Ordinary People (Magill's Literary Annual 1977)
Conrad Jarrett, unable to understand why he survived a boating accident in which his older brother Buck drowned, slits his wrists, spends eight months in a mental hospital and, as the novel opens, arrives home perhaps in only slightly better mental and emotional shape then when he left on a stretcher.
Judith Guest’s first novel, Ordinary People is set in a Chicago suburb, Lake Forest, near Northwestern University. But the specific location is superfluous. It could be any suburban town, perhaps any family in modern America. Guest attempts to portray the turmoil and guilt an average suburban family experiences following the drowning death of their oldest son, Jordan (Buck) Jarrett, and the near suicide of their other son, Conrad. Conrad, seventeen-year-old A-student, member of the high school choir and swim team, and avid golfer, feels guilt for surviving the boating accident that claimed Buck’s life, feels guilt for having lived, and so decides to die.
The novel deals not only with Conrad’s year-long recovery through counseling and his eight-month hospital stay, but also with the disintegration of the family. As Conrad understands and deals with his feelings and accepts his limitations, his parents, unable any longer to understand or to communicate with each other, separate. In addition, as Conrad returns to Lake Forest and reenters the world he left—school, choir, swimming—he confronts the typical reaction of people who look at him askance, questioning his stability, looking at the scars left on his wrists.
Judith Guest, a forty-one-year-old suburban Minneapolis housewife-turned-novelist, submitted her unsolicited manuscript for Ordinary People to Viking Press, and after waiting more than a year was notified that it had been accepted for publication. For the first time in twenty-seven years Viking accepted an over-the-transom manuscript that lacked even a query letter. Once accepted, the book, which took three years to write, quickly made the bestseller list, was placed on several book-of-the-month club lists, and was sold to Robert Redford for a movie. Guest, a former Michiganite, received a degree in education from the University of Michigan, taught elementary school for three years, and worked briefly as a reporter for a newspaper. Her brief sojourn with the newspaper was her only writing experience; she had no formal training while attending the University.
Each of the ordinary people in the novel is plagued by guilt. Conrad, who goes to Dr. T. C. Berger, the unpredictable modern psychiatrist, twice a week to learn “to be more in control,” blames himself for his brother’s death. He believes that his guilt contaminates everyone with whom he comes in contact. Events pile up, seemingly providing Conrad with support for his theory concerning himself. Not only does Buck, the stronger, older, idolized brother drown while Conrad, the weaker one, endures the ocean storm, clinging to the overturned dismasted sailboat and surviving, but also while in the mental hospital months later a fellow patient commits suicide by burning himself to death. Again Conrad believes that evil surrounds him and contaminates others when, after his release, a girl whom he met while in the hospital asphyxiates herself several months after her release. Conrad becomes convinced, as these events pile up, that he infects everyone he comes in contact with. He believes “all connections with him result in failure. Loss. Evil.”
The conflicts in the novel deal with guilt and its spread, especially among members of the Jarrett family, and with forgiveness. These conflicts are resolved when the protagonist recognizes, understands, and then sheds unnecessary guilt, realizing that punishment does not erase guilt, that depression is merely “reduction of feeling,” and that feeling and the expression of it is better than taking refuge, by controlling feeling.
Conrad, during a large part of the novel, has no self-love. In fact, he barely has a self, so confused has his identity become with his brother Buck’s. Buck was the idol whom he tried through their limited lifetime together to imitate even to the...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Guest, Judith. “How I Wrote Ordinary People.” Writer 120, no. 8 (August, 2007): 24-26. Details the genesis of the novel and Guest’s work on creating Conrad and Calvin’s perspectives.
_______. “Judith Guest: No Ordinary Talent.” Interview by Karen Reeves. Helicon Nine 4 (Spring, 1981): 30-37. Usefully details the process by which Guest wrote and published her novel, the elements of her own life within it, and the experience of adapting the book for the cinema.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times: Ordinary People.” The New York Times, July 16, 1976, p. 68. One of the first reviews of the book;...
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