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. He feels alienated from family, friends, and teachers, as well as from his former self. He resents his obligations to the swim team and to his former friendships, and he feels at peace only when singing with the choir. Con's journey back to health is one of the main themes of Ordinary People. Through his relationships with Dr. Berger and Jeannine Pratt, Con begins to express his repressed emotions, to find reconciliation with his parents, and to recover from the survivor's guilt he feels over his brother's death. He learns to accept his failures, his anxieties, and his fears and to act positively in spite of them. He also learns to accept others' limitations. The turning point for Con is when his friend Karen kills herself, unleashing a flood of guilt in him. In his meeting with Dr. Berger, he realizes that he is not responsible for the deaths of either Buck or Karen, and that it is okay to be himself. His relationship with his mother is less easily resolved. When his parents separate, she leaves without saying good-bye. Con feels intense anger and disappointment about this, but with Berger's help, he tries to accept that she loves him as much as she is able to. The Epilogue shows that Con's final lesson is learning that his mother does indeed love him, and that he loves her. His alienation is assuaged, and his relationships with family and friends are renewed by the end of the novel.
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. This struggle is particularly hard for Cal because of the isolation he felt during his own childhood, growing up in an orphanage and only becoming a successful tax attorney through the support of his mentor, Arnold Bacon. Cal's relationship with Bacon ended after he met his wife, Beth, because he could not balance his needs between the two people he loved. Cal experiences a similar situation when he attempts to mediate between Beth and their son, Con. Cal sees himself as a "fence-sitter" and is afraid to admit that Beth and Con are on opposite sides of the fence. Cal's concern for Con is intensified after Con tries to commit suicide, while Beth sees Con's attempt as a punishment directed at her. The difference in their approaches to Con's emotional problems ultimately leads to Cal and Beth's separation, but this is also caused by Cal's recognition of his own needs, which are not being met by his wife. Cal's desire to have a family of his own after a childhood spent in relative isolation has caused him to ignore his own needs in order to keep peace in the family. After Buck dies and Con is hospitalized, the hidden conflicts in the family become impossible to ignore, and Cal finds that he cannot turn to Beth for comfort,...
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that the family members have become isolated in their grief. Cal's efforts to hold the family together are futile, but the novel ends on a note of reconciliation between Cal and Con. Cal finds his own voice and expresses his feelings for the first time, rather than being over solicitous toward Con, as he has done throughout the novel.
The third major character in Ordinary People is Beth. However, her character remains somewhat indistinct throughout the novel. This is because the reader is only given impressions of her through the perceptions of Calvin and Conrad Jarrett. Beth is described as a perfectionist, and this perfectionism does not allow for forgiveness. She sees Con's suicide attempt as a punishment directed at her, and she cannot recognize or understand Con's emotional problems. Her mysteriousness and inconsistency draw Cal to her. But, because Beth will not communicate her feelings, it also makes it impossible for them to work out the problems in their relationship. Cal realizes by the end of the story that she cannot accept Buck's death and wants their lives to be like they were before the accident and Con's hospitalization. Because this is impossible, she distances herself from Cal, blaming him for becoming depressed about what has happened to their family and changing into a different person. Cal sees that Beth's perfectionism and practicality function to cover up her fears about losing control. Con realizes that Beth's overbearing mother, Ellen, has probably caused her to become a private person, but Beth herself is unwilling or unable to understand herself or express her emotions. Cal and Con must therefore reconcile themselves to her loss when she leaves after Cal suggests a marriage counselor. Both Cal and Con still love Beth, but they are forced to recognize her limitations.
Toward the end of the book Con has established a relationship with Jeanine. Both are drawn to each other by their shared struggles with depression and difficulties with family relationships. Con's strength and commitment are tested, however, when he finds out that Karen, another friend from school, has committed suicide. His guilt and grief over the deaths of Karen and Buck threaten to overwhelm him. However, with Dr. Berger's help, Con is able to finally express the pain he feels rather than trying to control it, and feels a sense of release, just had Berger had been predicting throughout their relationship. As he tells Con, "people with stiff upper lips find it hard to smile."
As Con's story climaxes with his expression of pain and anger, Beth and Cal's story also reaches its climax, as they fight over Con's problems. Beth says that she will never forgive Con for his suicide attempt, and admits that she can only see it in terms of how it affects her, saying that she cannot love him the way he wants her to. Cal realizes Con's breakdown has done something terrible to Beth. Though Cal knows that some action must be taken, he is afraid to face the reality of the marriage's impending breakup. They argue nightly, and their love is not enough to rescue the relationship. Beth leaves for a trip to Europe without saying good-bye to Con, and when he Con's suicide expresses bitterness, Cal gets angry with him, no longer metaphorically sitting on the fence. Cal realizes that Beth wants things to be like they were before Buck's death and Con's breakdown, and her inability to come to terms with these losses has destroyed the marriage. When Con tells Cal he is not at all disappointed with Cal's love for him, father and son embrace.
The novel ends with an epilogue after Con has said good-bye to Dr. Berger. He stops by his friend Lazenby's house in an attempt to repair their friendship, which has been torn apart by their mutual grief for Buck. Con remembers having found all his old school drawings when he and Cal moved, and he realizes that his mother would not have kept them so carefully if they did not mean anything to her. As Con and Lazenby go off to play golf, the novel ends on a note of optimism for Con and his relationships with others.