Ordinary People

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Ordinary People Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Conrad spends part of his birthday cleaning the garage with Cal. When the work is done, the two share sandwiches and beers. They also discuss memories of cleaning the garage long ago, when Conrad and Buck were children. Cal remembers the two of them writing dirty words in hidden nooks and crannies; Conrad recalls where they are, and is able to show them to Cal. Both of them are pleasantly surprised by the discovery.
The narration describes the beers as "golden," which is a small but significant detail as gold in the novel symbolizes insight or honesty. In this moment, Conrad and Cal are able to be more earnest with each other than they have at any other point in the novel. They are even allowed to reminisce about Buck. For once, Conrad allows himself to experience emotion.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Cal notices his son's unusually good mood. Curious, he asks about Berger and what he and Conrad discuss in their sessions. Cal throws out the idea of going to see Berger himself, which shocks Conrad. However, Cal promises his son that the visit would only be for his personal benefit. Conrad doesn't understand why, as he doesn't consider anything to be wrong with his father. Cal can't point to any particular problem either, but impressions of Beth, Conrad, and even Buck come to mind as he considers making an appointment.
Even though the idea is his own, Cal can't actually figure out why he wants to meet with Berger. For once, his desire for control is dampened. In its place comes an awareness of his role in his family. Cal's confusion, combined with his quick series of thoughts about his family members, suggest that Cal is most in touch with himself when he values personal connections and vulnerability above the need to control fate.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Cal meets with Berger. Like his son, Cal is struck by Berger's crazed appearance and the "sharp, stinging blue" of his eyes. His nervous attention to detail runs wild in Berger's office, causing his attention to jump from walls to bookcases to his own feelings and back again. He eventually admits to Berger that despite his efforts, he feels powerless – especially when it comes to managing the relationship between Conrad and Beth's relationship.
During his time with Berger, Cal cycles between "noticing," physical sensation, and flashbacks. Here we see the difficult process of recovery in action; all parts of Cal are working together to reach some deeper realization.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
Revealing so much about himself so quickly makes Cal feel self-conscious, but Berger's easy manner encourages him to continue. Jokingly, Cal remembers Conrad's habit of calling the mental hospital "The Zoo"; to his relief, Berger's office is nothing like The Zoo. Slowly but surely, Cal warms up to sharing his problems with Berger.
The small amount of progress Cal makes is snuffed out. For now, he is unwilling to let himself take the process all the way. But Berger's lighthearted observation that he and Conrad have a lot in common encourages Cal to loosen up and continue talking.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
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