad choice. "She is not a sharer," he warned. Calvin muses that he never had affairs because he was too concerned with security. After Ray's affair, Beth said that if she were Nancy, she would never have gone back to Ray because "it is too humiliating." He realizes "some people are not given a capacity for forgiveness," and maybe Beth is one of those people.

Chapter 22

Conrad attends a swim meet after which he hears his former teammates talking about Buck. They notice him, and Joe Lazenby is friendly although Stillman is not. When Stillman is crude about Jeannine, Conrad tells him to "try not to be such a prick." Stillman explodes at Conrad, and Conrad punches Stillman in the face. They wrestle and fight until Joe Lazenby pulls Conrad up. He helps Conrad to his car, and they talk. Joe tells him they are still friends, and he, too, misses Buck. Conrad admits to Joe "it hurts too much to be around" him.

When he goes home, Conrad waits for the consequences of his fight. The phone rings, but he is afraid to answer it. He washes the blood from his shirt so Beth will not find out and then sits on the sofa to wait, punishing himself for his slip-up.


These chapters are a reversal of the two chapters preceding them. Where Calvin has been down, he has now planned a vacation with Beth and is more hopeful. Where Conrad was happy with himself and his burgeoning romance with Jeannine, he is now self-critical because he allowed himself to get into a fight with Stillman. These reversals are true to life because understanding that everyone has good and bad days is essential to an individual's emotional health.

Calvin reflects again on his identity and how to define it. "I am a man who believes in safety," he decides, but subsequently he judges this statement as inadequate. Whereas order has served him well in his career as a lawyer, the order Beth brought to their home life could not protect them from the loss of their son and the near loss of the other. His need for order and safety has kept him from cheating on Beth as has his knowledge she would not forgive him. Indeed, her reason for being unable to forgive in this case is telling: humiliation. Being the subject of gossip and whispers would make her look bad in public and shatter the illusions of perfection she grips so tightly.

Now more in tune with his feelings, Conrad gives into the rage he feels towards Stillman and punches him for making crude remarks about Jeannine. This action illustrates not only his protectiveness of Jeannine but also his newly developed connection to his own body. When Stillman provokes him, "something explodes inside his head," and the punch is "a sweet rush of mindless ecstasy ... and makes him feel whole again." Guest is not advocating violence but is using an extreme example to show how emotional healing involves recognizing all of one's emotions, even the less savory ones. This incident leads Conrad to a deep conversation with Joe Lazenby about how they both miss Buck. Conrad admits he is not yet comfortable again around Lazenby because "it hurts too much."

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