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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapter 5-6

Chapters 3-4

Chapters 7-8

Summary

Conrad stands outside the office of Dr. Berger, waiting to enter for his first meeting with the psychiatrist. As he waits, he finds a card in the door that reads, "I love you. Is this okay? Jesus," and the sight of the card makes him feel "strangled." He enters the office and is met immediately by Berger. Conrad notices in particular the man's penetrating eyes. Berger says that he looks like someone Crawford would send him. Berger is humorous and good-natured initially. He tells Conrad that his office was robbed that afternoon, but he does not want to call the cops because the burglar did not seem to take anything of value. Conrad begins to fill out preliminary paperwork while Berger questions him about his experiences in the hospital. Conrad says that he has been out of the hospital for a month and a half, and he is not feeling depressed. Conrad says that he has come to see Berger because his father Calvin told him to, and he would not otherwise be there. Berger comments on how "authority reigns." They discuss Conrad's suicide attempt and Conrad's thoughts on being home. We see, however, that although the situation seems calm, Conrad is fighting off panic.

Berger asks Conrad what he wants to get out of therapy, and Conrad replies that he would like to be more in control, "So people can quit worrying about me." He says that his father worries about him mostly (hence his visit to Dr. Berger), but his mother does not worry. Conrad says that he gets along well with Beth, although he feels himself beginning to tighten up out of hatred for questions about his life. Conrad then tells Berger about the death of Buck a year and a half ago in a boating accident. Conrad says that talking about his brother's death changes nothing. He has become less social, having lost touch with his friends before going to the hospital. Berger admits that he is not interested in control very much, but he and Conrad decide to meet twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays even though Conrad will have to miss some swimming practice to do so. Conrad seems hesitant at first, but gives in easily. While leaving, Conrad reflects that the first meeting went well, and that Berger is "loose." He loses himself in his thoughts, thinking about how people have difficulty communicating with him because they don't know what to say in light of his suicide attempt. Conrad walks along, trying not to look at others.

The action moves to Calvin's office just after lunch, as he reflects on the youthfulness of his secretary. He is distracted by memories of his fight with Beth the previous night over the possibility of a trip to London. He plays over the conversation in his mind, remembering that Beth criticized him for asking too many of the wrong questions without asking the important things, like whether or not Conrad wants to go to London. He knows that he is primarily a listener. He thinks back to his childhood and his dreams from his earlier years. He had always thought about becoming a soldier or athlete, but never a lawyer. He decided to go into law after receiving some advice from a nationally known tax attorney, who offered Calvin a clerkship. The lawyer took Calvin on as an apprentice and helped him tremendously. He remembers that things went sour when he got married in law school against the advice of his mentor. He then thinks back to the time when he learned of his mother's death. He remembers that the experience was the first time the reality of death was made apparent to him, and he thinks of the loss he felt when his mentor stopped taking an interest in him after the marriage. He realizes that he "hasn't the least idea of what kind of man" he is, and he does not know how to deal with grief. He suddenly realizes that the date is November 5, the birthday of Buck, who would be 19 years old that day.

Commentary

Guest oftentimes uses italics to bring us inside the head of Conrad. The narrative thus shifts between third and first person periodically. This technique allows us to see that there is a different between what Conrad says and how he acts and what he actually thinks. For instance, inside Berger's office, things seem to be going well from an external viewpoint, but the italics section tells us that Conrad is fighting off panic, knowing that "release is inevitable." Conrad seems to be maintaining a cool exterior even though he is deeply troubled within. One of the major threads in the novel is Conrad's attempts to allow more of his inner monologue to play into his communication with others.

Sometimes, Guest switches into Conrad's mind with the use of italics, as seen at the end of Chapter Five after the section break. Indeed, there are several points in which the narrator's voice blends into Conrad's. One question this raises is whether the novel should have been written in the first person altogether; after all, the novel does center strongly on Conrad. Nevertheless, the use of third person allows Guest to focus also on Calvin, who is almost as central a character as his son. Third person also allows for an objective viewpoint that can examine events from different angles. Thus, Guest maintains the third person voice, switching into first person to more directly show Conrad's reactions. This technique calls attention to Guest's status as a late 20th-century writer; the switching of voice has grown as a literary phenomenon throughout the 20th century.

Both Conrad and Calvin place particular stock in certain moments of experience they have had throughout life, moments by which they define themselves. Conrad's key moment of experience, obviously, was the death of Buck, and event which haunts him throughout the novel because he cannot forgive himself or move on. In Chapter Six we see that one of Calvin's moments of experience came at age 11 when he learned of his mother's death. He remembers in particular being struck by the knowledge that suddenly, something of great importance had happened to him rather than someone else. He also vividly recalls his dissociation from his mentor, who disapproved of his marriage. The lawyer's sudden "indifference" still weighs heavily on Calvin. Ordinary People is a novel about characters who define their experiences and lives by these sorts of key moments of tragedy and self-realization. Obviously, none of the characters can forget the legacy of the past and how it has affected them. The characters must instead strive to move on with life, but as we have already seen, they both have difficulty doing so partly because they blame themselves. The end of Chapter Six shows also that Conrad needs to come to a type of self-realization in order to move on with life.

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