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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Chapters 15-16

Chapters 13-14

Chapters 17-18

Summary

It is Christmas Day, and Howard and Ellen, Conrad's grandparents and Beth's parents, are at the house to celebrate. Calvin thinks back to the previous Christmas when they had been out of town on vacation. The grandparents cannot help but to notice that something about Conrad looks different. The holiday season also brings to mind the loss of Buck. Together, the family opens gifts. Conrad and his mother are "polite and careful with each other these days." They all go outside to show Conrad his present: a new car. Conrad seems reserved, however, although he is grateful. Howard cannot help but to reflect on how Conrad has grown.

That night, however, Calvin gets lost in his thoughts about his changing family and the healing process. He can think only that "grief is ugly." Beth tells Calvin that he worries too much about Conrad; Calvin replies that Beth does not worry enough. Beth tells Calvin that he spent the whole day moping and bringing everyone else down. Beth finally states that she knew the day would be ruined if they stayed in Chicago instead of going elsewhere. Beth accuses Calvin of wasting money on a car that would not solve the more fundamental problem. Calvin is ready to respond but decides not to. He is instead apologetic, silently wondering why the family cannot just talk about things and heal together rather than separately.

The next month, Conrad decides that he needs to organize his life. He draws up a list of what he needs to work on: finals, exercise, friendships, a job, guitar, books and girls. He draws up comments for each item on the agenda, placing his finals at top priority. He knows that he needs to find new friends; the old are no longer that interested in him. He also knows that he needs to make money. He thinks back to how he and Lazenby always used to discuss girls. He knows nothing about women. He also has an insatiable appetite for learning on his own and reading. He decides that working at the library might be beneficial since he spends so much time there anyway. He asks about employment at the front desk, but he is told that the library is fully staffed. On his way out to his car, he notices a girl looking at him. She apologizes, then tells him that he is good-looking. Conrad is totally struck by her comment as she drives off. He spends lots of time wondering if she is right. He tells Berger about her at the next therapy session. This leads to a discussion of Conrad's sexuality and his sudden awareness of girls and his own desires. Berger suggests that he ask out either Karen or Jeannine, but Conrad says that he is nervous because he doesn't know how to act or what to do. Berger assures him that he'll figure it out. Conrad and Berger both tell one another that they are starting to become friends.

Commentary

This section further builds up the division between Calvin and Beth. Beth chooses to take an "I-told-you-so" attitude towards Calvin. It is interesting though that Calvin chooses not to respond even though he could. Both he and Conrad are adept at keeping things inside and letting them stew, as Berger says. Even though Calvin wants to talk about problems, he is bound by his own determination to not ruffle people's feathers or wound people any further. He is more interested in keeping the peace with his wife than upsetting her. Beth's accusation that Calvin is not willing to challenge anyone at all is valid; Calvin will not even challenge Beth. It becomes more clear as the novel progresses that through their own faults, the characters will not be able to mend their lives and heal together, as Calvin wants. Chapter 15 in particular explores the Beth-Calvin conflict. This is one of the conflicts that cannot be resolved by the end of the book, leading to Beth's decision to leave.

Conrad sits down in Chapter 16 and writes a list of some "virtues" he would like to achieve. He immediately begins to have some success even by the end of the chapter. While he does not get work, he does recognize the need to do well in school, he gets a friend (Berger) and he begins to have an inkling of success with a woman who compliments his looks in the parking lot. His successes seem to suggest that one of his problems in the first half of the book was his inability to organize himself. His goals were unclear if they existed at all. Once Conrad establishes what he wants and commits himself to achieving what he wants, he immediately has some luck. Thus, we see that Conrad can be a naturally dedicated and motivated person when he sets his mind to it. We see that a large part of the healing process for Conrad is to reestablish what motivates him and what he values. In Chapter 16, about halfway through the novel, he finally affirms his values, and immediately begins to do a little bit better. However, it is interesting that he does not list family relations on his list of things to improve. One of the largest conflicts in this novel occurs solely within the Jarrett household. And it is obviously a conflict that Conrad is either hiding from or unable to recognize.

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