The world of Ordinary People is filled with groups of people. Conrad is a member of his swimming team and choir. Cal spends much of his day immersed in business with co-workers. Beth is responsible for organizing activities at her country club. All of the Jarretts are related by blood, of course, and Beth's immediate and extended family members also enjoy a significant presence in the novel. But there are varying degrees of intimacy between all of these people, which also makes for different levels of emotional vulnerability.
As a nuclear family, the Jarretts might be expected to love one another. Unfortunately, Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt put their familial bonds under intense stress. The word love might not even suffice to describe the relationship between the characters for much of the book. At one point Beth desperately notes, "Mothers don't hate their sons!", as if her relationship to Conrad consisted not of love, but obligation and blame. Further, Cal notices that Beth's seemingly mysterious, untamable nature is what keeps her from showing love to her son ("emotion is her enemy"). When Conrad discusses his mother with Berger, Berger suggests that "[m]aybe she's afraid, maybe it's hard for her to give love"—but Conrad also realizes that he has been unable to forgive his mom for her apparent coldness. Through their struggles, we learn that the Jarretts harbor many insecurities that prevent them from being honest about their needs, fears, and disappointments. They seem to think that just by having the labels associated with their roles—mother, father, son—that it should create the appropriate relationships. And in taking that for granted—or resenting it—they fail to make or maintain the necessary human connections between each other.
Nearly all of the families in Ordinary People are marred by alienation or resentment. Despite being surrounded by a host of relatives, Beth is unwilling to open up even to her extended family. When Cal asks his friend Ray for advice about parenting, Ray admits to "barely knowing" his adult daughter. Jeannine Pratt nurses a grudge against her mother, who is dating a friend of her ex-husband. Cal's personal experiences with family drive the point home: Chapter 6 recounts Cal's rescue from the orphanage by Arnold Bacon, a lawyer who takes him on as a protégé. The emotions and language surrounding it are deeply familial—one line from Chapter 6, for example, reveals Bacon's motives for taking Cal under his wing: "He needed to know that he was leaving his baby protected." Cal, meanwhile, believes that "It was the closest thing to a father-son relationship—it was a father-son relationship, he thought." Yet when Cal decides to marry Beth, Bacon, feeling betrayed, cuts Cal loose. "It was, as Bacon pointed out to him, a financial obligation." Nothing holds these groups of people together except some imaginary contract; at root, they are just as disparate as any other group of people in the novel.
In the end, love proves stronger than family ties. And love can only flourish when a relationship leaves space for vulnerability and discomfort. Conrad and Cal realize this, as do Conrad and Jeannine. Even Conrad and Lazenby's strained friendship begins to recover when Conrad overcomes his resentment and struggles through the awkwardness of making amends. As a passage near the end of the novel notes: "...Painful, the problem he has with [the words "I love you, man"]; they threaten to overpower him, cut off his breathing." Love is risky, sometimes as painful as it is pleasurable, but its demands are what separate it from any other way of relating to others.
"Family" and Love ThemeTracker
"Family" and Love Quotes in Ordinary People
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.
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.
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.
The worst, the first session has been gotten through. And the guy is not bad; at least he is loose. The exchange about the razor blades reminded him of something good about the hospital; nobody hid anything there. People kidded you about all kinds of stuff and it was all right; it even helped to stay the flood of shame and guilt. …So, how do you stay open, when nobody mentions anything, when everybody is careful not to mention it?
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."
Afterward. The hammer blows of guilt and remorse. He has no weapons with which to fight them off. No words of comfort, none of Berger's advice applies. He has slandered her, to her face and behind her back. He has pushed everyone away who tries to help. If he could apologize. If he only could but they are no longer at home to him and it is not their fault. All his fault. All connections with him result in failure. Loss. Evil.
"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.
The keys dig into his thigh. Next to him, Lazenby sits, elbow against the door, his hand propping his check. What he said is true. The three of them were always together, why does he think of it as only his grief? Because damn it it is. His room no longer shared, his heart torn and slammed against this solid wall of it, this hell of indifference. It is. And there is no way to change it. That is the hell.
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.
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?
"Hate him? How could I hate him? Mothers don't hate their sons! I don't hate him! But he makes demands on me! He tries to blackmail me!"
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.
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?
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.
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?