Ordinary People

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Conrad Jarrett, unable to understand why he survived a boating accident in which his older brother Buck drowned, slits his wrists, spends eight months in a mental hospital and, as the novel opens, arrives home perhaps in only slightly better mental and emotional shape then when he left on a stretcher.

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Judith Guest’s first novel, Ordinary People is set in a Chicago suburb, Lake Forest, near Northwestern University. But the specific location is superfluous. It could be any suburban town, perhaps any family in modern America. Guest attempts to portray the turmoil and guilt an average suburban family experiences following the drowning death of their oldest son, Jordan (Buck) Jarrett, and the near suicide of their other son, Conrad. Conrad, seventeen-year-old A-student, member of the high school choir and swim team, and avid golfer, feels guilt for surviving the boating accident that claimed Buck’s life, feels guilt for having lived, and so decides to die.

The novel deals not only with Conrad’s year-long recovery through counseling and his eight-month hospital stay, but also with the disintegration of the family. As Conrad understands and deals with his feelings and accepts his limitations, his parents, unable any longer to understand or to communicate with each other, separate. In addition, as Conrad returns to Lake Forest and reenters the world he left—school, choir, swimming—he confronts the typical reaction of people who look at him askance, questioning his stability, looking at the scars left on his wrists.

Judith Guest, a forty-one-year-old suburban Minneapolis housewife-turned-novelist, submitted her unsolicited manuscript for Ordinary People to Viking Press, and after waiting more than a year was notified that it had been accepted for publication. For the first time in twenty-seven years Viking accepted an over-the-transom manuscript that lacked even a query letter. Once accepted, the book, which took three years to write, quickly made the bestseller list, was placed on several book-of-the-month club lists, and was sold to Robert Redford for a movie. Guest, a former Michiganite, received a degree in education from the University of Michigan, taught elementary school for three years, and worked briefly as a reporter for a newspaper. Her brief sojourn with the newspaper was her only writing experience; she had no formal training while attending the University.

Each of the ordinary people in the novel is plagued by guilt. Conrad, who goes to Dr. T. C. Berger, the unpredictable modern psychiatrist, twice a week to learn “to be more in control,” blames himself for his brother’s death. He believes that his guilt contaminates everyone with whom he comes in contact. Events pile up, seemingly providing Conrad with support for his theory concerning himself. Not only does Buck, the stronger, older, idolized brother drown while Conrad, the weaker one, endures the ocean storm, clinging to the overturned dismasted sailboat and surviving, but also while in the mental hospital months later a fellow patient commits suicide by burning himself to death. Again Conrad believes that evil surrounds him and contaminates others when, after his release, a girl whom he met while in the hospital asphyxiates herself several months after her release. Conrad becomes convinced, as these events pile up, that he infects everyone he comes in contact with. He believes “all connections with him result in failure. Loss. Evil.”

The conflicts in the novel deal with guilt and its spread, especially among members of the Jarrett family, and with forgiveness. These conflicts are resolved when the protagonist recognizes, understands, and then sheds unnecessary guilt, realizing that punishment does not erase guilt, that depression is merely “reduction of feeling,” and that feeling and the expression of it is better than taking refuge, by controlling feeling.

Conrad, during a large part of the novel, has no self-love. In fact, he barely has a self, so confused has his identity become with his brother Buck’s. Buck was the idol whom he tried through their limited lifetime together to imitate even to the point of dying. As the reader learns through flashbacks about Conrad’s constant attempt to be like Buck, he questions whether Buck’s death was perhaps necessary for Conrad’s life and identity to begin.

Conrad begins to acquire self-knowledge only after Karen, a teen-ager hospitalized and released at about the same time as Conrad, kills herself. Distraught with guilt, feeling as though he infected Karen, Conrad arrives at Berger’s office, and after key questions, Conrad reveals the gap created by his brother’s death and the guilt associated with Buck’s drowning. And so it seems a new beginning is possible for Conrad, for he begins to achieve his own identity instead of living through his deceased brother.

