What is the historical context behind Ordinary People? In other words, what was happening during this time in the world that may have influenced the novel?   

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kimberleemay eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ordinary People, by Judity Guest, was published almost thirty-six years ago in July of 1976; its pubication coincided with our Nation's Bicentenial.

Ordinary People was Judith Guest's first novel quickly earning her critical acclaim; Robert Redford directed the movie version of it in 1980. Unfortunately, none of her subsequent novels ever lived up to the success of her first novel.

The novel takes place during the late 1970s and focuses on Calvin Jarrett's family. Calvin and his wife Beth have two sons, their eldest Buck, who is not only Beth's favorite, but is also extremely popular at school, and their youngest son Conrad, who looks up to his big brother. Although the Jarretts live a financially privileged life, their family becomes a dysfunctional family a year before the story begins. 

Buck and Conrad were boating when Buck died in an accident; Conrad, who cannot stop blaming himself for the death of his brother, becomes  so emotionally distraught that he attempts to kill himself by slashing his wrists in the family bathtub. Calvin, after finding Conrad alive in the tub, has him hospitalized in a mental hospital.

The story takes begins about a month after Conrad is released from the hospital, while he is physically cured, he is still emotionally distraught and cannot stop blaming himself for the death of Buck. At his father's request, Conrad begins to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger only to appease his worried father. 

The late 1970s saw an increase in psychotherapy for adults, teenagers and adolescents. Although we know very little of what Conrad's therapy consisted of in the hospital, we witness Conrad's journey from Dr. Berger's unwilling patient--ncapable of forgiving himself for the boating accident and ridding himself of his survivor's guilt. This controversial idea of teenage psychoanalysis was preiminent during the 1970s, Ordinary People helped psychoanalysis become more acepted.

Two other events, that are entertwined with teenage therapy is teen suicide and depression. According to the CDC, "Between 1970 and 1980, 49,496 of the nation's youth (15-24 years of age) committed suicide. The suicide rate for this age group increased 40% (from 8.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 1970 to 12.3/100,000 in 1980), while the rate for the remainder of the population remained stable. Young adults (20-24 years of age) had approximately twice the number and rate of suicides as teenagers (15-19 years old)," (see link for more detailed information).

Depression is another historical issue that is depcited in Ordinary People. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Strategy for Suicide Prevention and the Masssachusetts Alliance of Samaritan Suicide Prevention Services (see link), "-Since 1970, teen/youth sucide rates have tripled."

Finally, one of the last historical issues brought to prominence in Guest's novel is the stark diference between the privileged lives of suburban teenagers as compared to the inner cities. Not only are these privileged teenagers who you would think have everything they could ask for, there's also the irony that living in the suburbs ( considered much safer places than the inner cities to raise children ) is a fallacy. While the Jarretts appear to be the perfect family, they are anything but.