The habits and behaviors of many of the characters in Ordinary People are largely motivated by the desire to control their world. From the moment he meets her, Cal recognizes Beth as a decisive go-getter: "I knew when you aced Ray on that first serve," she recalls, "I was going to marry you and that was all there was to it." Her obsessive cleanliness and general concern for keeping up appearances stem from the same decisiveness, the same need to control the situation. Beth similarly tries to control the information that she and her family share about their issues. For instance, she reproaches Cal for discussing Conrad's therapy sessions at a party, describing such openness as being "in the worst possible taste. ...Not to mention a violation of privacy." For Cal, meanwhile, his sensitivity to his environment and Conrad's emotions define his nervous approach to parenting. He calls this hyper-awareness responsibility—"You cannot afford to miss any signs...". He wants to make sure he never misses anything—he wants to be in control.
The urge to take responsibility will not allow these characters to act without latching onto some "statement of purpose." As the book's opening states: "To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will." Cal, especially, feels pressed to put his mission into words; Who the hell are you? is a question he spends much of the novel trying to answer for himself. But his effort is undermined by the nagging sense that he's actually unable to take on as much responsibility as he feels he should. Regarding Conrad's mental illness, "[Cal] does not believe himself to be innocent. It has to be his fault, because fault equals responsibility equals control equals eventual understanding."
Similarly, Conrad blames himself for his brother Buck's death. Berger works to free Conrad from this type of thinking. Conrad's recovery requires him to realize that, despite his own actions, many things in his life—the feelings of others, his emotions, even Buck's death—are out of his control. Conrad's crushing guilt and eventual suicide attempt are rooted in his need to assign blame and responsibility for an event that was purely accidental. "Guilt. Is not punishment, Berger said. Guilt is simply guilt." Not every character in Ordinary People is able to realize this, but those who do eventually learn to escape the stress that comes with an overwhelming need to assign (or take) blame for, to assume responsibility for and therefore control, everything that happens.
Fate vs. Responsibility ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Responsibility Quotes in Ordinary People
To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind.
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.
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.
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?
"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…"
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.
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.
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.
"…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!"
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."
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."
"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.
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?
"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."
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.