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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Quotes


Keep moving, keep busy, everything will fall into place, it always does.

Conrad, Chapter 1

This is the mantra Conrad learns at the hospital to get him through his days. It is the method the Jarrett family has always used to keep up their superficial illusions of living the perfect life. As Calvin later thinks in Chapter 3, "too much thinking can ruin you," meaning too much thinking will cause him to lose his illusions and have to face reality.


I need it! I need to go! I need you to go with me.

Beth, Chapter 4

Here Beth reveals her vital need to keep illusions of normalcy to avoid facing the reality of the family's grief. As long as she has the trappings of a happy, successful life, such as going away for the holidays, she can live on the surface and in denial of her emotions. Additionally, it shows Beth's selfishness, as she thinks of her wants, which she terms "needs," rather than her son's real needs. Calvin's refusal to indulge her leads her to walk out in an effort to maintain her illusions.


I'm the kind of man who—hasn't the least idea what kind of man I am.

Calvin, Chapter 6

This quotation directly relates to the search for identity theme. Calvin used to believe in the illusions of a perfect life, but "the old definitions, the neat, knowing pigeonholes have disappeared." To get past his grief, he needs to find a new way of being and of being able to face reality.


'The only one who can help you is you.'

Karen Aldrich, Chapter 7

Karen justifies stopping her sessions with her psychiatrist by repeating this advice, which her father gave her. It is, of course, merely wishful thinking, a pretty illusion that hides the painful reality. Karen actually needs therapy to heal, a fact that becomes clear later when she finally succeeds in committing suicide.


Everything had to be perfect ... never mind the utter lack of meaning in such perfection.

Calvin, Chapter 11

Calvin recalls Beth's attitude when their boys were young children. She hated their messiness. No matter how much hardship it put on her or any of them, she had to attain the appearance of perfection. Calvin decides "it is chance and not perfection that rules the world."


Depending on the reality one must face, one may prefer to opt for illusion.

Calvin, Chapter 11

Calvin considers that hanging on to one's illusions can serve a purpose, especially if one's reality is tragic. This is what Beth does, and though Calvin comes to understand this about her, he eventually realizes he can no longer cater to her illusions.


They are ordinary people, after all.

Calvin, Chapter 11

Calvin longs to believe his family has turned a corner—that Conrad's getting good grades again means everything is back to normal. They had been in a bad place, "where any measure you took to feel better was temporary." But at this moment he can believe they are back to a good place and the return is permanent. This, of course, is merely another illusion. The reality is the family still has much work to do to heal.


Maybe you gotta feel lousy sometimes in order to feel better.

Dr. Berger, Chapter 12

When Conrad complains that he doesn't have the energy to face himself and his emotions, Dr. Berger explains that keeping emotions locked up actually takes more energy. Conrad admits he doesn't want to feel because if he lets himself feel, he just feels lousy. But Dr. Berger knows to heal, one must embrace all possible emotions, and to feel good, one also has to feel bad sometimes. This is the path to emotional wellness.


You refuse to see things as they really are.

Beth, Chapter 15

Beth's statement can be seen as an example of situational irony because she is the one who prefers illusion to reality. But Guest seems to imply that Calvin, too, has blinders on when it comes to Beth. He cannot accept the idea that Beth is not as invested in Conrad's emotional health as he is.


The distance between people. ... Communication. The bridge between the distances.

Calvin, Chapter 23

Calvin ponders about the importance of communication. Each person is separate from even those closest to them, and only true communication can close those gaps. He and Beth are unable to engage in this kind of communication because it involves vulnerability and acknowledging real feelings, which Beth does not seem capable of.


There are no secret passages to strength, no magic words ... just something you know about yourself.

Conrad, Chapter 26

This excerpt shows how much Conrad has grown since Chapter 1 where he states "to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle." He realizes emotional health does not come from outside himself, but from inside—from believing himself to have inherent worth.


The thing that hurts you ... is ... not letting yourself connect with your own feelings.

Dr. Berger, Chapter 27

All along Conrad has, like his mother, regarded feelings as his enemy. Feelings are messy and get in the way of one's illusion of control. But Dr. Berger helps him understand feelings need to vent. To trap them inside is to trap oneself in hurt and unexpressed needs and desires.


You can't feel pain, you aren't going to feel anything else either.

Dr. Berger, Chapter 27

The danger of living a life on the surface to escape feeling pain is one's life becomes "just going through the motions." Sadness and joy are flip sides of the same coin, and you have to be able to feel one to be able to feel the other. Conrad understands this intuitively in Chapter 16 when he realizes "joy exists," but he does not process it intellectually until Dr. Berger spells it out for him.


Life is not fair always, or sane, or good, or anything. It just is.

Conrad, Chapter 27

This is Conrad's cathartic moment when he lets go of the survivor's guilt that has plagued him since Buck's death.


Mothers don't hate their sons.

Beth, Chapter 28

It is telling Beth says this instead of "I don't hate Conrad." It is socially unacceptable for a mother to hate her own child, and Beth is too caught up in her image to admit her feelings, which may still be anger and resentment. She cannot forgive him for punishing her in the bloody way he attempted suicide, and so she has moved on and does not want to deal with him any longer.

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