Ordinary People consists of two interwoven stories told from the points of view of Conrad "Con" Jarrett and his father, Calvin "Cal" Jarrett. Set in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s, the novel begins in the aftermath of the accidental death of Jordan "Buck" Jarrett and his brother Conrad's subsequent suicide attempt. Conrad, Calvin, and Beth Jarrett struggle throughout the novel to cope with these tragedies.
The story begins with Con making an appointment with his new outpatient psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, after having been released from a mental hospital. It is evident in the first chapter that Con is still struggling with anxiety and depression. He feels alienated from family, friends, and teachers, as well as from his former self. He resents his obligations to the swim team and to his former friendships, and he feels at peace only when singing with the choir. Con's journey back to health is one of the main themes of Ordinary People. Through his relationships with Dr. Berger and Jeannine Pratt, Con begins to express his repressed emotions, to find reconciliation with his parents, and to recover from the survivor's guilt he feels over his brother's death. He learns to accept his failures, his anxieties, and his fears and to act positively in spite of them. He also learns to accept others' limitations. The turning point for Con is when his friend Karen kills herself, unleashing a flood of guilt in him. In his meeting with Dr. Berger, he...
(The entire section is 1299 words.)
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Though one of the principal characters in Ordinary People, Beth remains a somewhat shadowy character throughout the novel. The reader is only given impressions of her through the perceptions of Calvin and Conrad Jarrett. Beth is described as a perfectionist, and this perfectionism does not allow for forgiveness. She sees Con's suicide attempt as a punishment directed at her, and she cannot recognize or understand Con's emotional problems. Her mysteriousness and inconsistency draw Cal to her, but it also makes it impossible for them to work out the problems in their relationship because Beth will not communicate her feelings. Cal realizes by the end of the story that she cannot accept Buck's death and wants their lives to be like they were before the accident and Con's hospitalization. Because this is impossible, she distances herself from Cal, blaming him for becoming depressed about what has happened to their family and changing into a different person. Cal sees that Beth's perfectionism and practicality function to cover up her fears about losing control. Con realizes that Beth's overbearing mother, Ellen, has probably caused her to become a private person, but Beth herself is unwilling or unable to understand herself or express her emotions. Cal and Con must therefore reconcile themselves to her loss when she leaves after Cal suggests a marriage counselor. Both Cal and Con still love Beth, but they are forced to recognize her limitations.
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Calvin Jarrett is the father in the Jarrett family in Ordinary People, and like the rest of the surviving family members, he is also struggling with grief over his son Buck's death. For Cal, this struggle is particularly hard because he felt isolated during his childhood, growing up in an orphanage and only becoming a successful tax attorney through the support of his mentor, Arnold Bacon. Cal's relationship with Bacon ended after he met his wife, Beth, because he could not balance his needs between the two people he loved. Cal experiences a similar situation when he attempts to mediate between Beth and their son, Con. Cal sees himself as a "fence-sitter" and is afraid to recognize that Beth and Con are on opposite sides of the fence. Cal's concern for Con is intensified after Con tries to commit suicide, while Beth sees Con's attempt as a punishment directed at her. The difference in their approaches to Con's emotional problems ultimately leads to Cal and Beth's separation, but this is also caused by Cal's recognition of his own needs, which are not being met by his wife. Cal's desire to have a family of his own after a childhood spent in relative isolation has caused him to ignore his own needs in order to keep peace in the family. After Buck dies and Con is hospitalized, the hidden conflicts in the family become impossible to ignore, and Cal finds that he cannot turn to Beth for comfort, that the family members have become isolated in their grief. Cal's...
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Conrad Jarrett is at the center of Ordinary People, which begins on the day he makes an appointment with his therapist. Con's suicide attempt m the wake of his brother Buck's death after a boating accident lands him in a mental hospital, where he is given electric shock treatment for severe depression. When he is finally released from the hospital, he feels alienated from family, friends, and teachers, as well as from his former self. He resents his obligations to the swim team and to his former friendships, and he feels at peace only when singing with the choir. Con's journey back to health is one of the main themes of Ordinary People. Through his relationships with Dr. Berger and Jeannine Pratt, Conrad begins to express his repressed emotions, to find reconciliation with his parents, and to recover from the survivor's guilt he feels over his brother's death. He learns to accept his failures, his anxieties, and his fears and to act positively in spite of them. He also learns to accept others' limitations. The turning point for Con is when his friend Karen kills herself, unleashing a flood of guilt in him. In his meeting with Dr. Berger, he realizes that he is not responsible for the deaths of either Buck or Karen, and that it is okay to be himself. His relationship with his mother is less easily resolved. When his parents separate, she leaves without saying good-bye. Con feels intense anger and disappointment about this, but with Berger's help, he...
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Karen Aldrich is Conrad Jarrett's friend from the mental hospital. When they meet after they are released, Con feels ashamed that he's seeing a therapist while she is not. Karen tells him that she doesn't really know him, suggesting that their closeness has evaporated as Karen struggles to repress the difficulties that landed her in the hospital. Her subsequent successful suicide attempt pushes Con to the breaking point, as waves of grief and guilt wash over him. When he finally sees Dr. Berger, Con is able to use the intense grief he feels over Karen's and Buck's deaths in order to begin to heal.
Though he does not actually appear in Ordinary People, Arnold Bacon is an important figure in Cal Jarrett's past. Bacon mentored Cal through college and law school, but he withdrew his support when Cal married Beth. Bacon is Cal's first true experience with loss, and Cal's inability to balance his relationships with Bacon and Beth is duplicated when he tries to mediate between Beth and Con.
Dr. Berger is the psychiatrist who is Conrad Jarrett's therapist. Gentle and eccentric, he lies on the floor with his patients during therapy sessions because he does not have a couch. His language is typically teasing and humorous, and his attitude stands in sharp contrast to the controlled and tortured Con. Berger gets Con to realize that the...
(The entire section is 1133 words.)