Ordinary People

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Calvin (Cal) Jarrett Character Analysis

Calvin, who is called Cal throughout the novel, is father to Conrad and Buck and husband to Beth Jarrett. A childhood spent in an orphanage fuels Cal's deep desire to care and provide for his family, and is a major factor in his eventual decision to become a lawyer. Despite his material comfort, Cal harbors a deep sense of responsibility for both of his sons' misfortunes. A sense of helplessness in the face of fate – combined with the looming memory of his one-time mentor Arnold Bacon – is Cal's main obstacle.

Calvin (Cal) Jarrett Quotes in Ordinary People

The Ordinary People quotes below are all either spoken by Calvin (Cal) Jarrett or refer to Calvin (Cal) Jarrett. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Ordinary People published in 1982.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He was named Calvin, for his dead uncle; Jarrett had been his mother's maiden name. When she came to see him, she came alone. No one claiming to be his father had ever been in attendance; he had no memories of being any man's son. So, if anyone should ask, he can always point out that he had no example to follow.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Here, we're introduced to another of the novel's main characters, Calvin Jarrett. Cal is a gentle, good-natured man, who thanks his lucky stars that he has a beautiful wife, a good job, and a loving son. We're told that Cal came from a rather rough background--he was raised in an orphanage, rarely saw his mother, and he never knew his father. Cal likes to joke that because he never had a father, he never had an example to follow when he became a parent himself. The passage is important, then, because it shows Calvin making light of sadness and loneliness--we get the sense that he's learned how to laugh at his own pain over the years. Ironically, Calvin's lack of a father may explain why he's such a loving father himself--instead of just modeling himself off of how he's supposed to behave (like his wife, we'll see), Calvin does what he feels to be right when raising his child.
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Responsibility. That is fatherhood. You cannot afford to miss any signs, because that is how it happens: somebody holding too much inside, somebody else missing signs.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Calvin continues to muse on his son, whom he clearly loves deeply. Calvin notices that Conrad has been unhappy lately, despite the fact that Conrad claims to be fine. Calvin is obsessed with control and external details--because Conrad refuses to communicate with him openly, Calvin has no choice but to pick up on the "signs."

In spite of the fact that he never had a father on whom to model his behavior, Calvin seems to be a remarkably attentive father. He wants the best for his child, even if he doesn't always know how to provide it. Above all, Calvin is wise enough to realize the "stakes" of his parenting--he wants to make sure that Conrad has someone to talk to, so that his depression and self-hatred aren't just "held inside." At the same time, this constant desire for control and understanding may in fact be driving Conrad to act less communicative than he might otherwise be.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Self-possessed is what she is; he emphatically does not own her, nor does he have control over her, nor can he understand or even predict with reliability her moods, her attitudes. She is a marvelous mystery to him; as complex, as interesting as she appeared to him on that first day he met her some twenty-two years ago on the tennis courts at the Beverly Racquet Club.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett, Beth Jarrett
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we get a better sense for the relationship between Calvin and Beth. Beth is a beautiful, self-possessed woman who always knows how to take care of herself; she places great stock in being confident, collected, and reliable. Calvin is dazzled by his wife's confidence, and respects her greatly for it. He seems to be very much in love with her; in part, we sense, he continues to love her because he doesn't totally understand her--she's still a dazzling mystery to him after 22 years.

The passage shows Beth's strengths, and yet also implies that her strengths might be weaknesses when it comes to caring for children. Beth's emphasis on strength and confidence doesn't endear her to her son, Conrad, who's in the grips of depression, and likewise Beth finds it difficult to understand Conrad. Beth struggles to open up to other people; as a result, Conrad has an equally hard time opening up to her.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Later on, he may become bored and drink too much. Or else he will enjoy himself, relax, and drink too much. Another familiar pattern. He has noted this about himself lately: that he drinks too much when they go out. Because drinking helps. It has gotten him through many evenings, either deadening the pain or raising him above it to where small events seem pleasurable and worth recording.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Calvin thinks about his tendency to drink too much at parties that he attends with his wife. While Beth (seemingly) finds it easy to be relaxed and have a good time at parties, Calvin finds it tough not to express his true feelings. Calvin and Beth have been through a lot lately--their son died, and their other son tried to kill himself. Beth seems much more adept than her husband at "bottling up" her feelings.

The passage suggests that Conrad isn't the only one who struggles with his true feelings. Calvin, just like his son, has a lot on his mind, and can't always find someone to talk to. Drinking at parties (essentially hurting his body to try to comfort his mind) and talking about the "real issues" is a way for Calvin to let off some steam and relieve his inner tension. Often, Calvin feels that he has no other way to tell people how he feels.