Yet other conflicts exist, particularly with Conrad’s parents, who share extensively the center of attention in the novel. Cal Jarrett, a forty-one-year-old tax attorney who takes pride in his ability to provide for his family, becomes obsessed with responsibility for, duty to, and protection of his son, an attitude which irritates his wife Beth. Cal believes he is guilty for Conrad’s attempted suicide and thinks “it has to be his fault, because fault equals responsibility equals control equals eventual understanding.” Beth, a thirty-nine-year-old socialite suburban housewife known for her perfectionist tendencies, wants family life to return to the old pattern of orderliness, vacations, golf, and tennis. She avoids stress situations, and so she avoids Conrad, whom she thinks hates her. Her avoidance, though, is also based on her inability to forgive. When Conrad attempted suicide she termed it a “vicious” thing. Yet as Conrad grows in understanding himself, he also grows in understanding his mother and her limited ability to love him or forgive him.

The author shows a keen insight into the psychological underpinning of the adolescent mind; her presentation of Conrad shows an ability to probe in descriptive detail the inner sanctions of the human mind. Even Conrad’s father is fully developed. Orphaned in youth, he believes family unity is important, and he tries constantly to preserve the family, to fulfill what he deems his duty, to be in control of every situation, thus “protecting [himself] from further guilt.” He too seeks Berger’s assistance. Frustrated because he cannot control his family, Cal feels his son and wife are on opposite sides of the fence “and that both are drifting ... while I stand there watching.”

But Guest falls short in creating and developing Beth, her sole important female character. We never understand why she cannot handle emotional traumas, why she thinks Conrad hates her, or why she must desert her family; Guest’s reasoning here is weak. As the mother of three sons herself, she understands the problems and the feelings of adolescent males, but perhaps she was too close to the character of Beth to be objective. Dr. T. C. Berger, Conrad’s psychiatrist, is often overdone. He is the man with ready answers who offers coffee to his patients and often helps them and the reader with his quick wit. Guest wants him to be unpredictable in his counseling techniques, modern enough to be strange and likeable to the variety of patients he sees; but her effort here shows.

Nevertheless, Guest’s dynamic development of Conrad, her ability to present his anxieties, his fears, his desires, and his hopes serves to compensate for the flaws in her characterization of Berger and Beth. Although the tone is serious throughout the novel, often the conversations between Dr. Berger and Conrad are humorous, altering the tone and offering the reader relief from the burden of guilt all members of the family experience.

Told from the omniscient point of view, with combined use of stream of consciousness, Guest examines in detail the inner thoughts of Conrad’s and Cal’s minds. Dreams and memories, which are often symbolic, emerge particularly well when Guest uses stream of consciousness. The author’s use of the device emphasizes the workings of the human mind and certainly helps the reader understand the conscious and subconscious lives of Conrad and Cal. But because Guest moves in time, place, and character, we are often uncertain who the stream of consciousness speaker is; that is, we often must stop to determine whose thought is being revealed to us. Often it is Conrad, but frequently, and without notice, it shifts to Cal. Although such shifts confuse the reader and appear to be flaws in the novel, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the similarities between Conrad’s personality and his father’s; thus we begin to realize that perhaps Guest’s motivation behind shifting the stream of consciousness narrator was meant to demonstrate this similarity.

One of the major points Guest stresses in Ordinary People is that each individual is a free agent, not responsible for the actions of other people. Conrad, after eight months in a mental hospital and another year of counseling, understands finally that Buck drowned because he lacked the physical endurance to hold on, that Karen, acting as an individual, although unstable, chose death over life, and finally that Beth’s decision to leave was no reflection on him. Each individual exercised his right to choose, and blame is nonexistent; guilt, consequently, leads only to self-defeat and self-effacement, rather than growth and understanding. However, Guest also shows the problems in constantly maintaining self-control and control of others, rather than allowing feeling to surface and be expressed. And finally, she emphasizes the unnecessary pain endured in assigning blame for actions when in reality fault is nonexistent. The Jarrett family learns in the end that what happened to their lives was “nobody’s fault.”

But the ending seems too planned, too pat. Conrad’s growth and gradual change is certainly credible; we expect him to change, develop, and grow in awareness. But Cal, who visits Berger only once, suddenly has all the answers, or, in his newfound awareness, sees that there are no answers.

