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Ordinary People | Study Guide

Judith Guest

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Ordinary People | Themes


Illusion versus Reality

Much of the Jarretts' suburban life is about keeping up appearances, beginning with their choice of residence in the "elegant" and "tasteful" section of Lake Forest. Calvin describes it as a fantasyland compared to the grittier parts of the Chicago area. In every part of their lives they strive to "correct all defects." Teeth must be straightened; perfection must be projected. Keeping busy with activities like sports and social engagements is essential. Calvin is aware that "too much thinking can ruin you." If he thinks too much about his losses, he will be forced to confront reality and can no longer take refuge in his illusions, as Beth continues to do.

But where Calvin was once able—and happy—to accept Beth's clinging to illusion, he is now struggling. He is beginning to realize her insistence in keeping up appearances is hindering the family's ability to deal effectively with the reality of their grief in the wake of Buck's death. He goes to Dr. Berger to get an outside perspective and finds it valuable enough to suggest it to Beth. Beth, however, understands counseling means Calvin is no longer happy with her need to maintain her illusions. He wants real communication, and reality is too messy for her.

Conrad and Beth are alike in their attempts to retain the illusion of control. But in Conrad's case, it comes at a high price. His suicide attempt was in part a consequence of his survivor's guilt. Conrad reasons that if he were in control, then he must be complicit in Buck's death. Conrad's emotional catharsis comes when he is finally able to let go of this illusion and face the reality that "life is not fair always, or sane, or good, or anything. It just is."

Search for Identity

Guest identifies her major themes by name, and the search for identity is no exception. In Chapter 6 Guest tackles the topic of Calvin's search for identity. Calvin attempts to finish the phrase, "I'm the kind of man who ..." After experiencing the disillusionment of losing one son and nearly losing the other, Calvin no longer has "the least idea what kind of man" he is. He understands "the old definitions, the neat, knowing pigeonholes have disappeared." He has to search for a new identity that faces the reality of his life, without all the illusions. In Chapter 21 Calvin reflects again on how to define himself. "I am a man who believes in safety," he muses, but also realizes a need for order is not sufficient. No matter how safe and orderly he has tried to be, he could not remain invulnerable from the chaos of loss and grief.

In Chapter 11 Guest introduces Carole and her course in "search for identity." Carole assures Calvin that "everybody has [identity problems]," a truth Calvin has begun to understand. Even Beth, who most consider secure in her identity, is held back by her refusal to let go of her never-ending need for perfection. "Everything had to be perfect," Calvin muses about his wife, "never mind the utter lack of meaning in such perfection."

Conrad, too, struggles with his identity. At the start of the novel he defines himself by how much he can control his image. By Chapter 16 Conrad realizes he has changed so radically he might need some new friends because "their old buddy ... no longer exists. He is extinct." He has risen above his former need for control and perfection and is "someone else, now," someone who is happy when he is "filled with himself," meaning he is attuned to the needs of his private self.


The Jarretts talk circles around each other, never able to reveal how they really feel, often because they do not understand it themselves. "Why can't we talk about it?" Calvin thinks about Beth and himself, "Why can't we ever talk about it?" The reason is their reliance on superficiality to get through the day does not allow them to communicate what is really important. When Calvin muses about "the distance between people" in Chapter 23, he identifies "communication" as "the bridge between the distances." By Chapter 31 Calvin and Beth are finally talking, but "it all falls between them." They cannot form bridges of communication because Beth is an "an emotional cripple," unable to express her private self.

In fact, Guest seems to blame Conrad's suicide attempt partially on the Jarrett family's lack of communication and expression of emotion. In Chapter 10 Conrad recalls his insomnia after Buck's death when his "brain seethed from night until morning." Unable to ask his parents for help concerning this mental anguish, he tried to go it alone, explaining to Dr. Crawford he slit his wrists because "he had to get some sleep." Conrad later admits to Dr. Berger that he and his mother "do not connect."

Guest contrasts Conrad's inability to communicate with his closed-off parents to his flowing conversations with Dr. Berger and Jeannine. In Chapter 16 Conrad tells Dr. Berger he thinks of him as friend. "You," he says, "I always saw inside the box. With me." The box refers to his private self, a self he felt was on display for the world to judge after his suicide attempt. That Conrad trusts Dr. Berger enough to let him into his most intimate thoughts illustrates the importance of true communication. The same is true for Jeannine, but she reciprocates as she shares her private self with Conrad. This give-and-take makes Conrad feel strong and whole and is the kind of relationship Calvin and Beth do not have.

Questions for Themes

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What is the difference between male and female? when it comes down to communication?
It is often said that big differences exist in the way in which men and women communicate. Using the South University Online Library or the Internet, read more about this statement. Based on your rese
Most of us have received a business letter, a memo, or an e-mail before. Although these documents may not seem like traditional forms of technical communication, they actually possess or should posses
This assignment is due on Friday. can somebody analysis this document In this paper, your task is to analyze the peculiar properties of the language used by professionals in your chosen field. You do
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