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Ordinary People

Judith Guest

Study Question s

Analysis

Review Quiz

What are the problems with the relationship between Beth and Calvin?

A good answer would mention their communication failure that seems to be the result of two very different outlooks on healing. Beth wants to move on with life rather than constantly dwelling on the past. Calvin, on the other hand, wants to heal by talking through the past and seeing how everyone is feeling, particularly his son. On this issue, Beth and Calvin can never agree to disagree because they feel that the stakes are too high. Also, Beth as a character seems resistant to change. Towards the end of the novel, she tells Calvin in a straightforward fashion that she has not changed at all; he is the only one who has changed. And she dislikes the way in which he has changed. It should be noted that these problems seem insurmountable, which is what leads to their separation at the end of the novel.

How does the relationship between Calvin and Conrad change over the course of the novel?

Over the course of the novel, we see that Calvin and Conrad come together. They begin the novel with a very awkward relationship. Calvin insists on always worrying about his son, but he also wants to seem like he is not breathing down his neck all the time. Conrad, by contrast, does not want his father to worry about him. Throughout the novel, Beth accurately points out that Calvin will never criticize Conrad for anything at all. Beth thinks that Conrad has Calvin wrapped around his finger. It is only at the end of the novel when Beth has gone and Calvin finally does criticize his son that they are able to come together in a real relationship. The novel ends on a very optimistic note with regards to the Calvin-Conrad relationship.

What role do minor characters such a Jeannine, Ray, and Karen play in the novel?

A good answer would discuss their role as examples for how the other characters could turn out. Jeannine's parents are divorced, and she has been troubled by the ramifications of that divorce. Her story serves to remind the reader that Conrad may soon find himself in the same position. When we see the similarity between the situations of the two, we are better able to visualize Conrad in that same position later in the novel. Ray, by contrast, provides a model of how a marriage can be mended. Despite his affair, he and his wife were able to mend their differences and enjoy a very strong marriage. The insertion of Ray's story early in the novel reminds us that despite their differences, there is a chance that Calvin and Beth will be able to heal like Ray and his wife. Karen's character provides a dark reminder that just because Conrad seems to be getting better, there is no guarantee that he actually is. Karen seemed to be in even better shape than Conrad, but she nevertheless did manage to commit suicide the second time she tried. When we learn of her death, we are reminded of the similarities between her and Conrad which leads us to speculate what will happen to Conrad in the future.

In what ways does Conrad change during the novel?

Present-tense, stream-of-consciousness, flashbacks, and third-person narrative: comment on some of the literary techniques in the novel. How do they function with one another? What effect does the writing style have on the reader?

Ordinary People relies on a plot heavily influenced by chance or fate. The death of Buck, for instance, was a freak occurrence that came about as the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Comment on the role fate plays in the novel as opposed to free choice. It may help to refer to the incorporation of Jude the Obscure into the novel's early chapters.

What motivates Beth?

How does Dr. Berger help Conrad?

Comment on the title of the novel. In what way is this book about "ordinary people"? Given the fact that most parents do not lose a teenage son to death, and most parents do not have to deal with suicidal teenage sons, can the Jarrett family still be called "ordinary"?

In what ways is this novel a coming-of-age story? In what ways is it a return-to-innocence story?

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