This conventional domestic novel, flawed as it is in literary terms, shows keen sensitivity and is well worth reading. It reaches out to a varied audience but will be of particular interest to students, teachers, counselors, and parents, for it shows insight into the workings and malfunctions of the family unit.

Historical Context

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Cultural Revolutions of the 1970s
After the political movements of the 1960s, revolutions in the 1970s took a decidedly personal turn. The concerns of Ordinary People reflect that shift. Decidedly apolitical and small in its scope, Ordinary People is not concerned with grand, sweeping political events, but rather with the shifts that accompany personal development.

The 1970s are commonly stereotyped as the "Me Decade," but this designation does reflect a shift in concerns from the political to the personal. The feminist movement, with its insistence that "the personal is political," influenced this trend as it gained force in the decade. Though the female characters of Ordinary People do not express a feminist consciousness, the influence of 1970s feminism is evident in their lives. Jeannine's mother is divorced, and Beth leaves her husband and son. These actions were just becoming acceptable in society at that time. Carole Lazenby, a housewife, is taking a college course, just as thousands of real housewives were beginning to educate themselves and go to work at that time. The efforts of women to erase the stereotypes of femininity also influenced the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, in which traditional sexual morals were reexamined. The sexual encounter between Jeannine and Conrad is presented by Guest without any moral judgment.

If Guest is presenting any kind of moral vision, it is one that is heavily influenced by psychological principles. When the characters suffer, they do so because they are repressing their feelings and trying too hard to control themselves. This emphasis on the importance of expressing emotions represents a historical shift. Maintaining control over oneself had been considered much more important in previous decades, especially to the generation represented by Howard and Ellen in the novel. The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in psychology and personal development, with people becoming interested in traditional psychology and in newer forms such as primal scream therapy in which people would release their pent up emotions by screaming. This widespread interest in psychology during the 1970s explains both Guest's preoccupation with it in the novel and the popularity of the novel with readers.

There are three distinct generations in Ordinary People: Howard and Ellen's generation, Beth and Cal's generation, and Con and Jeannine's generation. The notion of a generation gap, a term which was coined in the 1960s, becomes important in Con's relationship with his grandparents. The differences in experiences among the generations separates them from each other; when Con is having difficulties during a stay at their house, he feels that they would not understand him. The 1970s saw a widening of the generation gap, particularly between teenagers and their elders. The quality of adolescent life went down during this period, as drug use, teenage pregnancy, and juvenile delinquency increased, partly as a result of pressures on the family structure. The increased difficulty of life for adolescents is evident in the character of Jean-nine,, who gets involved in drugs and shoplifting after her parents' divorce.

Thus, though Guest does not deal explicitly with historical, political, or cultural events, they are evident in the choices the characters are able to make, and the experiences they have in the novel. The feminist movement, the interest in psychology, and the generation gap underlie the context of the novel, which was both written and set in the 1970s.

Literary Style

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Point of View
One of the concerns in Ordinary People is how the characters perceive their situations, and so point of view is an important part of Guest's writing technique. The point of view shifts between Conrad Jarrett and his father, Calvin, and thus the reader gets two different perspectives on the events in the story. This is most apparent with regard to their impressions of Beth. Both see her as distant, but Cal romanticizes this quality in her, while Con feels anger at her apparent lack of love for him. Con's perceptions of his mother are influenced by his sense that she loved his brother more than she loved him. This sense of being slighted as a child was caused, perhaps, by his identity as the younger, less carefree, more serious and needy child. Cal's romanticization of Beth is influenced by his isolation from his mother as a child; Beth is distant as well, but she is present in a way that Cal's mother was not. As a result, Cal feels grateful to Beth for staying with him As each man gains perspective on the outside world, they both realize that Beth is more fragile than they had thought, but the reader's impressions of her, and of all the characters and events in the story, continues to be filtered through the points of view of Con and Cal. Their childhood experiences affect the way that they see others and their motivations, and their subjective perceptions often prevent them from seeing events from a more objective standpoint.

