Ordinary People

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Ordinary People Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Beth's parents Howard and Ellen visit the Jarretts for Christmas. Cal surveys the scene quietly; Ellen's good looks remind him of Beth's, and he finds the dull grayness of winter in Chicago much more of a "reality" than the extreme beauty and always-pleasant weather of Christmas in Florida. Soon Conrad makes his way into the living room and greets his grandparents. Surprisingly, he is decked in a nicer-than-usual outfit, and the mysterious skin rash he'd been worrying about for days before is gone. The pleasant exchange gets the best of Cal – without warning, he thinks of Buck.
Cal's memory of the too-perfect appearance of Florida tempers the scene in his own house. Seeing Conrad by his good-looking, well-dressed, and too-polite family members is a hint that his present situation may, in a way, be just as bad as the scenario he remembers. Cal, however, does not suspect such a thing to be true.
Themes
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
A gentle sense of calm settles as the family exchange gifts after dinner. The parents and grandparents have all opened their gifts, and Howard and Cal can barely wait to give Conrad his biggest present. Urging him to look out onto the driveway, everyone crowds around the door as Conrad opens it to find a brand new car sitting in front of the house. Cal beams with pride, but Conrad's expression is blank. Soon Cal worries that his son doesn't like his surprise present. Conrad assures Cal and Howard (somewhat shakily) to the contrary and decides to take the car for a test drive. As Beth and Ellen withdraw into the house, Cal begins to feel disappointed.
The narration closely follows Cal's thoughts through this scene. Its emotional arc may seem a little jarring—fragile and tense at first, slightly anticlimactic as Conrad sees the car, and melancholy as the family goes back into the house—but that's because Cal insists on giving every aspect of the scene a definite meaning. Conrad's reactions are even described as "blank and unreadable," but Cal's constant need to understand leads him to draw a negative conclusion.
Themes
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
After the day's activities, Beth and Cal linger in the living room. Cal broods quietly, worrying that his family's recent grief has stolen something special from their Christmas. Soon he tries to engage Beth in small talk about Conrad's apparent disappointment, but she retorts that Cal "worr[ies] too much about him." What's more, she complains that Cal asks too much in wanting a perfect family. Cal defends himself. He voices his worry for Conrad and boasts that he, unlike Beth, is invested in his son's well-being. Not taking the accusation well, Beth storms into the kitchen and continues cleaning up. Cal realizes that his family is still deep in the process of grieving, but for the moment he can see no way past it.
Cal's constant worry makes him sensitive to the fact that his family's interactions will always be tainted by Buck's death. It's an important view, but it also means he's unable to take each event as it comes. Beth is annoyed by his big-picture perspective; she considers it too unrealistic.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon