Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1691
In both the style and the content of Ordinary People, Judith Guest is concerned with issues of perspective. Perspective refers here to both point of view and the capacity to view things as they truly are. Throughout the story, these two definitions of perspective are in conflict, and the characters are struggling to discover their own points of view as well as seeing the outside world, and their relation to it, more clearly.
The style of Ordinary People, appropriately enough, is one in which perspectives shift. We are given the perspectives of Conrad Jarrett, a troubled adolescent, and Calvin Jarrett, his father, in more-or-less alternating chapters. Guest uses a third-person narrator, rather than a character in the story, to relate both Con and Cal's thoughts and actions. The narrator never presents us with the thoughts of Beth Jarrett, the third major character in the story, and so the reader sees her only through the different perspectives of Cal, who doesn't know her but romanticizes her mystery and beauty, and Con, who is as private as his mother but feels both anger and longing for her. As some critics have noted, Beth's motivations remain shadowy to the reader, and so the reader is never sure what she really feels or thinks, except through the perceptions of her husband and her son, or through Beth's dialogue in the story.
Because the focus of the novel shifts back and forth between Con and Cal, it becomes clear that each man's difficulties with gaining a sense of identity are different. Con is struggling throughout to see things in their true relations rather than simply from his own point of view, and Cal is struggling to understand what his own point of view is. Though each man is trying to come to terms with the grief and guilt that he feels over Buck Jarrett's death and Con's subsequent suicide attempt, as well as trying to establish a positive identity, these private struggles are inevitably complicated by their relationships with others, particularly with Beth. Thus both Con and Cal are trying to balance their own needs with those of other people.
Con's initial perspective, then, is one of extreme isolation. He has just been released from a mental hospital, and the day on which the story opens is a "Target Day" in his recovery: he is to meet with an outpatient psychiatrist for the first time. Con's relationship with Dr. Berger is one in which he is struggles to learn how to safely express his feeling and to gain a sense of perspective by understanding the perspectives of others and their relationship to him. The following passage illustrates how Berger tries to get Con to see things from a different, or broader, perspective by getting him to see the motivations of others. The scene occurs after Con has had a fight with Beth, then realized in therapy the extent of his anger, and his lack of forgiveness for her inability to take care of him.
Reclining on an elbow on the floor, Berger doodles on a scratch pad with his silver pen. Conrad sits beside him, his back against the wall, knees up, holding a cup of coffee in his hands "Jesus, am I tired," he says.
"Yeah, well, that's a helluva big secret you've been keeping on yourself," Berger says "So what do I do now?"
"Well, you've done it, haven't you? Revelation: She's not perfect. Recognize her limitations."
"You mean, like she can't love me."
"Like she can't love you enough. Like she loves you as much as she's able. Perspective, kiddo, remember? Maybe she's afraid, maybe it's hard for her to give love."
Here Con is beginning to be able to see other people as they really are, rather than seeing them only from his point of view. A similar scene of recognition occurs when Con suddenly realizes that the reason his mother is quiet in airports and other public places is because she is afraid of strangers; he is beginning to understand that her actions originate from her emotions, that she, like him, has an internal life that drives her external behavior.
Con's difficulty with perspective is most apparent in the guilt he feels over his brother's death. He cannot see Buck's drowning from Buck's perspective, only from his own. It is only when his friend Karen kills herself that he is able to come to terms with Buck's death and the fact that Buck's inability to hold on and wait for help to arrive was not Con's fault. When, in Chapter Seven, Con met with Karen, he was unable to see things from her perspective, or understand that she, too, was suffering from depression or anxiety, which she tried to hide. Instead, he felt ashamed when she told him she had stopped seeing a counselor, because only she could help herself and solve her problems. Through his relationship with his counselor, Con is able to find a sense of perspective, Karen, on the other hand, later commits suicide. When she dies, Con is stricken with guilt and grief, which brings back his memories and feelings about his brother's death. It is only after Berger makes him see that Buck drowned because of his own physical or mental limitations and not because it was Con's fault, that Con can begin to heal.