Narration
The narrative technique used by Guest to present the points of view of Conrad and Calvin is that of a third-person narrator, who is omniscient only with regard to Cal and Con. Because the narrative focus shifts back and forth between Cal and Con, the narrator can only relate the thoughts of one of them at a time. Thus, during the family fight at Christmas, the reader's perceptions are filtered through Cal's subjectivity; the reader has access to Con's thoughts only through his dialogue and Cal's sense of what is going on. The narrator does not intrude or editorialize in the narrative, but rather functions as an implied narrator, presenting events as Cal and Con see them in a third-person, rather than a first-person ("I"), format.

Plot Structure
The overall structure of Ordinary People consists of thirty-one chapters and an epilogue. With two exceptions, the chapters alternate between the points of view of Calvin and Conrad. The story begins in the fall and extends into the spring, with an epilogue that takes place in the summer, closing the story thematically almost a year after it has begun. The story begins in medias res (that is, in mid-action), as Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt have already taken place when the story begins.

Tragic Flaw
Though the obviously tragic events of Ordinary People, Buck's death and Con's suicide, have already taken place when the story begins, the real tragedy of the novel lies in the inability of the characters to cope with these uncontrollable events. As Cal reflects on Beth's character, he wonders if she possesses a tragic imperfection, a personality flaw with which she was born. He speculates that she might somehow lack the capacity to forgive. Beth's congenital inability to forgive prevents her from understanding her son, thus causing problems between herself and her husband.

Conflict
Conflict is ever-present in Ordinary People. Because of the differing perspectives of the characters, they remain in conflict throughout the story. The conflict between Con and Beth mostly remains under the surface, only exploding at Christmas, though it has long been evident in their strained and distant relationship with each other. Cal internalizes the conflict between Con and Beth, becoming inwardly conflicted, which in turn leads to his increasing clashes with Beth. Their fights grow in intensity during the course of the novel, as Beth accuses Cal of coddling Con and becoming depressed, while Cal feels that she is cold and unforgiving towards Con. It is only in the Epilogue that Con begins to feel that love can close the rift between himself and his mother, but the different needs and viewpoints of the characters have already changed the family, perhaps forever.

Literary Techniques

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Point of view is an important part of Guest's writing technique because each characters' perception of himself or herself is one of the chief concerns in Ordinary People. The point of view shifts between Conrad Jarrett and his father, Calvin, and thus the reader gets two different perspectives on the events in the story. This is most apparent with regard to their impressions of Beth. Both see her as distant, but Cal romanticizes this quality in her, while Con feels anger at her apparent lack of love for him. Con's perceptions of his mother are influenced by his sense that she loved his brother more than she loved him, and this sense of being slighted as a child was caused, perhaps, by his identity as the younger, less carefree, more serious and needy child. Cal's romanticization of Beth is influenced by his isolation from his mother as a child; Beth is distant as well, but she is present in a way that Cal's mother was not. As a result, Cal feels grateful to Beth for staying with him. As each man gains perspective on the outside world, they both realize that Beth is more fragile than they had thought, but the reader's impressions of her, and of all the characters and events in the story, continue to be filtered through Con and Cal's points of view. Their childhood experiences affect the way that they see others and their motivations, and their subjective perceptions often prevent them from seeing events from a more objective standpoint.

Guest uses a third-person narrator to present Conrad and Calvin's points of view. This narrator is omniscient only with regard to Cal and Con. Because the narrative focus shifts back and forth between Cal and Con, the narrator can only relate the thoughts of one of them at a time. Thus, during a family fight at Christmas, the reader's perceptions are filtered through Cal's subjectivity; the reader has access to Con's thoughts only through his dialogue and Cal's sense of what is going on. The narrator does not intrude or editorialize in the narrative, but rather functions as an implied narrator, presenting events as Cal and Con see them in a third-person, rather than a first-person, format.

The overall structure of Ordinary People consists of thirty-one chapters and an epilogue. With two exceptions, the chapters alternate between the points of view of Calvin and Conrad. The story begins in the fall and extends into the spring, with an epilogue that takes place in the summer, closing the story thematically almost a year after it has begun. The story opens in medias res (that is, in mid-action), as Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt have taken place before the present action begins. The real tragedy of the novel lies in the inability of the characters to cope with these uncontrollable events. As Cal reflects on Beth's character, he wonders if she possesses a tragic imperfection, a personality flaw with which she was born. He speculates that she might somehow lack the capacity to forgive. Beth's congenital inability to forgive prevents her from understanding her son, thus causing problems between herself and her husband.

