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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapters 11-12

Chapters 9-10

Chapters 13-14

Summary

In their office one day, Ray and Calvin joke about their secretary's problems with her love life. Her "romantic crisis" is preventing her from getting her work done. Calvin notices that sometimes he feels immune to the suffering of others. That afternoon, on his lunch break, he sees Lazenby's mother Carole and has lunch with her. They both reflect on the fact that their sons no longer see much of one another. They agree to get together soon for a big family meal. On his way home that afternoon, Calvin reflects on Beth's perfectionism and the severe problems she had when they first had kids together, and the kids kept the house in shambles. Beth is easily driven to madness by even minor details that cause mess and imperfection. Nevertheless, Calvin likes the order and cleanliness Beth brings to the house and his life. Calvin, however, stopped being a perfectionist when he saw that chance rather than perfection rules the world.

That night, Beth tells him that she saw Ray's wife Nancy having lunch. They discussed some random chit-chat, including Ray's recent weight gain. Calvin, however, is not paying much attention to Beth because he is wrapped up in a newspaper article about welfare fraud. Calvin invites Beth to go car shopping with him the next day, but Beth is unable to due to scheduling conflicts. They have agreed the buy Conrad a new car for Christmas as a means of cheering him up and to give him independence. Calvin knows that he would be willing to do anything to make his son happier. He then ponders the problem of illusions versus reality. He recalls a conversation he had once with Ray's wife after she learned that Ray had cheated on her with a secretary. Calvin was told that people prefer illusion to reality twenty to one. Calvin remembers how strongly Ray regretted his actions but also how Ray and his wife managed to heal their marriage. They are not a family of illusions, he thinks. At this point, Conrad* * arrives home and announces that he got an A on his trig quiz. Calvin is especially pleased, not so much that Conrad did well academically so much as the fact that Conrad is proud of his accomplishment; he cares about his success. Calvin reflects that he and his family are "ordinary people"; that is the only thing that is "permanent."

After quitting swimming, Conrad is concerned about how he will stay busy after school, but he soon finds that he very much enjoys spending time at the library. He is still concealing from his parents the fact that he quit swimming. He also spends time at the local park, and he periodically works on Christmas shopping. At school one day, Lazenby corners Conrad and asks him why he quit swimming. Conrad says that he felt swimming was a "bore," and Lazenby is unimpressed. He asks Conrad if something is the matter, but Conrad plays dumb. Lazenby says that he misses Conrad, but Conrad reassures him that everything is all right. Lazenby tells Conrad that he has been acting "funny" lately. Conrad comes out with it and tells Lazenby that he acts "flaky" because he hangs around with "flakes." Lazenby had suspected that that was the problem, but he resents Conrad's anger. Conrad says that he is not angry. Lazenby will not believe him however, and says that he tried talking to Salan. However, Conrad cuts him off and tells him to quit talking to people: "Leave me alone!" Lazenby replies, "The hell with you," and walks away. Conrad suddenly feels hollow in his stomach, "as if he had been punched." But he shrugs off the feeling, telling himself that "they were Buck's friends anyway." He goes on to class, "feeling nothing."

That afternoon, in his session with Berger, Conrad says that he has not yet told his father about quitting swimming because he does not want his father to worry. He says that he does not connect with his mother, and he is not bothered by it. He says that his mother is a very private person. Conrad admits that he masturbates a lot to help him get to sleep at night. Conrad says that he neither thinks nor feels anything. Conrad says that he ought to go home. Berger asks Conrad what it is that he doesn't feel: "Anger? Sadness?" Berger reminds Conrad that he wanted to get more control. He asks Conrad if he sees any connection between "control" and the "lack of feeling." Conrad admits that he does feel things sometimes. Berger says that he does not want Conrad to say "I don't know" anymore. Henceforth, Conrad will have to tell the truth or make up an answer. Berger tells Conrad that despite what he says, Conrad is mad as hell. He tells Conrad to tell him to "fuck off, go to hell, something!" Conrad replies with, "Fuck off, go to hell." Conrad says that there is someone in his closet of emotions, and he doesn't even know the person. Berger tells Conrad that sometimes he should just feel rather than think, and he needs to understand that sometimes all one can feel is lousy.

