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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 23–24 | Summary



Chapter 23

On his drive home from work, Calvin thinks about communication. When he sees a religious sign that asks "are you on the right road?" he thinks that kind of message is more about alienating people than bringing them together. He comes into the house to find Conrad asleep on the sofa. Calvin wakens his son, and they talk about Conrad's fight with Stillman. When Calvin asks Conrad why he didn't pick up the phone when he called, Conrad admits he was afraid he might be in trouble. Calvin assures him he is not upset about the fight, knowing Conrad hardly ever blows up. When Calvin goes upstairs to bed, he notices Beth sleeping peacefully. She never checked on Conrad to see if he was okay.

Chapter 24

When Calvin and Beth leave for Texas, Conrad goes to his grandparents' house to stay. His grandmother, Ellen, bosses him around, urging him to eat more, and tells him he should "thank his lucky stars every night." As Conrad takes issue with this, she criticizes him for not properly appreciating his advantages.

Conrad picks Jeannine up from the bakery. When they get to her house, her mother's boyfriend, Paul, is there. Her mother asks Jeannine to babysit for Mike so the two can go out. Conrad shows Mike how to play some songs on the guitar and then talks with Jeannine about Paul, who is the reason her parents divorced. She apologizes to Conrad for making a big deal of it and leans on him for support. As a result "he has never felt so strong, so needed."


In these chapters, Guest tackles the theme of the importance of communication head on. When Calvin muses about "the distance between people," he notes "communication" is "the bridge between the distances." But true communication takes more than "me telling you." Guest advocates empathy as the basis for communication as illustrated in the encounter between Calvin and a groggy Conrad. Despite being exhausted, Calvin wakes Conrad to make sure he is okay. This is something Calvin thinks of as mandatory for a parent, so he cannot understand later why Beth did not feel a similar responsibility. "What the hell is wrong with her?" he wonders.

Calvin creates a safe space for Conrad to tell him about the fight and listens without disapproval. Calvin knows showing anger is rare for Conrad because he has always had a "disposition like an angel's." Therefore, he understands Conrad was strongly provoked. Father and son have come a long way in their ability to communicate with each other, but Conrad still feels the need to lie to Calvin about the reason for the fight. This reluctance is likely a result of Conrad's desire to protect Jeannine and his new relationship with her.

Until this point with Jeannine, Conrad has felt as though he were the one with all the problems. But when Jeannine unburdens herself about her complicated feelings regarding her parents' divorce and her mother's boyfriend, he finds himself in the new position of being able to comfort someone else for a change. He loves the way it makes him feel strong. This kind of mutual support for each other's problems is what helps build true communication. Jeannine and Conrad are already being more real with each other than Beth and Calvin.

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