If Con's quest throughout the novel is to find a clearer sense of the true relations of things, to recognize the perspectives of others, Cal's quest is the opposite: he is trying to locate his own point of view, his own perspective. When he goes to talk to Dr. Berger, he describes himself as a fence-sitter, and he makes a tentative realization that Con and Beth are on opposite sides of the fence on which he sees himself sitting; after saying this, he immediately takes it back because he is afraid to acknowledge the conflict between Beth and Con. Later, after his visit with Berger stirs up old memories, Cal remembers another situation in which he felt conflicted: the time when he was forced to choose between his mentor and Beth.
Throughout the novel, Cal attempts to mediate between Con and Beth, and his own point of view is lost. When he and Beth go to Dallas, and they fight bitterly, Cal repeats to her something that Con has also said to her. When she tells him not to quote Con, he realizes that he is not quoting Con, that he is quoting himself, that he too has been angry with Beth for her inability to communicate her emotions with him. He realizes that he has needed her to get through his own grief, and she has not been there for him, because she is unwilling to come to terms with Buck's death. Her addiction to her own sense of privacy makes it impossible for them to relate as a couple; she remains a stranger to him. Beth herself recognizes that she is only able to see things from her own point of view. She finally tells Cal later how she feels about Con's suicide attempt:
"Don't you understand what he was saying?" she asks "He was saying 'Look! Look what you made me do!'"
"Why?" he asks. "Why was he saying that?"
"I don't know! I wish I knew!" She sobs, and then her voice is calm, more subdued, and she speaks slowly, "I just know how people try to manipulate other people."
"Oh God, Beth, I don't believe that! I don't believe that he went all that way to try to manipulate us! What happened—what he did—he did it to himself! Can't you see anything except in terms of how it affects you?"
"No! Neither can you! Neither does anybody else! Only, maybe I'm more honest than the rest of you, maybe I'm more willing to recognize that I do it."
Here, Beth can recognize that she is trapped in her own point of view, but she cannot recognize Con's point of view or what has motivated him other than a desire to hurt her. Con has tried to get a better sense of other perspectives through his relationships with others, but Beth cannot do this. As for Cal, he can only find his own perspective when he stops mediating between the perspectives of Con and Beth, and allows himself to speak to them from his own perspective. He is able to tell Beth that he is angry with her for not worrying enough about Conrad and to tell Con that neither he nor Con is an authority on Beth's thoughts, feelings, or actions. Because Cal is able to gain a sense of his own identity, he is able to communicate with Con in a more honest way, and Con is able to relate to Cal better because he is not so trapped in his own perspective. In the epilogue, Con even makes a gesture toward forgiving and accepting Beth's limitations, knowing that there is love between them even if it is only as much as they are both capable of expressing.
With its emphasis on relationships, personal identity, and the ways in which, emotions and experience shape our perceptions, Ordinary People is clearly a psychological novel. Guest uses the psychological principles of emotional expression, honest communication, identity formation and professional counseling in order to drive the development of the characters, which in turn provides a framework for the plot, as the characters cope with memories and current crises. The narrator's access into the thoughts and feelings of two of the characters means that much of the plot is internal, occurring within the characters' minds. Through her use of psychological principles as the characters struggle with them, Guest provides a kind of blueprint to readers for relating, grieving, and healing. Through Guest's use of shifting perspectives, and the conflict between self and others implicit in the double meaning of "perspective," the author shows her readers how hard these processes can be, even though her conclusion is hopeful.
Source: Jean Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Dougherty is a doctoral candidate at Tufts University.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2721
[When] a book like Ordinary People creates a fuss [because of censorship attempts], we need to make a case for it, to show that it will enrich its readers and enhance the educational environment instead of detracting from it. Can such a case be made? Of course, and a strong one. Once made, will it prevail? Well—it might or it might not. One would like to assume that the right to discretionary access carries with it the responsibility to make judgments based on a reasonably thorough consideration of a book's merits, not simply whimsy or bias However, no one seems to relish being reminded of responsibilities, although humanists do what they can to restore that equilibrium between right and responsibility. The efforts may be fruitless, but we might remember the story of a sage who saved a scorpion from drowning in a stream. The scorpion instinctively stung the hand that had helped it and scurried back into the stream. The sage saved him again and again, and was stung each time for his efforts. A passerby, his curiosity piqued, asked the sage why he persisted in saving the scorpion. Didn't he realize the insect would keep stinging him? Replied the sage, "The scorpion stings because it is his nature." "But then why do you help him?" asked the observer. "I help him because that is my nature," answered the sage.