Chapter 11 Quotes

"…Beth, too. How is she? I only see her at bridge once a month, and we never seem to get a chance to talk."
"She's busy, too," Cal says. "She's chairing the tennis tournament at Onwentsia next spring. She spends a lot of time over there."
"I admire her organization," Carole says. "She's such a perfectionist. And yet she never lets herself get trapped into things she doesn't want to do. Now, there's an art. I'm just beginning to learn the trick myself. I hope it's not too late!"

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett (speaker), Beth Jarrett
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Cal runs into a family friend, Carole Lazenby, the mother of Lazenby (Conrad's friend). Carole asks Cal for an update on Beth--Carole has known Beth a long time, and complains that she only sees Beth at bridge now. Interestingly, Carole seems not to realize that anything is wrong with Beth--despite the fact that Beth has lost a son recently, Carole thinks of Beth as a perfectly composed, organized person.

Beth's commitment to organization and control is impressive, one could say--but it's also unnerving how little emotion Beth shows regarding her sons; one gets the idea that she's in denial about Conrad's depression. And the fact that Carole asks Cal for updates on Beth underscores the sad fact that Cal, too, doesn't really know Beth is doing--Beth is so focused on outward appearances and controlling everything that Cal himself doesn't really have any information on his wife that Carole isn't already aware of.

Chapter 13 Quotes

His nerves are raw. His eyes feel as if they have sunk back into his head, pulling the flesh down. "Beth. Please. Let's just go upstairs!"
"No! I will not be pushed!" she says. She moves away from him to stand before the window, looking out. Calmly she says, "I will not be manipulated."

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett (speaker), Beth Jarrett (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this tense scene, Conrad explodes at his mother for refusing to visit him while he was in the hospital. Beth, he suggests, is so closed-off that she won't admit the truth--she doesn't love him as much as she says she does. Curiously, Beth doesn't respond to Conrad's accusations with understanding or sympathy. She weeps, but mostly she just digs in her heels, insisting that she won't be manipulated into changing her behavior. In other words, Beth sees Conrad's outburst as a simple attempt to manipulate her, rather than a sincere expression of his feelings (which we know it to be).

The passage is a great example of how Berger's techniques actually help Conrad in the long run. Conrad's outburst might not seem productive in this chapter alone, but because he lets Beth know how he's been feeling, the fundamental problems in Conrad's family become clearer, and Conrad moves one step closer to remedying them.

Chapter 21 Quotes

"If I were here," she had said, "I would never come back. Not for a house in Glencoe, not for the children, not for anything. It is too humiliating."
"Why? She loves him. What does it matter?"
"It matters that we know about it," she said.
"Suppose nobody knew about it? Then would it be humiliating?"
"I would know," she said, "and you would know. That's enough."

A thrill of fear had touched him. Is it that some people are not given a capacity for forgiveness, just as some are cheated out of beauty by a pointed nose, or not allowed the adequate amount of brain matter? It is not in her nature to forgive.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett (speaker), Beth Jarrett (speaker), Ray Hanley
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Beth and Cal discuss their friend Ray Hanley, who's had an affair recently. The discussion brings out a lot about their personalities. Cal seems more willing to forgive people for their mistakes--even adultery. Beth, on the other hand, seems incapable of forgiveness of any kind--if her husband were to cheat on her, she claims, she would never be able to take him back. Cal, thinking that Beth is more frightened of the public humiliation of an affair--i.e., other people knowing about it--suggests such a possibility to Beth. Beth, however, insists that she would never be able to forgive him for having an affair, no matter who did or didn't know about it--and no matter the repercussions (like losing her house or custody of her children).

We and Cal both begin to get a better idea of Beth's character here. Beth is not a forgiving person--it's almost like something in her genetics. But Beth usually makes up for her inability to forgive by being an incredibly positive-seeming person; she's always collected and calm around other people. Beneath the surface, though, there's a lot of resentment and hatred, which she never shows other people.

Chapter 25 Quotes

But it surprises him that she would be as reserved with Audrey. She likes Audrey. And it was an honest question. An honest interest, not like Marty Genthe's. Why duck it? He is in the process of making a discovery: that he never knows how to read her, and she offers him no clues. There are fewer and fewer openings into the vast obscurity of her nature. He is on the outside, looking in, all the time. Has he always been?

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett, Beth Jarrett, Audrey Butler
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, narrated from Cal's point of view, Cal and his wife are visiting with a friend, Audrey Butler. Audrey asks Beth about Conrad, and to Cal's surprise, Beth doesn't offer a genuine response--she seems reserved, as if she's hiding something. Cal can't understand why Beth is being so reticent with someone she considers a friend.

