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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 3–4 | Summary



Chapter 3

Conrad's friend Joe Lazenby picks him up for school, with his swim team buddies Dick Van Buren and Kevin Stillman already in the car. While the others chat, Conrad starts to panic. Stillman sees the new girl at school, Jeannine Pratt, out the window and teases Conrad about being interested in her.

In English class Miss Mellon asks Conrad for his theory on Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure. Conrad guesses Jude felt powerless "in the grip of circumstances." After class he declines her offer of an extension on his paper. He feels uncomfortable in all of his classes except choir. Jeannine introduces herself to him. At swim practice his coach, Mr. Salan, asks if he got shock treatment at the hospital and offers to give Conrad extra coaching. At home Conrad looks at a photograph of Buck. He runs into his mother Beth in the hallway, and they exchange superficial conversation before she shuts herself in her bedroom.

Chapter 4

Calvin meets Beth for lunch, and she presents him with travel brochures of Europe and suggests going to London for Christmas. Calvin does not want to go away for Christmas because of Conrad. Calvin thinks their trip to Florida the previous Christmas contributed to his son's depression because they were too busy to be available for him. Beth is upset by Calvin's reaction to the London trip and by his guilt, insisting what happened was not their fault.

Calvin returns to work, deep in thought. He talks with his partner, Ray Hanley, who wonders if it is a good idea to allow Conrad to continue swimming. Calvin insists it was Conrad's idea. He thinks about his other son, Buck, and how what happened to him was no one's fault. However, he finds it hard to believe in his lack of blame.


In these chapters Guest reveals the Jarrett family is grieving over the death of a son and brother, Jordan "Buck" Jarrett, a year and a half ago. In contrast to Conrad, Buck was the "light-hearted" son, "the one who never worried." Calvin feels responsible for what happened to Buck, even though he is not. As he thinks in Chapter 4, it does not make sense that it is not his fault because "fault equals responsibility equals control equals eventual understanding." But he cannot accept the idea of no one to blame—that Buck's death was a senseless act of chance. This kind of thinking simply does not fit into his worldview. As a rags-to-riches success, Calvin has always considered himself at the helm of his own destiny, and now he is beginning to question his own identity as a father and protector of his family.

Conrad, too, questions his identity as he examines his illusions against reality, and thus highlighting another theme of the novel. He thinks about how "he wants to belong to this house again ... all elegance and good taste." He used to buy into the illusion of perfection that living in Lake Forest has afforded him, but he has realized illusion cannot protect anyone from the tragedies of real life. Conrad thinks his sense of identity has been "misplaced" but realizes, "you don't lose what you never had." He has been living on the surface and does not know who he is deep inside.

On the other hand, Beth does not seem bothered by such weighty considerations. She keeps herself busy and entertained to avoid dwelling on her loss. Indeed, it is Beth who, at this point, is instinctively following Dr. Crawford's advice to Conrad: "Keep moving, keep busy, everything will fall into place, it always does." It is important for her to keep up the illusion of perfection—or, at best, normalcy—by going away for Christmas, as they have always done. When Calvin refuses to support the trip, Beth warns him, "but I need it! I need to go! I need you to go with me." Beth has no qualms about putting her needs first, whereas Calvin wants to put his son's needs first. Nor does Beth question her identity or engage in introspection. What she needs—or wants—is her first thought. Calvin's denial of Beth's need to keep her illusions foreshadows their eventual separation.

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