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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Course Hero. "Ordinary People Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Jan. 2018. Web. 10 June 2023. <>.

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Course Hero. "Ordinary People Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed June 10, 2023.


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Ordinary People | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Jarrett Family

The story takes place in the mid-1970s in Lake Forest, a rich suburb of Chicago, where the Jarrett family lives. One month after his return home from the hospital after a suicide attempt, 17-year-old Conrad Jarrett is still wrestling with episodes of depression and anxiety. His father, 41-year-old tax lawyer Calvin Jarrett, is concerned about encouraging his son's continued recovery and asks him to call a therapist. But Conrad's mother, 39-year-old Beth Jarrett, simply wants to move on and act as though everything is fine both at home and outside. She is not one to share unpleasant personal information, or any information, that might cause negative attention or gossip.

Conrad feels like an outsider among his classmates, even with his good friend Joe Lazenby. Conrad has actually lost a year of school because his hospital stay lasted eight months. The only place he feels comfortable is in choir, where he chats with a new student, Jeannine Pratt. Meanwhile Beth suggests going away for Christmas, as they always have done, but Calvin thinks Beth's suggestion of a trip to London is a bad idea because Conrad needs their attention. Beth is extremely disappointed and resents Calvin's decision to put her son's needs over what she perceives as hers.

Conrad's Therapy

At his father's urging Conrad meets with psychiatrist Tyrone Berger at his office in Evanston. Conrad, who has been feeling alienated at school and has lost a year because of his long hospitalization, soon feels comfortable talking to Dr. Berger and eventually says he would like to work on being more in control. Dr. Berger suggests coming in twice a week, and Conrad agrees. That night Calvin and Beth fight about Christmas plans. Both parents think they should consult Conrad about going to London, but neither wants the responsibility of approaching him. Beth, however, refuses to communicate with her son—a longstanding issue—so Calvin eventually does what Beth wants him to, though not immediately.

Conrad meets up with Karen, his friend and fellow patient from the hospital. When he tells her he is seeing a therapist, she claims she stopped going to hers because she can help herself: She is busy doing things like drama club and keeping busy. Conrad claims he might quit seeing Dr. Berger, too, but he actually looks forward to his sessions. After sharing a particularly anxious dream with Dr. Berger, Conrad realizes he does not want to swim any longer. Dr. Berger advises him to quit, and he does the next day without telling his teammates or his parents; participation in sports is a huge part of the Jarretts' lives.

The Jarretts' Marriage

As Conrad continues therapy, Calvin and Beth continue their lives much as before. After some drinks at a party, Calvin is caught off guard when a friend asks about Conrad, and he admits that Conrad is going to a psychiatrist. On the way home Beth rages at him in the car for revealing family secrets.

One day Calvin runs into Carole Lazenby, a family friend, near his office. The two have lunch, and Carole compliments Beth's ability to avoid getting trapped into doing what she doesn't want to do. However, Calvin privately recalls how much Beth hated the messy reality of having young children and strived to create an illusion of perfection at home, becoming upset by misplaced toys or scraps of food on the floor. He realizes that some people, like Beth, prefer illusions when reality is too difficult to accept. He, too, might like to believe Conrad's getting good grades again means their lives will return to normal.

Insights and Emotions

Dr. Berger encourages Conrad to allow himself to feel his emotions. With a greater sense of confidence, Conrad asks Jeannine out for a Coke, and they engage in real communication. Afterward, when Conrad is confronted with a memory of Buck, he accepts it peacefully.

Calvin takes Conrad to pick out a Christmas tree and is delighted when Conrad takes charge. Beth, however, returns home to find them decorating the tree and angrily accuses Conrad of trying to hurt her deliberately by not telling her he quit the swim team. She has been humiliated by learning about it from a friend. A heated argument ensues, with Conrad accusing his mother of not caring about him enough to visit him in the hospital. After Conrad storms off, Beth accuses Calvin of always taking Conrad's side. Calvin later talks with Conrad, who reveals he believes his mother hates him. In his next session with Dr. Berger Conrad realizes this: just as his mother cannot forgive him, he cannot forgive her. They have never been able to connect because of Beth's superficiality and emotional distance. Dr. Berger proposes Conrad's messy, bloody suicide attempt was meant to punish Beth.


