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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapters 19-21

Chapters 17-18

Chapters 22-24

Summary

In their office, Calvin and Ray discuss their need for a legal secretary. They have just hired a new receptionist who has turned out to be as incompetent as the last. After work the two go for a sandwich together. Calvin talks about his inability to be firm with people; he was never able to be tough on the last secretary. Calvin then mentions his upcoming trip to Houston with Beth to play in a lawyers-only golf tournament. Ray tells Calvin that their wives had lunch together several days earlier, and Beth had complained that Calvin spends all his time worrying about Conrad. Calvin retorts to Ray that Beth never thinks about any of Conrad's problems. Calvin knows that he and Ray have an interesting relationship because Calvin had once acted as a sort of marriage counselor years earlier when Ray cheated on his wife. It seems now that the tables have turned. Calvin slips back again into thinking about the past, remembering a holiday trip after Buck's death but before Conrad's suicide attempt. Calvin thinks that secretly he had known all along that Conrad would try to do something to himself. He begins to suspect, however, that his wife may be right about him being too obsessed.

That evening, Conrad goes on his date with Jeannine. He stands pensively outside her house for a long time, thinking about what to do and say. He recalls fondly his last talk with Dr. Berger the day before, when he had decided that he didn't wan t to hear after all what his father and Berger had discussed in their last meeting. He finally rings the doorbell and is let in by Jeannine's mother, who politely asks him questions so as to determine exactly which one of Jeannine's boyfriends he is. Conrad immediately feels slightly put down when he learns that he is not the only man taking Jeannine out. When she ascertains that Conrad is "the tenor" at Lake Forest, she asks numerous motherly questions to learn more about him. The mother then leaves to get Jeannine, and Conrad chats briefly with her little brother while he waits. Jeannine's brother also informs him that Jeannine has multiple guys trying to take her out. Jeannine finally arrives, and they go bowling together even though Jeannine professes to be "lousy" at the game. Afterwards they go to McDonald's for a drink. They joke about how he cautiously asked her out on the phone five months after they first started talking to one another. On the way home, they hold hands, and back at her house, they kiss each other and make plans to get together again the following Saturday.

At the same time, Beth and Calvin are at home discussing a potential trip to Houston for the golf tournament. They plan to stay with Beth's brother who lives in Houston. Calvin begins to wander around the house, looking at an old classical record and re membering the early days of his marriage to Beth. He thinks back to their trips around Spain. They had been away while Conrad was in the hospital. As he remembers the past, Calvin reaches the conclusion that he is a man "who believes in safety." He does not take risks. He remembers being told by his old law mentor that his wife would not share in his dreams but rather make him conform to hers. He remembers his falling out with that mentor, then he thinks of the only time when he even thought about having an affair (he did not follow through, however, because it would not have been safe). He comes to the conclusion that that Beth is not a forgiving person; "It is not in her nature to forgive." But then he refutes his own conclusion and decides instead that he thinks too much.

Commentary

As mentioned earlier, the structure of Ordinary People is in part a chiasmus, flipping between Conrad and Calvin showing how Conrad gets better against the backdrop of Calvin's marriage in decline. There is also a smaller chiasmus occurring between Calvin and Ray, as seen in chapter 19. Seven years previously, Ray and his wife had nearly ended their marriage after Ray had an affair with one of the office secretaries. At the time, Calvin had acted as a counselor to Ray in an attempt to help him and his wife mend the situation. In Chapter 19, the roles have reversed: Ray is now a type of marriage counselor working to help Calvin better his own situation. Calvin has recognized the reversal that has taken place, which means that he also recognizes now the problems that exist between himself and Beth. As this novel has progressed, the conflict between Calvin and Beth has grown, and part of the reason for its growth is the simple fact that Conrad has more clearly identified the differences between himself and his wife. Over the course of the last 100 pages or so, the novel will have to address whether or not Conrad can heal and whether or not Calvin and Beth can heal their marriage. The first question will be answered positively. The second one will not, and so it is important to watch out for the different steps of breakdown in the marriage. Guest carefully draws out the problems between Calvin and Beth, and Chapter 19 is one of the sections of the novel that shows how those problems appear.

To be sure, it does seem that Conrad is getting better, as Chapter 20 seems to illustrate. Although Conrad is not entirely forthcoming with Jeannine's mother about his past, his relationship with Jeannine moves in leaps and bounds, culminating in a kiss on their first date. Conrad is undoubtedly growing happier. Nevertheless, it is important to note that not everything seems perfect. He still hides parts of the past; it has not been discussed openly. Also, his future with Jeannine is by no means solidified. After all, Jeannine's mother and brother both made it adequately clear that Jeannine seems to go through many boys on a regular basis. Guest is foreshadowing that Conrad's girl problems are not entirely resolved even though he has made some progress.

Chapter 21 is yet another entry in a series of increasingly frequent chapters told largely in first person from the perspective of Calvin. Notice once again the back-and-forth structure at work: Chapter 19 focuses on Calvin, chapter 20 on Conrad, and Chapter 21 again on Calvin. Chapter 22 will move back to Conrad. This structure supports the book's chiasmatic story well. In Chapter 21, we are alerted to what will be one of the climactic scenes of the novel: the trip to Houston, in which we will see Calvin and Beth openly fight about their marriage and their son. In Chapter 21, we cannot help but wonder whether Calvin is right in his conclusion that he thinks too much. He is a perpetual loner, off by himself thinking about his life and the past. His continual thought stream seems always bedded not so much in the future as it is in the past. Beth, on the other hand, most likely thinks in the opposite direction, towards the future. It is Calvin's obsession with the past that brings about much of his conflict with Beth, as we will see in greater detail in later sections.

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