Ordinary People

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Body/Mind Duality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mental Disorder Theme Icon
Fate vs. Responsibility Theme Icon
"Family" and Love Theme Icon
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ordinary People, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Body/Mind Duality Theme Icon

For Conrad (and many of the other characters in the novel), there is a struggle to reconcile physical sensations with mental convictions. When achieved, that reconciliation forms the basis of recovery and well-being. As Berger repeatedly warns Conrad, "The body never lies." Conrad and his family members are often tangled up in their own thoughts, blaming themselves for ideas they cling to, or worrying about what others may think of them. Yet in many cases, Conrad's biggest enemy is not his mind but his body. His reactions to stressful situations are often physical before they become mental, and Guest's narration repeatedly weaves sensory material into mental reactions. In those moments, Conrad's physical reactions play a big part in shaping his thoughts, emotions, and actions.

At the opening of the novel, Conrad faintly realizes that putting mind and body in agreement will keep him healthy. He therefore tries to control and repress physical signs of anxiety by sticking to a plan he's made to get him through the day. Even if he doesn't quite believe it, he believes he must "Get the motions right. Motives will follow. That is Faith." But despite his good intentions, Conrad spends most of the novel splitting the mental and physical parts of himself – exploring his mental and emotional life with Berger, but experiencing lots of physical stress everywhere else. The same is true for Conrad's school activities. He finds no joy in swimming, where he cannot "[improve his] timing" or "[perfect] a stroke" without the right motivation; his schoolwork is a constant source of mental stress. But singing in his school choir demands equal amounts of concentration and control – which makes it one of Conrad's favorite activities. And his relationship with Jeannine begins to deepen in a moment of play-acting depicted in Chapter 20: the words and ideas of an imaginary couple are brought to life by Conrad and Jeannine's own bodies, which eventually leads to their first kiss, more dates, and, eventually, the first time they have sex—one of the novel's most vivid depiction of both physical and emotional healing.

Conrad finally learns to forgive himself when, at the book's climax, his memories of the boating accident meld with the different physical sensations he experiences while showering. Before that point, his nightmares are often intensely physical. Mind and body often seem at odds with one another, but they don't have to be – nor should they be. When Conrad integrates them, he "is in touch for good, with hope, with himself, no matter what. Berger is right, the body never lies."

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Body/Mind Duality Quotes in Ordinary People

Below you will find the important quotes in Ordinary People related to the theme of Body/Mind Duality.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Choir is the one time of day when he lets down his guard; there is peace in the strict concentration that Faughnan demands of all of them, in the sweet dissonance of voices in chorus. He has sung in here since he was a freshman. …Every minute of every hour that is spent there, they work, and there is only one way to prove yourself. You sing, and sing, and sing. All else is unimportant.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett
Related Symbols: Music
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn a lot about what makes Conrad tick. Conrad is still getting over the trauma of his brother's death and his own attempted suicide--he's intensely depressed, and doesn't always have someone to talk to about his feelings. Singing, however, keeps Conrad sane. He enjoys choir because he's asked to do one thing and one thing only--sing. Singing is at once familiar and foreign; thus, Conrad doesn't have to go through the motions of pretending to be "normal." Furthermore, singing is a kind of combination of exercise for both the body and the mind--Conrad hasn't been able to take any pleasure in his usual physical pursuits, but even the "exercise" of singing helps his mental state.

The passage also suggests that Conrad might have some "guiding principles" after all. Even Conrad, who's in the grips of depression, has things to live for: art, music, his friends, his family, etc. Singing is a relief for him because it gives him an outlet for exercise, and it allows him to vent his feelings without drawing attention to himself.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

"Things were so different in the hospital. People were, you know, turned on all the time. And you just can't live like that. You can't live with all that emotion floating around, looking for a place to land. It's too exhausting. It takes so much energy, just to get through a day…"

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Conrad reunites with an old friend, Karen, who was also in the hospital because of her depression. Karen and Conrad meet, and Karen tells Conrad that she remembers her time in the hospital as exhausting, not liberating. In the hospital, she was surrounded by people who were "turned on"--full of energy and raw emotion--at all times. There was so much focus and intense observation at the hospital, too--Karen felt that she was always being observed by a doctor or a nurse.

This quote offers a sympathetic and surprisingly accurate portrait of depression as well--the sense that it isn't so much about always feeling bad, but rather feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by everything, no matter how small. Thus being around so many other people with mental disorders (as in the hospital) could provide companionship and compassion, but also more emotional weight for the depressed person to bear.

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 9 Quotes

In bed he waits for sleep. He cannot get under until he has reviewed the day, counted up his losses. He must learn more control, cannot allow himself the luxury of anger. He has seen it happen before. Guys become easy targets for the Stillmans of the world. Next time laugh when he needles you.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett, (Kevin) Stillman
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Conrad has had a rough day. He tried to open up to a fellow student who was crying--and when he did so, his old friend Kevin Stillman teased him for it. Conrad was irritated with Kevin, but knows that he can't let teasing get under his skin.

