Ordinary People

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Ordinary People Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Conrad stands on his front porch, awaiting his ride to school. Lazenby is running a few minutes late, and for a moment the thought of having to drive to school with his mother makes him anxious. Eventually his friend pulls into the driveway—with Stillman and Van Buren in tow.
With the "crisp and cool" weather whipping around him and the words of his parents and grandparents echoing in his mind, a wave of discomfort attacks Conrad inside and out.
Themes
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
Conrad and the rowdy threesome make their way to school. Complaints about swim practice and the previous night's homework ensue. During the conversation, it's made known that Conrad is one year behind his friends in school (he's a high-school junior; they are seniors). Soon, the car passes Jeannine Pratt, a student who's still fairly new to the school. Upon first sight of her Conrad is captivated—however, Stillman's teasing quickly sours the moment.
Unfortunately, Conrad's friends are as a big a source of stress for him as his family. Their mocking, sarcastic conversation stifles his ability to relax, or even to be emotionally honest. The physical stress he feels before getting into Lazenby's car is only aggravated by the ride to school.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
First-period English class gives Conrad a tough time. He gets distracted during class, and his teacher senses his stress. He insists he's fine. He feels he must say this—after all, keeping up with schoolwork, swimming, and choir leave him no time to slow down. Choir rehearsal brings him some relief from the day's rocky start; it eases his feelings of isolation and helplessness. As the period ends, Conrad meets Jeannine for the first time.
As explained in the first chapter, Conrad feels that schoolwork is the area of his life over which he has the most control (however little that may be). Music, though, unites his mind and body. Yet meeting Jeannine is the first instance in which we see Conrad completely without control—though not in a negative way; he's just stunned by her.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
After choir comes swimming practice. Conrad's coach Salan is surprised to catch him yawning, and after practice he awkwardly confronts Conrad in order to check in with him. When Salan asks him if he's enjoying his time on the team, Conrad responds with a shaky "I guess." Salan offers a couple of well-meaning questions about Conrad's mental health, but they only increase the awkwardness of the situation. Conrad assures his coach that he will be more alert at the next practice.
While schoolwork stresses Conrad mentally, swimming brings him physical discomfort. He isn't able to provide the coordination and alertness the sport demands. The narrator's close attention to Salan's imposing physique and the swimming suggest a world that intrudes on Conrad's attempt to keep calm. Nevertheless, Conrad tries to assure himself (and his coach) that he's got everything under control.
Themes
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
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During the ride home, Lazenby and Stillman discuss a couple of impressive sophomores on the swim team. (It so happens that the two swimmers have constantly beaten Conrad in practice "every day for two weeks.") Eventually Conrad makes it home. At first he thinks he's alone—the house is dark and quiet—but he accidentally startles Beth as she enters the house and climbs the stairs. They have a stilted chat about their day; after a few minutes she complains about having a headache and withdraws into her room. Conrad does the same as a new bout of unease begins to brew inside of him.
Conrad's attempts at control are not as effective as he might have hoped. The sense of control he's felt through the day completely dissolves when he unexpectedly runs into Beth. This encounter contrasts sharply with Jeannine's greeting after choir practice. Here, surprise is not liberating, but stifling.
Themes
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon