Ordinary People

by: Judith Guest

Chapters 17-18


The scene opens on Conrad's birthday. He is cleaning out the garage with Calvin before celebrating. The two of them take a lunch break and chat about guitar, cleaning, and Buck. Conrad takes Calvin into the rec room and shows him where he and Buck had written obscenities on the wall when they didn't feel like doing housework. Calvin has a good laugh as he thinks about his son. Back upstairs again, Calvin brings up the subject of Dr. Berger, and asks Conrad if it is all right for him to see Berger. Calvin says he wants to get some things straight in his own mind. Conrad jokes with Calvin, telling him that there's nothing wrong with him, then says it is all right if he sees Berger. Calvin wonders to himself why he wants to see Berger anyway. He then thinks about his relationship with Beth. He knows that they only open up to one another during sex, and he can tell more and more that there is something wrong between them. He thinks again of Buck and the time Buck broke his arm, but he knows that Buck never worried about anything.

Calvin follows through on his plan to see Berger. Calvin tells Berger that even though he doesn't believe in psychiatry, he thinks Conrad is definitely improving. Berger says that Conrad is beginning to work at getting better. Berger says that Calvin seems guilty. Calvin admits to his feelings of responsibility. Calvin believes that everything in life is accidental, and he no longer considers himself a lucky man even though he had several years ago. Calvin calls himself a drifter, then retracts, calling himself a lousy father. He thinks Beth cannot forgive Conrad. Calvin at last says that he has come to talk about himself, so Berger invites him to do so.

The action moves then to Conrad, who is entering exam week. He begins to panic slightly when he receives his English test, but he gets into a groove eventually and performs well. Later that day, he sees Jeannine and immediately wonders how he expects to win over girls. He nearly passes up a chance to talk to her, then reconsiders and sprints after her. She accepts his offer for a ride home, and they listen to music on the way back. As she leaves the car, she apologizes to Conrad for asking if he had any siblings; she had not known about Buck, but since their last date she had spoken with someone who told her about Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt. Conrad silently regrets not telling her himself. As he drives off, he thinks that his history is a weakness and a liability. Conrad returns home to find that his mother is having a small party. Although he tries to sneak in without greeting anyone, he is intercepted by his friends' mothers. He falls back into some memories of times with Lazenby.

Later on, he calls Karen, but her rude mother answers and tells him that Karen is not there. Conrad leaves his name for her to return his call. Feeling despair, he calls Jeannine out of a sense of hopelessness, but to his surprise and happiness she eagerly sets up a date with him.


The questions on Conrad's English test are amusing because the same questions would fit well to a book such as Ordinary People. The first question, about Jude the Obscure, deals in particular with fatalism, something that Calvin and Berger had been discussing in the previous chapter. Calvin seems to believe that everything is the result of an accident, a philosophy to which Hardy also ascribed. The third question on the test is also interesting because it deals with Joseph Conrad. One cannot help noticing that the central character in Ordinary People and the author of Lord Jim share the same name. It is possible that Guest intends to draw a parallel between Ordinary People and these works of British literature, and between Conrad Jarrett and Joseph Conrad. While Guest most likely does not intent to draw any strict definite parallels, it does help to think about the themes of Ordinary People in relation to other books that address the same issues. Conrad's English test is a subtle way for Guest to suggest some ideas to the reader.

The later parts of Chapter 18 demonstrate the tendency within the narrative to slide between first and third person. The text, via italics, often switches to put us inside Conrad's head. This happens with Calvin too, but not at all with Beth. She is perhaps the most tenuous character in the book because of the three family members we see things from her perspective the least. For instance, when Conrad comes home to find her having a party, we see nothing of Beth except her quiet, polite demeanor towards her son in the company of others. We know what Conrad is thinking and feeling most of the time, but Beth is more of a mystery. Some critics have argued that she does not receive a totally fair treatment in the novel compared to the other Jarretts.