First, instead of praising this book, let's look at the worst in it. Let's lean on it hard and inventory its controversial points in a ruthless biased summary.
Ordinary People, Judith Guest. The trauma as a suicidal teenager struggles for normalcy, while his parents move toward divorce. Uses obscene language, sexual scenes, nudity and violence. Includes grim representations of adolescent depression, suicide and psychosis. Contains unresolved pessimism and disillusionment.
Obviously this book would serve no purpose in the primary classrooms. But where do we go from here? What would particular groups object to? A short taxonomy of objectors may outline the problems the book presents. The five groups here identified do not encompass all objections. They represent the most salient:
The first three groups tend to be the most whimsical and adamant: they need to be outvoted. The last two groups are receptive to argument and will enter into dialogue. But the substantial rationale behind their convictions makes them formidable discussants.
First of all, the Fetishists, the "booger-hunters." They will object categorically to one thing or another and let that objection harpoon the whole book They will not compromise; all they need to know is that the word, situation, action, or relationship occurs, and the book is out—unless the objectionable parts are excised. From a censorship perspective, they're easily pleased: omit this word or that scene, bowdlerize the script, and all is well.
Ordinary People, it must be admitted, does provide grist for the fetishists. It does use a few four-letter words. Although it lacks the blase tour-de-force a la Henry Miller, it does not have the antiseptic diction of a Tom Swift novel. Nor would it suffer greatly if the objectionable language were removed. The question is, why do so? What harm could be done? The language would be titillating only to a grade school child delighted to see the forbidden words in print. Older readers would respond to the language in terms of its intention: to highlight the emotional state of the person using them. A similar rationale could be made for the scenes, but fetishists don't respond to rationales, so the effort is purely for the eavesdropping allies on both sides, the principle involved, and to evoke a sense of righteousness that humanists delight in as much as Fetishists.
Next, the Monkey Sees. These assume that children will imitate selectively what they read and invariably model undesirable over virtuous behavior. There may be a germ of truth here Huck Finn's penchant for corncob pipes inspired my own experience with smoking. But Ordinary People offers very little to imitate. Suicide? 24-hour-a-day depression? Guest presents these with no glamour, no allure, no factor of temptation. The harshness with which she presents her study argues for the book as a warning against the moods it explores.
The Ostriches. An endangered species who exclude certain moods and themes from any kind of consideration These might well react to the depression and stress throughout the book by wishing their portrayal to disappear. This helps them ignore what they do not want to admit exists. They haven't experienced similar situations, nor do they see any point in contemplating them. To their extent of receptivity, this group can be answered in the same way as the next.
In these next two groups, the nature of the objections shifts. The arguments are more articulated and broader in perspective. The logic is often sound, but the assumptions create the controversy.
The Dominoes. They will admit all the merits of the book, they have no objection to it, and may even agree that it should be in the library or school. However, they fear the precedent the presence of the book will establish. They assume, and with some cause, that when a door opens for one, it's difficult to close it for others. The difficulty in responding to this is that a historical continuum exists from Ulysses to Hustler, from Lolita to child pornography. Here is where the negotiation and discussion play their strongest role. Apologists for a given book should make clear that acceptance of one book does not guarantee admission of another. A separate rationale must be put forward on the merits of each document; we need to be ready with an apologia when the need arises.
Last of all, the Catchers-of-the-Raw, or Holden Caulfields These people understand and acknowledge the reality of the sensitive material portrayed in a given work but wish to guard their children from such matters as depressing experiences and sordid reality. It's a losing battle, of course, but theirs is a delaying action, not a decisive one. Yet given the inevitability of actual encounters with the sharp edges of experience, a work like Ordinary People can serve as a buffer that informs and actually protects—a quality of threshold literature, which prepares the sensibility through imagination for what it will soon encounter in experience.
