Grief and Sorrow
One principal theme of Ordinary People is grief over a loved one's death. As Beth, Cal, and Con struggle to cope with Buck's fatal accident, they turn inward, causing conflicts within the family. It is only after Con comes to terms with his guilt that he is able to grieve for Buck and to realize that he is not responsible. Con's journey toward good mental health is contrasted with Beth, who never manages to deal with her sorrow Beth is unable to accept what has happened and accuses others of changing rather than understanding that their lives have irrevocably changed. Cal's grief for Buck underlies his growing questions about his identity and his relationships with Beth and Con, as his tightly organized life has been ripped apart by the tragedy. Buck's carefree charm makes his loss that much harder for the family to accept, as his belief that he would live forever and his physical vitality convinced everyone that he would indeed live a long time. It is only when the other family members realize that there is no good explanation for Buck's loss, and no lesson to be learned from his death, that they can begin to mourn.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Closely linked to the theme of grief is the theme of atonement and forgiveness. Con is consumed by survivor's guilt over Buck's death; he feels that he should have been the one to die so that Buck could live. Though Con apologizes repeatedly for the boating accident that killed Buck, he never apologizes for his suicide attempt, and his parents must also struggle to forgive Con. Con realizes that although his mother has not forgiven him, his anger towards her indicates his lack of forgiveness for her and his refusal to accept her limitations. Cal's recognition of Beth's limitations is a milestone for him, but Beth cannot do the same. When she and Cal fight in Texas, she tells Cal that she will never forgive Con for the "bloody, vicious thing" he has done, which she feels was Con's way of punishing her. Beth does not have a capacity to forgive, and this makes a...
(The entire section is 851 words.)