Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Epigraph | Summary



The epigraph is taken from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Sonnet CLXXI" in which the speaker praises people's extraordinary ability, despite pain, to go about the ordinary things of everyday life even though they know something worse than their previous pain will happen to them.


Guest might have chosen to preface her novel with this quotation because Ordinary People is about a family struggling with loss. This is the "pain" of Millay's poem, and "worse than that must follow" is death—what Conrad initially seeks to escape to. When his suicide attempt fails, Conrad tries to fill his days with ordinary routines. His parents deal with their loss largely by ignoring it and going about their regular lives. But the "shining animal" of Millay's poem seems to be an evolved human, one who has confronted pain and continues living, embracing joy wherever it can be found, even though death is inevitable. This is the journey the Jarrett family needs to take.

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