Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
Born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan, Judith Guest graduated from the University of Michigan and got married in 1958. She taught briefly and began to write when her three sons were in school, turning three early short stories into her first novel. Ordinary People had the distinction of being the first unsolicited manuscript to be published by Viking Press in some twenty-six years; it became a best seller. Actor Robert Redford, impressed by this sensitive and realist novel, chose Ordinary People as the basis for his first directorial effort; the 1980 film adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1981.
Ordinary People captures brilliantly and honestly the reality of a modern family. The character of Conrad, whose adolescent angst degenerates into self-destructive clinical depression after a tragic accident interrupts his life, is compellingly drawn. The life-giving relationship between Dr. Berger and Conrad is beautifully explored, as is Calvin’s gradual metamorphosis into a deeply empathic father. Readers see Beth through the other characters’ eyes rather than through her own, heightening the mystery of how she, despite being raised in a “good” home, becomes coldly obsessed with predictability.
Through the effective use of such narrative devices as flashback and interior monologue, Guest enables readers to see into the lives and minds of her major characters. The juxtaposition of present-day events with brief, focused flashback scenes elucidates and sharpens the background and context for the characters’ present words and feelings. Moreover, readers are concurrently presented with characters’ external conversations and their contrasting interior monologues, which often reveal the characters’ true feelings.
Guest’s stylistic devices underscore a primary theme in Ordinary People: the extreme complexity and difficulty of communication. Words are supposed to facilitate and clarify, not obstruct, communication. Of Buck’s death, Guest writes that the euphemism “deceased” is “a symbol . . . without power to hurt, or to heal.” At a dinner party, a country club, and family gatherings, Guest shows the ways in which ritualized cliché and small talk are attractive for Beth because they avoid truth, while they are annoying to Cal for the very same reason. “Why is this always so hard? The first time you talk to somebody,” quips Jeanine after she and Conrad try to communicate over the loud television, her intrusive brother, and their own awkwardness. Guest writes, “The distance between people. In miles. In time. In thought. Staggering when you think about it . . . Communication. The bridge between the distances.” Conrad’s intense sessions with Dr. Berger prove that honest, uncontaminated communication is difficult yet ultimately healing and life-giving.
The importance of Ordinary People in literature derives in part from its portrayal of the stark reality of the modern American family. The media of the 1950’s and early 1960’s portrayed family life as neat, predictable, and safe, devoid of unexpected tragedy. It effaced divorce, emotional dysfunction, and substance abuse. In 1976, Ordinary People powerfully demonstrated that real families, far from perfect, are often composed of parents and children who do not know themselves or one another.
Calvin Jarrett’s attempts to be a good father are colored by the fact that he was orphaned at age eleven. As an adult, he completes the statement, “I’m the kind of man who—” with, “hasn’t the least idea what kind of man I am.” He marries Beth, whom he describes as “a marvelous mystery.” In response to a comment that Conrad is not his “old self,” Calvin asks, “And who was that?”
Rather than learning who he really is, Conrad follows his suicide attempt by striving to recapture his former self—unknown to him—by choosing to maintain control rather than facing his emotions. Even Karen, Conrad’s closest friend in the mental hospital, says, “I don’t really know you, Con.” Virtually emotionless and self-possessed, Beth is a compulsive perfectionist, despite the terrible damage it does to her family. Guest powerfully illustrates that with such a weak foundation, unexpected tragedy, such as an accidental death and a suicide attempt, will tear a modern family apart.
Ordinary People explores agonizing loss and the grieving process. Early on, Calvin believes that dealing with grief is “simply the stubborn mindless hanging on until it’s over,” yet later he realizes that grieving is an active and courageous process. “Why can’t we ever talk about it?” he asks. A self-confessed “emotional cripple,” Beth grieves by imploding and shutting down emotionally, whereas Conrad’s active grieving, with Berger’s help, leads him to accept himself, as well as life’s imperfections and unpredictability.
Judith Guest’s great-uncle, poet Edgar A. Guest, was known as the “peoples’ poet” because he wrote for ordinary people. Everyone is an ordinary person, struggling with life’s extraordinary events because they threaten the comfortable but false perception that life is ordered, neat, and predictable. Such shocking challenges must be faced directly to be seen for what they are (“Guilt is not punishment . . . ” Guest writes. “Guilt is simply guilt”). Otherwise, negative eneregy will either be turned inward, destroying the self in implosion, or explode outward, inflicting pain cruelly onto others. Ordinary People shows its subjects surviving life’s unexpected tragedies by eliminating barriers within themselves and between one another; embracing their imperfect, unpredictable lives; and choosing to live bravely, open to life’s triumphs and tragedies.
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