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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapters 3-4

Chapters 1-2

Chapter 5-6

Summary

Conrad goes outside to wait for Lazenby to pick him up for school. He worries that Lazenby will be late, causing his mother Beth to worry. He knows that his father still worries about him excessively, just as he has worried for the past several months. Eventually, Lazenby, along with Kevin Stillman and Dick Van Buren, arrive to pick him up. They chat as they drive about schoolwork and tests, and we learn that Conrad is currently repeating the 11th grade after failing to take any finals the previous year. They drive past a girl named Jeannine Pratt, who is relatively new at the school because her parents moved to Lake Forest only the previous year. Conrad immediately takes an interest in her, although he notices that Stillman is the one who is always lucky with girls. Stillman begins to poke fun at Conrad's interest in Jeannine, but Conrad laughs it off to avoid a fight.

In class, Conrad begins daydreaming, but he is brought back to reality when the teacher calls on him to comment on the lead character in Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley. After class, the teacher tells Conrad that she does not want him to "push" himself, but Conrad secretly believes that what he needs is to be pushed. He has been on a "slide" for over a year, and he wants to get back on track with his life. Conrad does enjoy his choir class; it is the one time he "lets down his guard." That day, he formally meets Jeannine, who is also in choir. However, he is not a good conversationalist, and so he stands confused as an awkward silence ensues before the girls leave.

Later that day, at swimming practice, Coach Salan notices him yawning and asks if he is having fun and getting enough sleep. He tells Conrad that there is no point to swimming if he is not having fun. Salan asks Conrad if he was ever given electroshock therapy in the hospital, and Conrad replies that he was. Salan says that he would have never consented to electroshock. Salan expresses disappointment in Conrad's performance and asks if he is willing to work at being a good swimmer again. Conrad replies that he does want to get better, and he resolves to stay on the team even though he has never liked Salan. Lazenby and Stillman, who are both swimmers as well, ride home together, and Stillman openly praises two sophomores on the team who are better than Conrad. Conrad arrives home and goes upstairs, stopping in his room to look at an old picture of himself, Lazenby, and Buck. Beth returns home from her golf game and complains of a headache before going to her room. Conrad tells her that he will be working more on his swimming, to which she replies, "Good," before shutting her door on him. Conrad goes to his room, feeling sick to his stomach.

That evening, Calvin waits in a dark restaurant for Beth to meet him for dinner. Beth arrives, and they discuss the time they first met one another. Beth then asks Calvin if he would like to go to London for Christmas. Calvin replies that he does not think it prudent to leave the country before Conrad looks like he is back to normal. They begin to argue. Beth says that it would do them all good to get away for a while. Calvin believes that their winter vacation the year before was a mistake, because Conrad would have been better at home. He says that the family never talks on vacation because they are always so busy with activities. Beth tries to convince Calvin that they always have fun on their vacations to Europe, and she asks him to consider a trip to London. Calvin asks that they instead go in the spring, but Beth gets angry, saying that if they do not go over Christmas, they will not go in the spring either. Beth tells Calvin, "I don't understand you at all," saying that she does not want to live with the past hanging over her head all the time.

That afternoon, Calvin is at work in his law office in Evanston, the city in which Northwestern University is located. He remembers the days when he just started as a lawyer in a one-room office with Ray Hanley, and he reflects on the success with which he has met. Ray stops into Calvin's office to chat about one of their clients, then asks about Conrad after hearing Calvin talk on the phone to Howard, his father-in-law. Calvin secretly gets very angry with Ray after Ray begins to offer advice on what to do with Conrad. Ray leaves, and Calvin resolves to visit Dr. Berger on his way home. He knows that Conrad has made an appointment to see Dr. Berger. Calvin reflects on his earlier conversation with his wife. He knows that he lied to her, and he knows that the topic of a London vacation is not yet closed. He knows that he cannot help but blame himself.

Commentary

Guest's choice of Jude the Obscure for Conrad's book report has a symbolism of its own. It alerts the reader to a connection between Jude Fawley and Conrad. Fawley's life is filled with problems, including the murder of his children. Thomas Hardy, the novel's author, considered himself a literary fatalist, believing that man was drifting in a sea of reactions caused by inevitable forces--man is powerless. This is the message the teacher of Conrad's class is trying to communicate to the students by asking them questions. Nevertheless, the mention of Jude raises the question of fate and how it applies to this particular novel. After all, the central event on which the novel hinges, the death of Buck, was entirely an act of fate that could not have been helped despite what Conrad forces himself to believe. Like the teacher asking Conrad for his philosophy on Jude, the novel itself ends up asking the reader if we have a similar philosophy towards the Jarrett family and the extent to which they control their own destinies.

Stillman's cruelty is apparent from the beginning of the novel. Although he is not a central character, he embodies many of the characteristics that Conrad does not. Stillman is unapologetic, rude, and even nasty; Conrad is quite the opposite. The character of Stillman acts as a type of foil for Conrad.

One of the plot threads in this novel is the breakdown of the marriage between Calvin and Beth. Chapter Four provides some good insight into the communication problems in the marriage and the differences between the two characters. Calvin, we see, is a neurotic worrier. He is always concerned about his son, and he feels particularly protective. Beth does not feel the same way. While she loves her son, she wants to move away from the pain and trauma that accompanied Buck's death. It seems, in fact, as though Beth wants to circumvent the healing process, believing it possible just to move along. Calvin, on the other hand, believes that the family still needs to heal, and while Beth thinks that healing is done best by going on vacation, Calvin thinks it would be better to stay at home and talk about what has happened together as a family. Calvin's need to talk about things in order to heal is a motif that comes up often in the novel, and it is usually a source of tension between him and Beth, who only wants to move on with life and forget the past without dwelling on it. In the middle of this conflict is Conrad, whom both parents love but treat differently.

Indeed, Calvin's concerns come through clearly at the end of Chapter Four. We see that he is really torn over how to act. Calvin believes that he is to blame for what happened, partly because he is supposed to be the authority figure--the responsible one--in the family. Nevertheless, he believes that he cannot tell his wife about these feelings; he is more comfortable telling lies. In Calvin, we see two larger themes that dominate the novel. The first is the problem of communication. Ultimately, Calvin and Beth are driven apart by the lies they tell one another and the problems they will not discuss together. Indeed, Beth refuses to communicate about the past, and Calvin has a tendency only to lie about the past to his wife. The process by which Conrad learns to communicate again is a major plot of the novel. The second is the problem of blame, which plagues Conrad in particular but also Calvin. Although Beth seems largely immune to the issue of blame because she does not dwell on the past, Conrad and Calvin are both bound to their obsession with the past and their inability to avoid blame. Both Calvin and Conrad blame themselves, and one of the main themes of the book is how the two work through the problems caused by blame.

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