Conflict is ever-present in Ordinary People. Because of the characters' differing perspectives, they remain in conflict throughout the story. The conflict between Con and Beth mostly remains under the surface, only exploding at Christmas, though it has long been evident in their strained and distant relationship with each other. Cal internalizes the conflict between Con and Beth, becoming inwardly conflicted, which in turn leads to his increasing clashes with Beth. Their fights grow in intensity during the course of the novel, as Beth accuses Cal of coddling Con and becoming depressed, while Cal feels that she is cold and unforgiving towards Con. It is only in the Epilogue that Con begins to feel that love can close the rift between himself and his mother, but the different needs and viewpoints of the characters have already changed the family, perhaps forever.

Social Concerns

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In 1976, Judith Guest's Ordinary People was the first unsolicited manuscript published by Viking Press in twenty-six years, and its popularity has remained undiminished. It is read by adults and teenagers alike for its sensitive characterizations of the troubled teenager Conrad Jarrett and his confused father, Calvin. The story of a teenaged boy's journey back from a suicide attempt after his older brother's death in a boating accident, and the grief and guilt that tear the Jarretts apart, Ordinary People was an instant best-seller. It was also made into an award-winning film.

As the 1970s saw a trend toward self-discovery, Guest's themes of alienation, the search for identity, and coming of age were timely ones. After the political movements of the 1960s, revolution in the 1970s took a decidedly personal turn. The concerns of Ordinary People reflect that shift. Consciously apolitical and small in its scope, Ordinary People does not focus on grand, sweeping political events, but rather on the shifts that accompany personal crises and development.

Commonly disparaged as the "Me Decade", the 1970s reflected a shift in concerns from the political to the personal. The feminist movement, with its insistence that "the personal is political," influenced this trend as it gained force in the decade. Though the female characters of Ordinary People do not express a feminist consciousness, the influence of 1970s feminism is evident in their lives. Jeannine's mother is divorced, and Beth leaves her husband and son. These actions were just becoming acceptable in society at that time. Carole Lazenby, a housewife, is taking a college course, just as thousands of real housewives were beginning to educate themselves and go to work at that time. The efforts of women to erase the stereotypes of femininity also influenced the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, in which traditional sexual mores were reexamined. Guest presents the sexual encounter between Jeannine and Conrad without any moral judgment.

If Guest is presenting a moral vision, it is one that is heavily influenced by psychological principles. When the characters suffer, it is because they are repressing their feelings and trying too hard to control themselves. This emphasis on the importance of expressing emotions represents a historical shift, as maintaining control over oneself had been considered much more important in past decades, especially to the generation represented by Howard and Ellen in the novel. The 1970s saw an explosion of interest in psychology and personal development, with people becoming interested in traditional psychology and in newer forms such as primal scream therapy, in which people would release their pent-up emotions by screaming. This widespread interest in psychology in the 1970s explains both Guest's preoccupation with it in the novel, and the popularity of the novel with readers. And though Guest does not deal explicitly with historical, political, or cultural events, they are evident in the choices the characters make, and the experiences they have in the novel. The feminist movement, the interest in psychology, and the generation gap underlie the context of the novel, which was both written and set in the 1970s.

Literary Precedents

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Ordinary People was Guest's first published full-length work. Since then, she has said that the content of her stories is often inspired by her childhood. Guest has also said that her interest in cold and emotionally distant characters originates in experiences with family members. Her father did not share his feelings openly, never telling his daughter, for example, about the pain he must have felt when he was ten years old and his father died.

Media Adaptations

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Ordinary People was adapted in 1980 as an Academy-Award winning film by Robert Redford in his directorial debut, and starred Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, and Judd Hirsch; the screenplay was written by Alvin Sargent, and the musical score was composed by Marvin Hamlisch. The film is available from Paramount Home Video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Dorothy Braginsky, review in Psychology Today, August, 1976.

