Ordinary People

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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.
"Family" and Love Theme Icon

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.

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"Family" and Love Quotes in Ordinary People

Below you will find the important quotes in Ordinary People related to the theme of "Family" and Love.
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 5 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett, Dr. Berger
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Conrad has just finished his first meeting with his new psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. Berger is an interesting figure in the novel because his manner clashes with the closed off, reserved attitude of Conrad's family--Berger doesn't have such a severe personality. Instead, Berger thinks that it's important to be open with other people--he's "loose." Conrad clearly appreciates Dr. Berger's attitude, and finds it a refreshing alternative to his family and community. This emphasizes how honesty and directly addressing a problem--actually talking about razorblades and suicide instead of just alluding to them in euphemisms--is crucial for working through mental disorder.

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 14 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the aftermath of Conrad's horrible fight with his mother. Conrad has suggested that Beth doesn't really love him--she didn't visit him while he was in the hospital. Conrad feels guilty for yelling at his mother, and he thinks that he's pushing away his own family members, the people who are most likely to take care of him and listen to his problems.

It's interesting that Conrad automatically sees himself as the "bad guy" in his fight with his mother. While Conrad's outburst was rude and uncalled for, there was a lot of truth in it: at least he was trying to express his feelings instead of bottling them up like his mother. As the novel moves along, we get the sense that Conrad's first instinct (and a common symptom of depression) is to blame himself for other people's problems--by the end of the book, we'll see how important this kind of crushing guilt was in pushing Conrad to attempt suicide in the first place.

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 22 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett, (Joe) Lazenby
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Conrad has a fight with his former friend, Stillman. Afterwards, Lazenby reaches out to him--he really wants to know why Conrad finds it so difficult to get along with his old friends. More to the point, Lazenby wants to know why Conrad insists on bottling up his feelings. Lazenby reveals that he misses Conrad's brother, Buck, almost as badly as Conrad does--and yet Conrad insists on keeping his grief a secret instead of sharing it with people who might be able to understand it, such as Lazenby.

The passage makes an important point: grieving people often suffer because they have nobody to talk to, or because they think that nobody else understands their feelings. Conrad makes a point of cutting himself off from his friends, because he's still trying to find the courage to deal with his brother's death. Lazenby represents a "light at the end of the tunnel"--proof that there are good people out there, who want to help Conrad, and know how.

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 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 28 Quotes

"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!"

Related Characters: Beth Jarrett (speaker), Conrad Jarrett, Beth Jarrett
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important scene, Beth and Calvin quarrel about Beth's relationship with Conrad, their son. Beth says that she doesn't "hate" Conrad--assuming, for some reason, that Calvin is accusing her of hating Conrad (despite the fact that Calvin never said so). Beth's explanation for why she doesn't hate Conrad is fascinating--instead of offering specific reasons, she just says that mothers aren't supposed to hate their sons.

Beth's attitude toward Conrad is indicative of her reserved, closeted personality. She doesn't hate Conrad, but not hating someone isn't the same as loving them. Beth is motivated by a sense of her social role as a mother--she thinks of being Conrad's mother as a duty--thus, she's very different from Calvin, who loves Conrad unconditionally. It's important to note that Beth is finally facing her feelings about Conrad and Calvin. While Beth is usually more likely to keep her true feelings bottled up, her conversation with Calvin brings out the truth: she is distancing herself from Conrad, because she doesn't know how to interact with him, and perhaps never did.

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?"
"Yes."
"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

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.

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.