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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Symbols


The Color Blue

The color blue can signify many things, but the common usage "are you feeling blue?" equates it with sadness. Guest uses the color to chart Conrad's emotional progress throughout the story. In Chapter 1 he looks at the walls of his room, noting they are pale blue, "an anxious color."

Women in Conrad's life often wear blue. In Chapter 2 Beth first appears wearing a clingy "blue silk robe" as she stands next to Conrad, who is holding a razor. This scene is of symbolic interest. The razor divides the family, as it was Conrad's means of attempting suicide. As blue comes to later represent sexuality for Conrad, it is also sexuality that keeps Calvin and Beth communicating at this point. Later when Conrad sees Jeannine from Joe's car window, she is wearing a blue skirt—which she wears when they go out together. Further, the woman who makes a pass at Conrad in the library also is wearing blue.

In Chapter 5 Dr. Berger's eyes are "a compelling and vivid blue" and "beam into whatever they touch." When they touch Conrad, they are like "an intense blue spotlight." Dr. Berger's "blue spotlight" is what works to transform Conrad's blue of depression into a blue of peace. Jeannine is Conrad's other healing influence, and Conrad recognizes her blue eyes are like "Berger's eyes." In Chapter 12 he is able to openly communicate with her, which allows him to relive, without pain, a memory of Buck for the first time.


Sports are a prominent part of the Jarrett family's life. Calvin and Beth play golf and tennis, and Conrad and Buck chose swimming. As Calvin puts it in Chapter 8, tennis is part of his "familiar and comforting pattern of triviality," and it protects "his soul from the sin of idleness." By keeping busy he will not have to think deep thoughts. Likewise, the swim team creates a routine that can keep Conrad busy and concentrated on something other than his depression. Further, Calvin and Beth met playing tennis, and it is something they have in common.

The importance of sports in the family is the reason Conrad's quitting the swim team is momentous for him. It signifies he is willing to begin exploring the depths of his emotions because he has more time to confront his reality and work through his problems. Initially he is hesitant to quit because he is afraid of how his action will appear to others. Being on a team conveys to the outside world Conrad must be doing okay, just like Karen tried to convince others her participating in a play meant she was better. But because Karen focused on the illusion of wellness instead of the reality of working to get well, she relapsed and took her life. Conrad was able to get past others' opinions and focus on himself.

Christmas Tree

Calvin sees Conrad's interest in the Christmas tree as a sign he is "back to normal." Beth sees the Christmas tree as another sign Calvin is more interested in Conrad than he is in her. Having a Christmas tree means they did not go to London, or away on a trip, as Beth wanted.

The contrast between the real blue spruce that Calvin and Conrad have chosen and the old artificial tree in the basement illustrates the differences in the family members' emotional maturity. Conrad prefers the real tree, "huge, dense and full." That it is a "blue" spruce may give a hint of Conrad's return to health. He wants to encircle it in popcorn and cranberries rather than ornaments. Calvin can get on board with his son's vision, symbolizing both men's willingness to experience real healing. In contrast, Beth thinks a real tree is "silly" and does not see a need for it when they have a "perfectly good artificial one." In her opinion, reality is too messy. The needles of the real tree "will absolutely imbed themselves in that white shag." Her attitude is indicative of a person caught up in appearances. Calvin could just as well be commenting on her emotional health when he dismisses the artificial tree as "probably flat and limp as hell." Because she refuses to engage with reality, her emotions are stunted, and she cannot heal.

Beth recognizes father and son are bonding over the Christmas tree, and when Conrad asks if she wants to help string popcorn and cranberries, she pauses before answering. Even though she eventually says "of course," she has no intention of actually doing so. Instead she stirs up an argument. In the aftermath of the argument Calvin looks at their tree. It has "strings of lights dangling loose from the branches. Disjointed. Unfinished." With this Guest provides the perfect metaphor for the current state of the family.

In Chapter 15, Conrad's grandfather, Howard, praises the tree. At this point Conrad looks as healthy and robust as the tree. Conrad has taken time (a month of Sundays) to work on the tree, just as he is taking time to work on himself.

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