Beth's parents spend Christmas with them at home. The day goes well until Calvin presents Conrad with the gift of a new car, which doesn't please Conrad as Calvin hoped it would. Beth later criticizes Calvin's resulting bad mood and accuses him of being too concerned about Conrad's welfare. Calvin insinuates that Beth is not concerned enough. Musing about how "ugly" and "isolating" grief is, Calvin laments that he and Beth can never talk about what happened to Buck.

Conrad is not exactly displeased about his father's gift, but he fears the car is a bribe that commits him to stay happy, and he doesn't think he can. Yet Conrad's outlook on life is improving with therapy. He is excited about things again and realizes that joy exists. He tells Dr. Berger he considers him a friend, and Dr. Berger reciprocates that regard.

Improvement and Deterioration

On his birthday soon after Christmas, Conrad is in a good mood. Calvin notices and asks if he would mind if he—Calvin—went to see Dr. Berger. Conrad is fine with that, so Calvin does go to talk to him. After briefly discussing Conrad, Calvin admits he is really there to talk about himself.

Several weeks later Ray tells Calvin that Beth confided in Nancy, Ray's wife. According to Nancy, Beth is upset because Calvin is "obsessed" with Conrad. This revelation, so unlike Beth to confide in anyone, makes Calvin realize his marriage is in more trouble than he thought. Meanwhile Conrad goes bowling with Jeannine and kisses her afterwards.

Calvin proposes visiting Beth's brother in Texas, just the two of them, to get away—and for him to play in a golf tournament there in March. They decide to go, and Conrad will stay with Beth's parents. Before their departure, Conrad attends a swim meet as a spectator. In the parking lot he gets into a fistfight with Stillman, who has been taunting him throughout the year, this time making crude comments about Jeannine. Conrad then punishes himself for losing control. Calvin comes home to find Conrad on the sofa and assures his son he is not angry about the fight. Calvin is more concerned about why Beth did not feel the need to check on Conrad.

Calvin and Beth go to Texas, where their relationship continues to fray. Beth barely talks to Calvin, and her sister-in-law, Audrey, intuits it is because emotion is Beth's enemy. On another date with Jeannine, Conrad picks her up from work, and they stop by her house where her mother asks her to babysit so she can go out with her boyfriend. Jeanine is upset with her mother's behavior, and Conrad is able to comfort her, making him feel strong and needed.

While Beth and Calvin are still away, Conrad has a crisis at his grandparents' house when he reads a newspaper account of Karen's suicide. He has flashbacks to his own attempt and to the sailing accident that killed Buck. He calls Dr. Berger for an emergency session.


Conrad begs Dr. Berger to help him let go of his survivor's guilt. Dr. Berger helps Conrad accept the reality that an individual is not in control of everything; therefore Conrad is not complicit in Buck's death. With this understanding Conrad can finally forgive himself and regain his emotional health. Meanwhile in Texas, away from Conrad, Beth feels more like herself. She suggests more golfing trips with Calvin, but he missteps with her when he assumes Conrad is invited. Giving him the silent treatment before lashing out, she admits she cannot forgive Conrad because she knows his "bloody" and "vicious" attempt on his own life was to punish her. Calvin finally realizes the truth in this.

When they return home, Beth acts "perfect." If she were not so aloof, Calvin could believe in the illusion of the perfect family she is trying to project. On the other hand, Jeannine casts off all illusion by telling Conrad about her difficult past. They connect in a healthy, real way. Conrad is in touch with himself, finally and for good.

Beth, on the other hand, walks out after realizing Calvin is no longer happy maintaining illusions. Calvin and Conrad have a real conversation in which they voice their love for each other. While Beth is away traveling, father and son move to a smaller house. Then on the day of his last session with Dr. Berger, Conrad goes to visit Joe Lazenby, finally able to be friends with him again without experiencing the pain of Buck's death.

Ordinary People Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Conrad survives a sailing accident in which Buck dies.

Rising Action

2 Conrad attempts suicide and is institutionalized.

3 Back home Conrad begins therapy with Dr. Berger.

4 Conrad quits the swim team.

5 Against Beth's wishes the Jarretts spend Christmas at home.

6 Calvin sees Dr. Berger to talk about his failing marriage.

7 Conrad starts going out with Jeannine.

8 Beth and Calvin go to Texas for a vacation.


9 Karen's suicide causes Conrad to have a breakdown.

Falling Action

10 Conrad realizes his mother loves him on her own terms.

11 Beth leaves Calvin, who moves with Conrad to Evanston.


12 Living with his father, Conrad visits Joe, like old times.

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