Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Chapters 7–8 | Summary



Chapter 7

Conrad meets Karen for a drink—coffee for her, a Coke for him. They were good friends at the hospital, but Karen seems uncomfortable with him now. She says seeing a therapist seemed a waste of time to her. "The only one who can help you is you," she claims. But she does concede "for some people it could be just the right thing." Embarrassed Conrad claims he will probably quit therapy, though inwardly he admits his visits with Berger are "something he looks forward to." Karen has to go but asks Conrad to call her. She warns him not to hang out with people who are "down." Taking her advice personally, he denies being down. Still, he understands she is more interested in her own life, and their friendship likely will not last.

Chapter 8

Calvin keeps himself busy on Saturday. He brings up going to London for Christmas, but Conrad seems to want to stay home. However, Conrad says he will go if Beth wants to go. But then Beth comes in and the conversation dies. The trip is off, as Calvin has done her bidding too late, and Beth already has given up on it.

Beth and Calvin go to a party that evening at Phil and Sara Murray's house, where Beth is in her element, looking elegant and charming the other couples. Calvin dislikes Phil Murray, an insurance salesman who talks too much and in bad taste. When Marty Genthe asks about Conrad, Beth replies quickly and firmly that he is fine. Calvin drinks too much alcohol, and when Marty and Sara fish for news about Conrad's state of mind, Calvin admits Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist. Beth extracts him from the party, angry with him for sharing personal information about Conrad.


These two chapters highlight the distance between social persona and private self, two facets of identity. Beth is more aligned with her social persona, never willing to reveal her private self even to her own family. She is furious with Calvin for his "violation of privacy" and bad taste in sharing personal details about Conrad with their group of friends. Calvin asks whose privacy he violated, and it is clear by her refusal to answer she feels he betrayed her privacy. She does not want members of her social circle to feel anything other than envy for her and her family situation.

Both Calvin and Conrad, however, feel less comfortable in their social roles. Calvin does not want to attend the party, suggesting he and Beth go to the movies. He is clearly not as concerned as Beth about displaying the illusion of normalcy she so craves. Conrad too has been avoiding social engagement, keeping distant from his old friends. When Calvin suggests he get together with Joe Lazenby, Conrad claims he has to study for midterms. Conrad's only social engagement so far, outside of school, has been to meet Karen. Because they were in the hospital together, and "he was the only one who could make her laugh," Conrad believes he can be more his private self with her. However, he is disappointed when she makes it clear she has returned to her "normal," superficial self. Karen is pretending everything is okay now, much like Beth is, and Conrad cannot deal with it.

Karen has repeated what her father told her: "the only one who can help you is you." Although the remark is meant as a justification for Karen's terminating therapy, it is also the author's comment reflecting the dangerous ideas about mental health people held in the mid-1970s. While it is obvious "you have to learn to help yourself," mental health issues do not magically disappear without treatment.

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