Ordinary People Characters
by Judith Guest

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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, 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...

(The entire section is 1,299 words.)