Ordinary People

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Ordinary People Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Judith Guest's Ordinary People. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Judith Guest
Guest graduated from the University of Michigan in 1958 and became a grade-school teacher shortly thereafter. Though she has been writing since the age of eleven, Guest claims to have completed very few pieces until she entered a short story-writing contest in 1970. Shortly thereafter she stepped away from teaching to "concentrate on finishing something"; the result was Ordinary People, a short story that eventually grew into her first novel after three years of work. Published in 1976, the novel was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize the same year. Guest has since written five more novels in addition to several short stories and non-fiction pieces. She currently lives in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota.
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Other Books Related to Ordinary People
Ordinary People is one of the many psychological novels to emerge from the 60s and 70s. Books like Flowers for Algernon (1966) appeared at a time when psychiatry was gaining interest in mainstream American culture. At about the same time, "realistic fiction" for young adults was coming into its own. While Guest's novel was not explicitly written or marketed as a book for young adults, the presence of complex teen-aged characters put it on par with novels such as Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye.
Key Facts about Ordinary People
  • Full Title: Ordinary People
  • When Written: 1976
  • Where Written: Michigan
  • When Published: 1976
  • Genre: Psychological realism
  • Setting: Evanston, Illinois (a town just outside of Chicago; home to Northwestern University), especially Conrad's school, Lake Forest High; some scenes in Chicago and Dallas, Texas
  • Climax: Conrad learns about his friend Karen's suicide.
  • Antagonist: While each character may feel at odds with different characters at different times, many of them struggle hardest against their own thoughts and emotions.
  • Point of View: Third-person subjective; alternates between an "omniscient" narrator and the (implied) ideas and voices of each character
Extra Credit for Ordinary People

From Page to Screen. Ordinary People was adapted into a film in 1980. Directed by Robert Redford and starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, the film eventually won four Academy Awards—including the year's title for Best Picture.

Too Hot to Handle? Ordinary People's challenging content is not without its critics. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the 100 books "most frequently challenged" between 1990 and 1999, making it a mainstay of many Banned Books Week reading lists.