Psychology plays a key role in the novel, as young Conrad Jarrett learns to express rather than repress his emotions with the help of a psychiatrist. In contrast, his mother Beth's inability to confront her feelings leads her to leave her husband Cal and son. Guest has been especially praised for her insight into the feelings and experiences of her adolescent male protagonist, Conrad. A 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. Unable to accept what has happened, Beth accuses others of changing, rather than understanding that their lives have been irrevocably changed. Cal's grief for Buck spurs his growing questions about his personal identity and his relationships with Beth and Con, as his tightly organized life has been shattered 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.
Closely linked to the theme of death and grief is the theme of atonement and forgiveness. Con is consumed by a 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. Beth and Cal must also struggle to forgive Con, and Con must struggle to forgive them. Con realizes that although his mother has not forgiven him, his anger towards her indicates...
(The entire section is 833 words.)