Ordinary People

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Water Symbol Analysis

Water Symbol Icon
Water appears in several different forms throughout Ordinary People. It is arguably the basis of the Jarretts' main conflict, since Buck's death in a sailing accident is the root cause of Conrad's suicide attempt and the ensuing fallout. It also appears in Conrad's environment. As a member of his school's swim team, Conrad spends much of his time in and around water; tellingly, the activity is one which brings him a lot of stress. Precipitation either works against him (as it does in the form of rain or puddles) or yields to him (in the form of melting snow, for example). Most dramatically, water acts as a bridge between Conrad's physical and emotional well-being. Late in the novel the narrator explains that Conrad "does his best thinking" in the shower – and the shower happens to be the place where Conrad works through the trauma of his brother's death. The physical feeling of water joins forces with the memory of sailing to help Conrad process the accident holistically.

Water Quotes in Ordinary People

The Ordinary People quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water. 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.
Epilogue Quotes

In a letter that she wrote to his grandmother she said, "The Aegean is bluer than the Atlantic, and rough and bumpy. It looks just the way the boys drew it on those funny school maps." For she had saved them all—the maps and papers and a construction-paper valentine trimmed with Kleenex-lace that he had made for her—and packed them away in a box he had found in the basement, when they had moved out. Do you save stuff like that if it means nothing to you?

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett, Beth Jarrett
Related Symbols: Color, Water
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to an end, Conrad comes to realize that Beth--in spite of the fact that she has trouble showing her feelings--really does love him deeply. Beth has kept Conrad and Buck's childhood arts and crafts, and clearly thinks of Conrad with nothing but affection. The problem isn't that Beth doesn't love her son--she just doesn't know how to tell him.

The passage is crucial because it reminds us that Conrad's road to recovery hinges upon his decision to forgive Beth. Conrad shows that he's become a much more mature person over the course of the book--he's learned to see the world from other people's point of view, recognizing that we all have different ways of coping with grief and loss. Even if Beth doesn't have the courage or confidence to open up to Conrad, it's suggested, Conrad will make the effort to get closer to his mother and make an effort to understand her feelings.


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Water Symbol Timeline in Ordinary People

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water appears in Ordinary People. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 22
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
...poorly; for a moment he regrets leaving the team. After the meet he tiptoes through the slushy parking lot to get to his car, but on the way he hears his friends complaining about... (full context)
Chapter 26
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
Back at his grandparents' house, Conrad gets a glass of water from the faucet and washes his hands. He soon heads to the living room and... (full context)
Chapter 27
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
Instead of going to Howard and Ellen's house, Conrad returns to his own house to shower. The hot water helps him relax and to think. He remembers Berger's words about the... (full context)
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
As the water rushes over him, Conrad recalls playing a game with his brother in the garage many... (full context)