Cal's observations remind him that Beth has been more closeted and quiet in general lately--and perhaps always has been. While she continues to be cheerful and confident around friends, she almost never tells Cal about her feelings--Cal, more and more, feels that he's on the outside, looking in at Beth (and wonders if their previous closeness was just a delusion of his). As the novel goes on, then, Cal and Beth become more distant with each other: their different responses to Conrad's emotional struggle drive them apart and reveal the basic differences in their personalities.

Chapter 31 Quotes

And there are too many rooms to which he has no access; too much that he doesn't understand any more. If he could know what he used to know! But what did he really know? There is addiction here: to secrecy; to a private core within herself that is so much deeper than he ever imagined it to be. He has no such core; at least, he cannot find it, if it is there. Is it fair to deny her the right to keep it, because he hasn't this space? This need?

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett, Beth Jarrett
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Cal begins to accept that he'll never really understand his wife, and vice-versa. Beth is an intensely private person--she doesn't feel comfortable showing off her emotions or expressing them to other people, even her own family. As Beth packs her things, seemingly intending to leave Cal forever, Cal wonders how they've grown so far apart. As he thinks, Cal comes to realize that he and Beth have always had major differences--it wasn't until Conrad's depression began that Cal became aware of how different he and his wife were.

In a nutshell, Beth seems to have a "secret center," which she can't share with anybody. Cal, by contrast, has no guardedness--he prefers to share his feelings with other people. The passage doesn't necessarily say that Cal's approach to life is better than Beth's, but it does suggests that Cal and Beth are leaving each other because of irreconcilable differences--their strategies for coping with grief, and with life itself, are just too different.

For he sees something else here: that her outer life is deceiving; that she gives the appearance of orderliness, of a cash-register practicality about herself; but inside, what he has glimpsed is not order, but chaos; not practicality at all, but stubborn, incredible impulse.

Related Characters: Calvin (Cal) Jarrett, Beth Jarrett
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, the novel seems to feel sorry for Beth. In part because of the way she was raised, she struggles to cope with grief--she doesn't know how to show emotions or share them with other people. While people cope with grief in many different ways, the novel comes to suggest that Beth's strategies for coping with her feelings simply aren't healthy. The key word in this passage is "deceiving." Cal realizes that his (soon-to-be-ex) wife can only get through life by lying to herself. She tells herself that everything is fine--even if it's clearly not. For years, however, Beth's deceptions have worked: she's fooled all of her friends and neighbors (and Cal himself) into believing that she and Cal have the perfect marriage, and even fooled herself into believing that she's happy. Cal comes to feel sorry for his wife: she's so stubborn in her behavior that she can't stand showing any weakness, and possibly doesn't even know how to.

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Calvin (Cal) Jarrett Character Timeline in Ordinary People