Lore Dickstem, review of Ordinary People, in New York Times Book Review, July 18, 1976.

Barbara Holhday, in an interview with Judith Guest, in Detroit Free Press, October 7, 1982.

Paddy Kitchen, "Sentimental Americans," in Listener, Vol 97, No 2494, February 3, 1977, p. 158.

Review of Ordinary People, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol XLIV, No 5, March 1,1976, p. 271.

Michael Wood, "Crying for Attention, in New York Review of Books, June 10,1976, p 8.

For Further Study
Saul L. Brown, "Adolescents and Family Systems," in Youth Suicide, edited by Michael L. Peck, Norman L Farberow, and Robert E Litman, Springer Publishing Co , 1985, pp 71-79.
Brown discusses family systems and their relationship to the individual dynamics that may lead adolescents to commit suicide.

Fady Hajal, "Family Mythology. Ordinary People," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1983, pp. 3-8.
Hajal applies the concept of Family Mythology to Robert Redford's award-winnmg film adaptation of Guest's novel.

Caroline Hunt, "Dead Athletes and Other Martyrs," in Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Vol 16, No 4, Winter 1991-1992, pp 241-45.
An article placing Ordinary People in the context of adolescent literature about death and dying.

Melvin Maddocks, "Suburban Furies," in Time, Vol 108, No 3, July 19, 1976, pp 68, 70.
Maddox describes Ordinary People as a "good but thoroughly conventional novel."

Don O'Briant, "Guest Finds Noble Story in Her Family Tree," in Atlanta Constitution, Feb. 12, 1997, section D, p. 81.
An article about the autobiographical origins of Guest's Errands.

Janet G. Stroud, "Characterization of the Emotionally Disturbed in Current Adolescent Fiction," in Top of the News, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1981, pp 290-95.
An article which favorably compares Ordinary People to other books containing emotionally disturbed characters.

Colleen Kelly Warren, "A Novel Worth the Long Wait," in St Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 19, 1997, Section D, p 52.
A review praising Errands as worth the wait.

Jonathan Yardley, "Heaven & Earth: Judith Guest's Encore to 'Ordinary People,'" in Washington Post Book World, September 22, 1982, pp Bl, B15.
A review of Second Heaven which praises it as a worthy successor to Ordinary People.

Bibliography

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Guest, Judith. “How I Wrote Ordinary People.” Writer 120, no. 8 (August, 2007): 24-26. Details the genesis of the novel and Guest’s work on creating Conrad and Calvin’s perspectives.

_______. “Judith Guest: No Ordinary Talent.” Interview by Karen Reeves. Helicon Nine 4 (Spring, 1981): 30-37. Usefully details the process by which Guest wrote and published her novel, the elements of her own life within it, and the experience of adapting the book for the cinema.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times: Ordinary People.The New York Times, July 16, 1976, p. 68. One of the first reviews of the book; praises the great sensitivity of its portrayal of Conrad and his struggle toward sanity and strength.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. “Overview: Ordinary People.” In Civil Rights Movements to Future Times, 1960-2000. Vol. 5 in Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Three Hundred Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1997. Effectively places the novel within the sociohistorical milieu of the 1970’s, including the emergence of teen depression, psychotherapy, and suicide, as well as the end of the façade of the perfect American family.

Neuhaus, Ron. “Threshold Literature: A Discussion of Ordinary People.” In Novels for Students, edited by Diane Telgen. Vol. 1. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1998. Thoughtfully suggests that students who read the novel would be drawn to Conrad’s adolescent issues but could also be taught to understand Calvin’s parenting concerns.

Simmons, John. “Dealing with Troubled Writers: A Literacy Teacher’s Dilemma.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 51, no. 1 (September, 2007): 4-8. Offers a unique teaching perspective by suggesting that student writing about the novel could reveal young people’s predisposition to do violence to themselves or others.

Szabo, Victoria, and Angela D. Jones. “The Uninvited Guest: Erasure of Women in Ordinary People.” In Vision/Re-Vision: Adapting Contemporary American Fiction by Women to Film, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996. Feminist reading of the novel that criticizes Guest’s portrayal of Beth as one-dimensional.

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