The passage illustrates Conrad's desire for control (something he shares with both his parents), as well as the lack of communication between Conrad and his friends. Despite the fact that Stillman has known Conrad for years and years, he seems to have no idea how to treat his old friend; he has no respect for Conrad's delicate mental state. Conrad knows, at least on paper, that he's supposed to laugh when Stillman makes fun of him--that's what they've always done together. And yet he can't rewire his brain to "play along"--depression has changed him.

Chapter 10 Quotes

He has done it, maybe for the wrong reasons, but it was the right thing to do. There is no problem improving your timing, or perfecting a stroke, if the desire is there, but you cannot fire it up, cannot manufacture desire, when there is no spark at all to build on. This was not a mistake, what happened today. It is not to be looked at as a failure.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Conrad makes the difficult choice to quit his school's swim team, a team he's enjoyed for many years. Conrad feels ashamed of quitting the team (alienating him from his longtime friends), but he tries to tell himself that he made the right decision. Conrad's reasoning is interesting--he tells himself that there's no point in swimming if he isn't enjoying it anymore. This physical activity no longer gives him pleasure because of the mental suffering he's been going through.

Conrad's decision to quit might seem reasonable, though it's important to notice that Conrad is running away from his problems rather than facing them head-on. Conrad's denial of his problems is apparent in the structure of the passage; the way Conrad keeps repeating, "not a mistake," to himself.

Chapter 24 Quotes

She pulls in her breath, and her arms are around his waist, her head on his chest. He stands, holding her; tests the feeling of someone leaning on him, looking to him for support. He feels as if he could stand here holding her forever. Her lashes are wet, golden in the harsh overhead light. He lifts her chin with his hand and kisses her. Her face is tear-streaked, her mouth loose under his, turned slightly down. He has never felt so strong, so needed.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett, Jeannine Pratt
Related Symbols: Color
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jeannine Pratt opens up to Conrad about her feelings regarding her parents. Jeannine tells Conrad that her mother was seeing a man named Paul, a friend of her father's, before her parents were divorced. Jeannine begins to cry as she says this, and the two kiss. Conrad feels an incredibly rush of strength and security.

Why is Conrad so moved by Jeannine's own show of emotion? For once, Conrad isn't the one who needs emotional support--instead, he's giving it to other people. The beauty of Conrad and Jeannine's relationship is that they've both been through some pain--they feel comfortable opening up to each other about their pain, and look to each other for support and love in their times of need.

Chapter 27 Quotes

"Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling. People who keep stiff upper lips find that it's damn hard to smile."

Related Characters: Dr. Berger (speaker), Conrad Jarrett
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dr. Berger offers one of the novel's key insights about sadness and depression. Most people have the impression that depression consists of being sad all the time, or experiencing strong negative emotion. in actuality, depression is usually a feeling of apathy, exhaustion, or nothingness--depressed people, not just Conrad, often say that they're incapable of feeling anything.

Berger's remarks illustrate a basic misunderstanding of how people get over their depression. Crying and yelling aren't signs of depression; they're demonstrations that the depressed person is feeling better; his body itself is "flushing out" the bad feelings. Berger's advice is especially important to Conrad because he's been raised in a sheltered, isolated environment in which expressing one's emotions isn't always encouraged.

Chapter 30 Quotes

She laughs. "Why won't you take anything seriously?"
He lies down flat, the hat over his face. "No sense taking the questions seriously, if there aren't any answers."
"Con. Do you believe people are punished for the things they do?"
"Punished You mean by God?"
"I don't believe in God," he says.
…She turns toward him, and the ends of her hair fall lightly against his chest. "What do you believe in?"
"Oh, tennis courts, wallpaper," he says, "Florsheim shoes, Miami Beach—"
"Liar," she says, her arms sliding around his neck.
"—you," he says, kissing her.
"Liar again, but that's nice."
And he squeezes her tightly, feeling the sense of calm, of peace slowly gathering, spreading itself within him. He is in touch for good, with hope, with himself, no matter what. Berger is right, the body never lies.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett (speaker), Jeannine Pratt (speaker), Conrad Jarrett, Jeannine Pratt
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, we see Conrad translating his therapy sessions with Dr. Berger into action. He's been dating Jeannine Pratt for some time now, and they've just had sex for the first time. Jeannine wants to know what Conrad believes in--i.e., what his "guiding principles" are. Conrad surprises Jeannine by saying that he believes in her, but not God.

What does Conrad mean? After his suicide attempt, Conrad finds it difficult to subscribe to traditional "guiding principles" like school, family, or religion. Instead, Conrad has to figure out for himself what's worth living for--thus, he makes new friends, goes on dates, goes to therapy, etc. Note that the passage ends with a reiteration of the advice Dr. Berger gave Conrad: the body never lies. Conrad has been raised in a chilly household in which bodily contact of any kind is often repressed. Conrad gets over his repression and depression in part because he finds physical pleasure with Jeannine.

Chapter 31 Quotes

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.