And granted that the book does deal with depression and the more visceral moments in life, it redeems itself from being a depressing book in several ways. It makes severe depression less intimidating by examining it and revealing it as a normal reaction to abnormally stressful situations. There is even a triumph over depression, an affirmation of the reservoir of human strength. During an unexpected acceleration of his despondency, Conrad makes contact with this sense of affirmation after his analyst clarifies emotional impotence with this observation.
Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling. People who keep stiff upper lips find that it's damn hard to smile.
Simple, straightforward advice—enough to turn the tide in Conrad's favor.
In this book people survive, endure, and mature—despite the death of the elder son, the attempted suicide of Conrad, the atrophy of Calvin and Bern's marriage. Its theme conveys the positive implication that we can survive problems, even though we may not be able to solve them. There is even a qualified "happy" ending in this endurance, an ending which ironically constitutes the major fault of the novel in that the depression gets resolved too easily. The guilt that has prompted Conrad's suicide attempt and plagued him through the novel gets neutralized in that fairly easy scene with the analyst. The answer is a bit too pat, and although the alchemical transformation of Conrad's attitude doesn't quite approach Dumbo's realization that he can fly without the feather, it's from the same school of thought—one the "catchers" always commend.
It's always gratifying to respond to objectors such as those above. There is the sense of battle for a virtuous cause against a dangerous and substantial opposition. But one cannot rely on the defensive strategy of an apologia to make the best case-better to affirm the strong points first. And Ordinary People has plenty, but one stands out as particularly relevant.
Some works function as thresholds. They can lead a reader into an awareness and understanding of wider dimension of the human spirit, either by expressing a situation shared by the reader or by allowing insight into the kaleidoscopic variations of the human condition. There has been little threshold literature for young adults, even though the increasing stress and diversity of living almost demands it. We can see documentaries on such problems as teenage alcoholism and pregnancy and gain only surface knowledge of the problem. Where technology provides us with a window to the externals of the world, art must keep pace by its investigation of the inner domain. Books such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels illustrate what threshold literature is not—adventures of young adults, yet with no significant attention to how sensibilities change or mature with experience. Such stories could easily feature talking horses or bipedal Great Danes; cartoons can easily be made of them.
On the other hand, books such as those contributed by Judy Blume address the inner world, the world of emotions instead of events. Her work illustrates what threshold literature can do: create a controlled situation where the readers can encounter in fiction what they may soon experience in real situations, either as observers or participants.
Ordinary People also belongs in this category. It divides its focus between the subjective experiences of the son, Conrad, and the father, Calvin, and initiates the reader into the complementary perspectives of adolescence and maturity. Both perspectives give insight into the deserts that open up between people when they most need contact.
Teachers could well focus on Conrad as an entry-level persona. Although we would hope no reader shares his particular situation, his emotions are typical ones with which a reader could easily identify, and the motifs of his encounters are those that begin intruding into the hyperborean climate of most adolescent minds. We see the drawbacks to emotional independence—how it can lead to isolation and separation from the very forces that can heal its injuries. We also see how his awakened sense of history grows from guilt over the past to confidence in the future. The problems and tangles of evolving maturity receive insightful attention here, as do several others quite recognizable to the teenage reader: peer-pressure, school harassment, the struggle with emotions that emerge with ferocious intensity.
Although Conrad's material may be initially appealing to younger readers, Calvin's perspective may prove most enlightening. It allows them to experience the vulnerability of the adult mind, to enter a world they usually know only through a taciturn exterior. The veil of parental inaccessibility is lifted, and they can observe a correlation between the frustration and anxiety they experience and that which occurs in matured minds. While Conrad has his nest of hooks to sort out, Calvin has a similar batch. Their emotional odysseys follow roughly parallel courses. Conrad is involved with sports; Cal has his career.
Both feel the powerful influence of the past on present events.
Conrad must come to terms with the death of his brother; Calvin must deal with the breakup of his marriage. Calvin shows the adult mind charted: the relationship with a youth that Conrad has yet to encounter, the constant worry about family and career, the tragic sense of restriction in reaching out toward loved ones. The portrayal of these complementary sensibilities could well yield compassion for the younger, sympathy for the older.
