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.
Mental Disorder Theme Icon

Ordinary People explores, expands, and complicates the idea of what it means to suffer from mental disorder. At first glance, Conrad seems to represent a typical understanding of mental disorder. Having lost his brother in a sailing accident and blaming himself for the outcome, Conrad attempts suicide and is committed to a mental hospital. Even after his release he continues to consult Dr. Berger, a therapist. Conrad's main task (which is arguably the central activity of the novel) is to overcome the crushing sense of guilt that fuels his torment.

But however distinctive his situation may be, Conrad isn't the only character struggling with the impact of his brother's death. While Conrad's parents might at first appear to be coping with the tragedy as well as might be expected, Guest uses the language of mental disease to describe them both. Beth, beneath her composed exterior, is plagued by "hysteria" and "madness." These emotions especially come to the fore when Beth feels "distinctly trapped" in her living situation—when cleanliness or quiet are compromised and she finds herself unable to change the circumstances. Cal, too, with his lack of direction and guilt-ridden approach to parenting, feels "trapped and hot" when a casual visit with Berger slowly leads him to confront the truth about his own misguided thirst for control. Even Berger's appearance and mannerisms initially strike Cal and Conrad as signs of the doctor's "madness."

Ultimately, the novel suggests that mental disorder is more than a matter of medical diagnosis. Conrad's friend Karen recalls an observation she made while the two were in 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." In contrast, Berger advises Conrad that "The thing that hurts you is sitting on yourself....[D]epression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling." Mental health in the novel is a balance between these extremes of being too "turned on" and experiencing a "reduction of feeling." Because they can neither "hold it together" in the face of grief, nor remain emotionally honest, all of the Jarretts are ill at ease in ways that stifle their relationships both with others and with their inner selves. A lack of emotional balance has nothing to do with looking or feeling "sick". As many of the characters in Ordinary People discover, mental disorder can set in even when everything seems to be under control.

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Mental Disorder Quotes in Ordinary People

Below you will find the important quotes in Ordinary People related to the theme of Mental Disorder.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.


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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.

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 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 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

Berger laughs. "When's the last time you got really mad?"
He says, carefully, "When it comes, there's always too much of it. I don't know how to handle it."
"Sure, I know," Berger says. "It's a closet full of junk. You open the door and everything falls out."
"No," he says. "There's a guy in the closet. I don't even know him, that's the problem."
"Only way you're ever gonna get to know him," Berger says, "is to let him out now and then. …"
"Sometimes," he says, "when you let yourself feel, all you feel is lousy."
Berger nods. "Maybe you gotta feel lousy sometime, in order to feel better. A little advice, kiddo, about feeling. Don't think too much about it. And don't expect it always to tickle."

Related Characters: Conrad Jarrett (speaker), Dr. Berger (speaker)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Conrad has another therapy session with Dr. Berger. Conrad admits that he doesn't know how to talk about his feelings with his parents. For instance, he hasn't told them about his decision to quit the swim team. Berger gives Conrad some advice: Conrad needs to do a better job of expressing his feelings, even to himself. Keeping his feelings bottled up inside (or "in the closet," as Berger says) is a recipe for more resentment and self-hatred down the line.

Berger is wise; he recognizes that Conrad's steady healing from depression isn't going to be easy (it's not going to "tickle"). Ad yet he emphasizes show important it is for Conrad to be honest with himself, and to communicate with other people--not just Berger himself, but his family and friends as well.

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 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

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.