Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Ordinary Son,” Ron Carlson contrasts the nature of genius with the notion of an ordinary life. He portrays Reed’s quest for normalcy against the backdrop of life in a family of geniuses. Each of the individual members of the Landers family portrays a different aspect of genius. The father, Duncan, the NASA scientist, is the typical lone genius. He works at a drafting table in the front hallway, which literally blocks the entrance to the house. His only contact with his son is a brief exchange of words as Reed maneuvers past the table on entering the house after work.

Reed’s mother, Gloria, the poet, has directed her genius into her work for social causes. She spends her time traveling across the country to give readings and lectures on behalf of various disadvantaged groups. Because she is absent from the house for weeks and months at a time, she leaves notes of advice on the bottom of things like shoes and jars in order to share her wisdom and insight with her children.

The daughter, Christina, shows great promise in the field of chemistry. Instead of expanding the periodic table of elements, she drops her studies and joins her mother on the road. She represents a mind that is unable to cope with its own genius and seeks escape from the pressures of research and intellectual production.

The youngest child, Garrett, is the model of the child genius. Taken away by experts to live and work with other youthful prodigies at Rice University, Garrett is forced to leave his childhood and his home behind because of his special gifts. In a single day, he goes from a typical boy drawing pictures to a wunderkind writing out complicated mathematical formulae. In contrast to each of the other family members, Reed shows no special aptitude for engineering, chemistry, physics, or literature. Instead he acquires the special gift of being able to live an ordinary life. While Garrett is confined to a dormitory of genius children, Reed discovers the personal freedom of earning money, buying clothes, hanging out with friends, and driving a car.