The book abounds with similar entrances, and several general themes come to mind: that ordinary people often find themselves in unusually taxing situations which distort and amplify their emotions; that people in such struggles must not be seen as deviant types but representative types reacting to abnormal situations; that there is a certain haphazard nature in the universe of the human spirit, matters beyond the pat rational assumptions of post-Freudian analysis.
This all may be quite commendable stuff, but what about the questionable material exposed in the synopsis? At the risk of making an apologia for the book too simple, let me say that books of a certain style contain a built-in safety factor: they turn away any reader not mature enough to handle them. Ordinary People has this quality. There is nothing in it to gratify the thrill seeker. For one thing, the heavy emphasis on introspection and interior monologue generates a fairly static physical environment in order to highlight emotional dialectics. Conversation and reflection slow things down more. Most of the attention falls on the "housekeeping" aspects of life: the stress of school on Conrad, the complications of a career for Calvin.
And all of the episodes of sex and violence referred to in my synopsis are presented in a fairly discursive style, with little graphic focus. In fact, for a sexual scene between Calvin and Beth, the author ushers in language so oblique it could double as vocabulary suitable to describe a checkers match. And when Conrad and Jeannine have an intimate scene (very near the end of the book), the dialogue receives the emphasis. The entire scene serves to confirm the emerging optimism in Conrad and to strengthen him even after the news of a friend's suicide. So, if someone is looking for a book to appeal to or encourage prurient interest, Ordinary People holds only disappointment.
Each questionable scene has a similar explanation, and there are few such scenes, at that. In fact, if we cut out all the particular passages dealing with "sensitive" areas, they would lay out to a little over one of the book's 263 pages So yes, the situations are there, but this book derives from a different genus than The Valley of the Dolls.
However, this statistical approach is not quite fair to those who would object to elements of theme and mood. The book does explore some raw wounds in the human psyche, and some people may object to such a focus in reading material even for a secondary school audience. But objections of this sort often do a great injustice to the potential literature offers. The unacknowledged premise in such a criticism is that literature functions essentially as entertainment or escapism—emotionally safe stuff that can aid reading skills. This ignores literature's potential to create a threshold by which the reader can enter a wider expanse of the human topography and develop a more mature perspective through that vision.
Threshold books reveal one of good literature's finest characteristics. Some such books even attain the status of "classic." But strangely enough, their very utility as tools of insight subjects them to attack, such as has happened with Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, some books are never challenged: those that are infused with an irrelevance to a reader's personal situation and relationships. Many of the popular "classics" provide examples of this. They employ baroque, superbowl passions that engage us as awestruck observers, not emotionally involved participants. They're safe. Parents don't get into bitter debate with their children over the issues in Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick. Nor can anyone acquire credible insight into children's ingratitude from King Lear. We can appreciate occasional doses of inflated sentiments, however, because such experiences transport us away from the bothersome concerns of our lives. But we also need art that enters us as we are, that presents us with parameters of feeling we might actually have, with situations that we see as possible around us. As "ordinary people" we need words that can reveal insight into how we are, and where we are.
Ordinary People assays out to do that; it lacks the lofty level of intellectual melodrama possessed by the "safe" book, classic or otherwise, and that's the quality that justifies making it accessible to any heart it speaks to.
Source: Ron Neuhaus, "Threshold Literature: A Discussion of Ordinary People," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J Karolides, Lee Burress, John M Kean, eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1993, pp. 414-23.
Last Updated on June 12, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098
Fiction is full of exiles from ordinary life: stranded, marginal, baffled, sulking, deluded, or violent creatures. Indeed, some sort of snag or hitch or resistance, some lapse from expectations, is probably necessary to get any story started. If Odysseus had stayed at home, there would have been no Odyssey. This is obvious enough, but it does mean that fiction, and perhaps even narrative, can have very little hold on ordinary life, since ordinary life, like Idiaca, is what has to be abandoned at the outset. Judith Guest's Ordinary People, for example, is a rather bland and far from ironic novel, yet its title hints at a complicated irony. On the one hand, the book suggests, there are no ordinary people; people are all extraordinary in their way, both finer and feebler than we think. And on the other hand, ordinary people are what we may become, if we can conquer our fear of being extraordinary. In a novel, that fear has to-be acted out. In Ordinary People, it is the novel, the trace of a season of exile.
