Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, is a touching, sensitive novel that deals with healing and moving on from a tragedy or a difficult situation. It uniquely tells the stories of two different people and their personal situations from chapter to chapter, and how each person recovers from his/her problems. The reader is taken into their lives to share and sympathize with their misunderstandings, their pain, and their ultimate healing.
The novel begins with the statement: “To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle.” This statement is true because in order to actually be successful, one must know what they want to become in life. Guest compares these “guiding principles” to bumper stickers, since they identify and summarize the beliefs of different people. The main characters that the author focuses on in this novel are Conrad and Calvin Jarrett. The Jarrett family has been traumatized from a boating accident, which killed their eldest son, Jordan “Buck” Jarrett. Conrad, Calvin’s son, has been affected so greatly by this tragedy that he attempted to commit suicide about six months later by slashing his wrists with a razor.
Conrad’s parents, Calvin and Beth, admitted him to a psychiatric hospital after his attempt, and he was released about a month later. At this point, Conrad is at a “recovery stage” in his life and is trying to put his life in place. He also has yet to find a “bumper sticker”; he feels like he needs motivation from someone to actually have a guiding principle. Throughout the novel, Conrad begins to recover from the tragic death of his beloved brother in various ways, such as visiting a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger twice a week, focusing on schoolwork, and dating a girl named Jeannine to boost his self-esteem and self-confidence.
Calvin, Conrad’s father, begins to face serious marital problems and disagreements with his wife, Beth, later in the book. Calvin believes that the way to heal the wounds of the past is to talk about them and discuss feelings, while Beth only wants to move on from the past. Calvin has always been worrying intently about his son since his suicidal attempt, which Beth dislikes because she has always been focused on the future, rather than the past. Their conflict is resolved at the end of the novel when Beth leaves.
Guest’s novel also has a unique structure. The novel alternates between the lives of Conrad and Calvin from chapter to chapter; however, each person is affected differently. As Conrad is healing from the death of his brother and his suicidal attempt by getting his life together, the marriage of Conrad and Beth is spiraling downward until it collapses. Another unique structural tactic of this novel is that it begins with the somewhat ruined lives of people, and then shows the gradual recovery of their damaged lives. Usually, novels start out with the lives of innocent people who become wiser and more mature as time goes by after going through life-changing experiences, which shows that Ordinary People tells this “coming-of-age” story backwards.
The main theme in this novel is that healing from a certain tragedy is possible on an individual level, but difficult as a group. Since Conrad is healing individually, he manages to recover from his past experiences and put himself in a positive state by the end of the novel. However, Calvin and Beth, who are trying to heal as a couple, fail to do so. The difference, in this particular situation, is the amount of communication that each person is doing. Since Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist twice a week, he has someone to talk to about his problems and find solutions to resolve these situations. Since Calvin and Beth never actually “communicated” but fought with each other most of the time, they failed to heal not only their problems, but their wounded marriage.
This story can also be interpreted as a story of how two people form a meaningful relationship. In the beginning of the novel, Conrad and Calvin did not have such a good relationship. Conrad never seemed to appreciate his father, even though Calvin never ceased to satisfy his beloved son. However, as Conrad recovers from his tragic experiences, and as Calvin splits with his wife, Beth, the two form a strong and meaningful father-and-son relationship, gradually beginning to understand each other and resolve their differences. By the end of the novel, the two move into a house in Evanston, Illinois to forget about the past and move on with their lives, one step at a time.
Even through all the tragic instances and disturbing psychological implications, Ordinary People is an optimistic novel; it shows that healing is indeed possible, even from the most difficult situations. It also shows that a strong, meaningful relationship can take place, even with past problems of communication. The main message that the novel expresses is that even though the world is ruined at its present state, it will not be ruined forever.