On a shopping trip after school, Conrad sees Jeannine, and stops to talk to her. He tells her that he no longer swims, and she compliments his great singing skills in choir. Conrad secretly sees her as an authority figure in music because she is remarkably talented, and so his self-esteem is boosted. He asks her to go with him for a Coke, and as they walk along she does most of the talking while he worries over where they will go and what they will discuss. They go to a small place near her house. Conrad looks into her eyes and sees that she has the same eyes as Berger. In the cafe they find all manner of things to talk about, immediately growing closer. Jeannine suddenly leaves however when she realizes that she needs to unlock the house for her brother. She asks if he has any brothers or sisters, and he responds that he doesn't. She tells him he is lucky. On the way home, he thinks back to a skiing trip he took with Buck.

Commentary

Obviously, one of Guest's concerns in this novel is how people change, and she explores this question in numerous ways. Besides the obvious change that occurs within the dynamics of the Jarrett family, we see individual moments of experience in which particular characters traits emerge that demonstrate the changing nature of people. Chapter 11 provides a good example in the scene in which Calvin comes to realize that he is oftentimes desensitized to suffering. He seems to take a detached attitude at times, thinking stoically that what has happened to him in the past is worse than what most anyone will experience in one lifetime. This contrasts sharply with the other impression we have of Calvin--that of a caring, listening, very concerned father. Guest shows us how his outlook on other people is transformed as the action of the novel progresses.

The story of Ray and his wife seems inserted into the novel so as to provide a model of a family that did manage to heal its wounds. Although Ray and his wife had a major falling out because of Ray's infidelity, they were able to fix their marriage and return to relatively normal lives. Calvin hopes the same can happen to his family, but one crucial difference between the Hanleys and the Jarretts is the issue of illusion. Calvin knows that there was never any illusion in the Hanley family. We see, though, that there is clearly illusion in the Jarrett household because of problems with communication. Conrad is still plagued by psychological troubles while Beth and Calvin cannot reconcile their different ways of reacting towards the past. The novel thus creates a type of test for the Jarrett family: can they do away with illusion like the Hanley family and once again become normal, ordinary people?

Conrad's encounter with Jeannine presents a cyclical view of Conrad's social world. He feels awkward around her at first, socially impeded partly because of his own suicide attempt and the death of his brother. However, as they sit in the café, he begins to feel his shyness or inhibition dissolve around her. He takes an interest in speaking with her, and he feels the "old" Conrad opening up. And according to the narrator, they talk freely about numerous topics. However, at the end of the conversation, when Jeannine is leaving, she asks if Conrad has any siblings. As soon as the question is asked, Conrad begins to undergo another transformation back into the reclusive, silent man he has been throughout much of the novel. We see that despite what he says to his family and to Berger, he has an enormous amount of feeling. We also see that he is capable of breaking away temporarily from the problems of the past, but he is also easily drawn back into his memories of his brother and the overwhelming guilt and pain he feels.

Indeed, Conrad is a complicated character because he cannot be believed. He is an enormous liar to almost everyone, including himself. In this section, it is apparent that Berger knows full well about Conrad's lies. Berger knows that Conrad does have many emotional concerns, but he is just unwilling to talk. It is important to remember that Conrad is at the therapy voluntarily; he could stop attending if he ever felt it necessary, yet of his own accord he keeps returning. That fact evidences Conrad's perpetual hope that Berger will actually be able to help him somehow. The situation is almost a Catch-22: in order for Berger to help Conrad, Conrad must open up on his own accord; but if Conrad could open up on his own accord, he wouldn't need Berger as much. It is apparent, however, that Berger and Conrad are making progress together.

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