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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 5–6 | Summary



Chapter 5

Conrad goes to his appointment with Dr. Berger, whose office in Evanston looks as though it has just been burgled—and it has, according to Dr. Berger, who thinks addicts were looking for drugs. Conrad is wary because he does not trust psychiatrists. Dr. Berger asks if he feels as though he's "onstage," as though others treat him as "a dangerous man." Conrad guesses they do a little, but doesn't know if he really is a danger or not. When Dr. Berger asks some questions to assess this, Conrad tells him he would like therapy to help him "be more in control." Berger agrees but warns he is "not big on control" and prefers "things fluid." Berger insists Conrad come twice a week because "control is a tough nut."

Chapter 6

Calvin and Beth fight again about going away for Christmas. Beth demands that Calvin ask Conrad if he would like to go but demurs when Calvin suggests she ask him herself.

Calvin thinks about his mentor, Arnold Bacon, who had taken him under his wing when Calvin was 17 and set him on the course to being a lawyer. Bacon disapproved of Calvin's early marriage during law school, and when Calvin and Beth married, Bacon dropped him. Calvin muses that Bacon's dropping him was his first real experience with grief. As an 11-year-old living in an orphanage, Calvin was less affected by his mother's death as her presence in his life was hardly felt. Calvin is feeling particularly introspective on this day, and he notices that it is Buck's 19th birthday: November 5.


Dr. Berger's eyes are "a compelling a vivid blue" and "beam into whatever they touch." When they touch Conrad, they are like "an intense blue spotlight." Guest uses the color blue as a symbol that charts Conrad's emotional journey, and Dr. Berger's "blue spotlight" is what works to transform Conrad's blue of depression into a blue of peace. Dr. Berger asks, in his casual manner, if Conrad tried to kill himself with a "Gillette Super-Blue" (a type of razor), and Conrad admits it was a razor, but a "Platinum-Plus." This is Dr. Berger's way of gauging how serious Conrad was about his suicide attempt—was he exceptionally "blue" or not? Conrad seems to decide Dr. Berger is someone he can talk to, and Dr. Berger clearly has plans to ask him the deep questions that need to be asked for Conrad to reach catharsis.

Beth, on the other hand, does not want to be asked deep questions, nor does she feel a need for catharsis. She wants the whole family to relax and continue as if "things could just be normal again." Beth also shows herself as someone who avoids confrontation, such as wanting Calvin to ask Conrad about Christmas in London. The implication is Calvin has been doing her bidding, and his refusal to do so this time is another blow to Beth's normal routines and expectations.

In fact, Calvin no longer knows what normal is. He no longer knows who he is. In Chapter 6 Guest explicitly tackles the topic of Calvin's search for identity. Calvin wonders "Who in the world knows who he is all the time?" and he tries to finish the phrase, "I'm the kind of man who ... " All he can muster at this point is he's the kind of man who "hasn't the least idea what kind of man" he is. He understands that the man he was before, the man who believed in the illusions of a perfect life, no longer exists, for "the old definitions, the neat, knowing pigeonholes have disappeared." He is searching for new definitions and a new way of being. And as he moves away, or deeper, his wife remains where she has been—on the same surface.
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