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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapters 13-14

Chapters 11-12

Chapters 15-16

Summary

The Christmas season is drawing nearer, and Conrad, Beth and Calvin go tree shopping. They agree on a huge tree after putting up with a sarcastic salesman. Calvin happily notices that Conrad has become much more decisive and opinionated since the previous year, when he could not ever decide what to order at a restaurant. Conrad, however, was glad to be the decision-maker, because he knows that if the decision were left up to Calvin, the family would have gotten the worst-looking tree in the lot because Calvin would have felt sorry for it. Back at home, they begin to decorate the tree, and Beth complains that it is silly to buy a tree when they have a plastic one in the basement. Beth then states that she heard from Lazenby's mother that Conrad quit the swimming team.

Beth says that she was embarrassed at the time because she did not know Conrad had quit. Beth is clearly angry that Conrad quit over a month ago without even telling her. Conrad tells Calvin that he has been spending most of his time at the library. Conrad, growing angry, says that he would have told them if he thought that they cared. Beth, however, knows his comment is directed more at her than at Calvin. Beth says she will not stand it if Conrad begins lying again and disappearing for hours as he did before the suicide attempt. Conrad tells Beth to go to hell. He says that the only reason Beth cares about him quitting swimming is "because someone else knew about it first." Conrad explodes, shouting at Beth for her coldness and her refusal to vi sit him in the hospital. Calvin shouts at him to stop, and Conrad tells Calvin that he should yell at Beth for a change. Conrad runs up to his room and slams the door. Calvin begins to follow him, but Beth yells at him for always going up to apologize. Calvin entreats her not to fight. Beth tells him to go up to Conrad because he only wants to see someone who will never criticize him for anything. Calvin again asks her to come up with him, but showing a fiercely independent side, Beth refuses.

Upstairs, Conrad apologizes to Calvin for his actions, but he feels unable to apologize to his mother. Although he cannot say it aloud, it is clear that Conrad deeply resents his mother. Calvin can perceive something is terribly wrong, and thinks back to the time when Conrad's grades began slipping. Calvin asks about Dr. Berger, but Conrad says that it is not Berger's fault.

The next day, Conrad feels guilty. He finds solace, however, in his choir, which he really enjoys. He knows, however, that his love for older, optimistic music has faded permanently ever since his suicide attempt. That afternoon, in Berger's office, Berger tells Conrad that he should stop burying his problems, because that is how they keep resurfacing. Berger points out that everything was going okay until the fight with Beth, and since that fight everything has been lousy. Berger tells Conrad that he should try to speak with her about it. Conrad says that Beth will never forgive him for his suicide attempt, and he sees that lack of forgiveness as a huge obstacle. Conrad then feels a revelation as it occurs to him that perhaps he should forgive him self rather than wait for Beth to forgive him. Berger tells Conrad to recognize her limitations. He suggests that the suicide attempt may have been an effort on the part of Conrad to one-up his mother. Conrad suddenly feels tired, but he realizes that progress is being made.

Commentary

The dispute over which Christmas tree to get is a small, isolated event that draws out some of the characters' traits. Conrad, for example, knows that Calvin always wants to get a tree that he pities. It seems that in all areas of life Calvin is very sympathetic, concerning himself with everyone and everything. Also, Conrad is clearly aware of Calvin's tendencies to worry. Conrad knows that his father is very concerned about him, and as a result he is making efforts to become more like his normal self. One way he does so is by becoming more decisive, taking an interest in selecting a tree and ordering a meal. Whether or not it is the result of his therapy, Conrad is certainly gaining more "control" just as he as always hoped.

The family fight in chapter 13 shows Guest's interest in authorial objectivity; she does not take sides with any of her characters at the expense of the others. One of the reasons that the Conrad-Beth conflict works well is that it is easy to identify with or understand both characters. We see clearly that Conrad simply disagrees with his mother's outlook on how to relate to her family. Beth is interested in pushing Conrad to get better and move on with life rather than dwell on the past and become a failure again. As a result, she is not at all interested in indulging him, something which Conrad resents. Beth makes the point that Conrad only wants to be around people who will never question or disagree with him, which is certainly one of his character flaws. Because the novel oftentimes feels as though it is told from Conrad's perspective, it is difficult to understand Beth or to sympathize with her. However, Chapter 13 is important for presenting a more rounded and sympathetic picture of her character.

Berger's session with Conrad later that day is an interesting literary means of analyzing the fight of the previous scene. Ordinary People is a psychological novel; Guest intends to engage the reader in the minds of the characters, particularly Conrad. The scenes with Berger are designed to provide clues for the reader into the mindset of Conrad. Sometimes Ordinary People reads a like a mystery novel because the reader is intended to solve the puzzle of what is wrong with Conrad and how he can get better. Structurally, the book is comprised of numerous short chapters, most of which present some angle of Conrad's personality that provides a clue in solving the puzzle.

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