The timeline below shows where the character Calvin (Cal) Jarrett appears in Ordinary People. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Conrad hears the voice of his father, Calvin, calling to him from the other end of the hall. Conrad is jolted out... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Down the hall from Conrad's room, Calvin (Conrad's father, called Cal for short) and Beth (his mother) are also starting their day.... (full context)
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Given his own lack of a father and family as a child, Cal worries about how to be a good father. But... (full context)
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Being a good father, Cal believes, requires giving a healthy amount of distance. He feels that his best accomplishment... (full context)
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All of the Jarretts gather in the kitchen for breakfast. Cal checks in with Conrad to see how things are going. With a healthy dose of... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Beth has asked Cal to lunch with promises of "good news." As Cal enters the restaurant to meet her,... (full context)
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As Cal approaches Beth, she produces a folder full of information from a travel agency. Beth eagerly... (full context)
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Back at the office, Cal mulls over some projects he is working on. He glances out of his office window,... (full context)
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After a little while Cal decides to look up Dr. Tyrone Berger's phone number, all the while reviewing his responsibilities... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Cal studies his secretary, Cherry, as she looks for a file in the office. He notices... (full context)
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Cherry returns to Cal's office with the papers she'd been looking for. Once again he studies her behavior, this... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Conrad returns home from his visit with Karen. He finds Cal watching TV in the living room; the two make small talk about the day, the... (full context)
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After dinner comes more conversation. Cal chats with Mrs. Murray and Mrs. Genthe. The latter asks again how Conrad is doing,... (full context)
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The Jarretts return home. As he heads toward his room, Cal looks in on Conrad (who has fallen asleep studying). He looks around Conrad's room, paying... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Cal makes his routine stop by Conrad's room to check in with him. Conrad flatly claims... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Cherry is devastated after breaking up with her boyfriend. Ray is annoyed, but Cal feels for her. The normally perky secretary's emotional breakdown catches him off guard, and soon... (full context)
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At lunchtime Cal runs into Carole Lazenby. Not having seen each other in a while, they go to... (full context)
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After lunch Cal considers Carole's remarks about Beth, comparing her seeming composure to what he remembers of the... (full context)
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Cal and Beth chat about their day later that evening. Cal reminds Beth about a car... (full context)
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Cal recalls a conversation he'd had with Ray's wife Nancy at a party seven years before.... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Christmas is quickly approaching. Cal and Conrad are at a local tree farm, selecting a fir to display in their... (full context)
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Cal and Conrad begin setting up the tree in their living room. Beth returns home from... (full context)
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...about him. Mother and son loudly blame each other for wanting to hurt the other. Cal tries to step in, but Conrad continues unloading on Beth. He expresses his resentment for... (full context)
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Cal tries to comfort Beth, who is shaking and sobbing. He wants the two to make... (full context)
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Cal finds Conrad lying face down on his bed. He tries to persuade Conrad to apologize... (full context)
Chapter 15
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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After the day's activities, Beth and Cal linger in the living room. Cal broods quietly, worrying that his family's recent grief has... (full context)
Chapter 17
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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... (full context)
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Cal notices his son's unusually good mood. Curious, he asks about Berger and what he and... (full context)
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Cal meets with Berger. Like his son, Cal is struck by Berger's crazed appearance and the... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 19
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Cal and Ray have worked late into the night to catch up with work. Productivity has... (full context)
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Ray searches for the root of Cal's disappointment. He tries to console Cal, explaining that Conrad will be off to college in... (full context)
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Ray tries to ease Cal's burden, offering him the idea that life is nothing more than a series of "more-or-less... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Jeannine tells Conrad about her family on the ride home. Her parents are divorced; her father is a salesman in Akron, Ohio, and her mother is a nurse in a nearby... (full context)
Chapter 21
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Cal tells Beth about the golf tournament. Since they were unable to travel to Europe for... (full context)
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Thoughts of Arnold Bacon cut in. Unlike Cal, the feeling of safety didn't restrain Bacon from making painful choices, including "withdraw[ing] friendship" and... (full context)
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The intense memories bring Cal to the verge of tears (a common occurrence since visiting Dr. Berger). He remembered Beth's... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Cal comes home around midnight. He sees Conrad on the couch; he'd presumably fallen asleep while... (full context)
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Cal hears the sound of Beth's breathing as he prepares for bed. In the moment he... (full context)
Chapter 24
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Cal and Beth head off to Dallas. Conrad decides to stay with his grandparents Howard and... (full context)
Chapter 25
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Cal relaxes at Ward and Audrey's house after a day playing golf. Beth and her brother... (full context)
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Inwardly, Cal sympathizes with Audrey. He, too, has sensed Beth's growing reluctance to discuss certain issues. He... (full context)
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...hesitates a bit but answers affirmatively. Ward asks a couple of questions about Conrad, but Cal is the one who answers him – Beth drops out, staring silently at her wristwatch... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...tied Conrad up with clothesline and gagged him with a handkerchief; as the game escalates Cal enters the garage and is shocked at the scene. He scolds and spanks Buck, who... (full context)
Chapter 28
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Ward, Audrey, Beth, and Cal spend the evening outdoors, watching Charlie and Kerry swim in the backyard pool. Cal has... (full context)
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Cal and Beth have a pleasant exchange about the tournament. Beth even suggests that she and... (full context)
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...and the Jarretts have had a few more rounds of drinks before dinner, during which Cal has allowed himself to get drunk. He and Beth are no longer sitting by one... (full context)
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Beth rails against Cal's moping. She blames him for wanting to dampen her mood. Cal doesn't understand why Beth... (full context)
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...an attempt to manipulate her emotions; it seemed like an elaborate accusation against her. Though Cal tries to persuade Beth that her view of the situation is too selfish, she believes... (full context)
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Ward tries to soothe his sister. He expresses the desire for her, Cal, and Conrad to be happy. The word triggers her; she lashes out at Ward, sarcastically... (full context)
Chapter 29
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Beth and Cal return home without speaking to one another. Cal has finally realized that trying to help... (full context)
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Beth, Cal, and, and Conrad go to dinner. Cal is surprised at Beth's attention to their son;... (full context)
Chapter 31
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Beth packs her things. She decides to leave Cal because she resents his pity for her. He wants to talk to her about the... (full context)
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After breakfast, Conrad and Cal go out onto the porch. Cal feels cold, but Conrad is excited about the warmth... (full context)
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After a stunned silence, Cal apologizes for yelling at Conrad. Conrad responds to the contrary; he appreciates his father's decision... (full context)