Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Illinois, Conrad Jarrett is preparing for school. The seventeen-year-old joins his parents, Calvin and Beth, for breakfast, during which they exchange uncomfortable small talk. It is one month to the day since Conrad returned from a mental institution. He was institutionalized after he tried to kill himself following the accidental drowning of his older brother, Buck.
Conrad rides to school with several friends; he feels out of place in English class, and his swim coach alludes tactlessly to Conrad’s experiences in the mental hospital. Conrad feels less guarded and uncomfortable only in chorus class. When Conrad comes home, he and his mother engage in a brief, strained verbal exchange.
Beth recommends to Cal that they take a Christmas trip to London, which makes Cal uncomfortable since he not only is worried about Conrad but also is grieving silently over Buck’s death. As part of his recovery from clinical depression, Conrad begins psychotherapy with Dr. Berger. He reveals that his brother drowned in a boating accident, confesses his own suicide attempt using razor blades, and announces that he wants to be in better control of his emotions and his life.
Conrad meets Karen, a friend from the mental institution. He learns that, far from experiencing his awkwardness and discomfort, she is very happily involved in her school. At a neighbor’s dinner party, Cal angers Beth by...
(The entire section is 848 words.)
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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.
In Chapter Two, the narrator switches to Cal's perspective. It is clear that Con and Beth' s relationship is a strained one, while Cal is torn between both of them. Like Con, Cal finds Beth unknowable and distant, but he romanticizes this quality in her, even when they disagree over whether or not to go away for Christmas, as they do in Chapter Four. Cal's insistence that the family not travel during Christmas because of Con's mental and emotional state is a decision which will cause tension in the family in later chapters. Cal and Beth's mutual grief over Buck's death is not mentioned, as they both struggle to control, rather than express, their grief. This desire for control is echoed by Con in Chapter Five, when he tells Berger that he wants to feel more in control. Berger's...
(The entire section is 1376 words.)