The source of the fear is an attempted suicide and an earlier accidental death. There is an actual suicide in The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, there is insanity and multiple death in The Comatose Kids, and there is a descent into hideous humiliation in The Geek. I don't take all this violence and deviation as a sign of our troubled times, or even as a sign of troubled writing minds. But I do take it as a cry for attention, a message from these writers as writers. There is a story here, the message says, watch us leave ordinary life behind. The message may reflect the youth or relative inexperience of the writers, an assumed or feared deafness in American publishers, creating the need for narrative shouts, or a more generally embattled quality in contemporary fiction, fighting off the claims of biography and transcendental meditation. Perhaps it reflects all three in different proportions in different cases. What interests me is the noise the message makes, the worry about normality that it implies.
This worry, as I have said, is the overt subject of Ordinary People. Conrad Jarrett, almost eighteen, has tried to kill himself, and has been in the hospital. The novel recounts his readjustment to school, friends, girls, father, mother, himself. He sheds a lot of his anxiety, weathers the suicide of a girl who was released from the hospital along with him, and comes to terms with his brother's death by drowning, which led him to the attempt on his own life. How could he, the second, less perfect brother, go on living when the paragon had given up, lost his will to live, and let go of the boat they were both hanging on to in the stormy lake? Above all, he comes to accept his mother's apparent failure to forgive him for slashing his wrists, and his own failure to forgive her for not loving him more. It is true that she has now left his father, because he seemed to be cracking up under the strain of his concern for his son, but Conrad has learned "that it is love, imperfect and unordered, that keeps them apart, even as it holds them somehow together."
It's an implausible conclusion, one of those secret happy ends that Hollywood weepies used to do so well: everyone dies, but they do it in the arms of the people they love, all error forgiven. Here the family is broken up, but everyone is on the way to emotional health, because they have understood their weaknesses. But then the whole novel is subtly implausible in this sense, not because one doesn't believe in the characters or in Conrad's recovery, but because problems just pop up, get neatly formulated, and vanish, as if they were performing a psychoanalytic morality play. "I think I just figured something out," Conrad says to his psychiatrist, and he has. It's a milestone on the road to reason.
The psychiatrist, a wisecracking cross between Groucho Marx and Philip Marlowe, is perhaps Judith Guest's major contribution to current mythology. "See, kiddo," he says, "this problem is very specific. It is not necessary to pull the whole world in on top of you, it is only necessary to finish with Tuesday night." And: "Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling." As he cuts Conrad's visits down to one a week, he murmurs, "And I just ordered a couch, how'm I gonna pay for it?" And on another occasion: "Well, okay. I'd better tell you. I'm not big on control. I prefer things fluid. In motion. But it's your money."
But I mean to suggest the limitations of the novel, not to knock it over. In spite of those quotations, which sound a good deal less bogus in context anyway, Conrad's psychiatrist, like most of the characters in the book, is very charming and very intelligent. Judith Guest has a good eye for social detail and a good ear for turns of phrase, and the breeziness of her manner ("He takes a quick look in the mirror. The news isn't good." "How about it? Illusion versus reality? All those in favor") goes with her brisk good sense. "The things which hurt don't always instruct. Sometimes they merely hurt." She measures health by a capacity for jokes, which means both a faith in shared meanings (people understand you when you say the opposite of what you think) and a sort of independence within a community (your wit pulls you out of the rut of routine).
It is a shallow notion, but not a dishonorable or an unsympathetic one, and Ordinary People is not a book to be condescended to. The blurb insists that it simply arrived at Viking in the mail, and that it is the first unsolicited novel to be accepted by them since 1949. But this says more about publishing practices than it does about the book, and it creates an entirely misleading picture of raw talent growing in the sticks, and then hitting the big city with its untamed narrative. Ordinary People is the opposite of that: a snappy, proficient novel that reads a little too smoothly for its subject; skates on thin ice without managing to give us any real sense of how very thin the ice is.
Source: Michael Wood, "Crying for Attention," in The New York Review of Books, June 10, 1976, p. 8.
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