Judith Guest's novel, Ordinary People, is quite a unique story in that it has two protagonists. It alternates between the Conrad's story and Calvin's, his father. Although they seem interrelated, especially at the beginning, they are more like two completely different stories which happen to occasionally affect one another before splitting off and going their own ways once more. Conrad's main concern seems to be his emotional time bomb, always threatening to blow but never knowing when it's going to happen and drag him back into his depressed and suicidal state. Calvin's story seems at first to be all about trying to control Conrad's emotional problems, but it gradually becomes a fight to simply keep the family together. As the story progresses, he gets into more arguments with his wife, Beth, about how to deal with the past and Conrad's emotional state. Calvin believes the family should talk through their problems whereas Beth believes that the family should simply move on and forget the past, which leads to friction between the two and the eventual breakup.
The novel spaces out these two stories by using alternating chapters for each story, thus creating two stories that progress at the same pace, but seem to mirror each other. Conrad's story starts off with a suicidal and depressed teen who just got out of the hospital and tells the tale of his recovery, whereas Calvin's story starts with a healthy marriage and just worries about his emotionally unstable son, but as the story progresses his marriage disintegrates and eventually ends with Beth leaving him, although they do not discuss an official divorce. We can see that Conrad's story seems to start on a dismal tone, as if he lived in a hopeless and dying world, he gradually gets better and returns to a rejuvenated world. His father's tale seems to take the opposite course however, starting with a perfect marriage, although maybe not a perfect world, it crumbles and decays until there is nothing left ad he is left standing on the remains of what used to be a happy marriage, though he also seems to get closer to his son by the end of the novel. This shows that this s a novel of fertility and reconstruction. Metaphorically, the story starts in a decimated landscape and explains how the characters try to rebuild and recover. It seems in a way to criticize society, who, in such catastrophic circumstances spend more time trying to point fingers and find who is to blame the they do trying to reconstruct and repair. The story shows that although they start in a ruined world, it is possible to rebuild and recover.
This novel could also be interpreted as a sick and inversed coming-of-age novel. The story starts after most of the action has already taken place. Jordan dies and Conrad attempts suicide before the story even starts, making it so that the characters have already had traumatic and life changing experiences and have already felt intense pain and sorrow and throughout the story strive to return to the moment of childish innocence in Conrad's case or back to a "happily ever after" family ending they had before Jordan' death in Calvin's case.
This is also a memory novel. Judith uses flashbacks to recall most of the action in the story, rarely telling it as it happens. This not only allows for suspenseful situations, for we hear of Jordan's death in the beginning, but we never realize what happens until after Conrad blurts out the story to Dr. Berger, but it also allows the reader to imagine his own version of the incidents, for, memories are never exact narrations, and tend to be exaggerated or incomplete, as it is in human nature to exaggerate and/or forget, not to mention the character can only relate what he remembers. Being memories, they are sentimental and somewhat unrealistic, as Tom explains in the Glass Menagerie. However, we also see that some events cannot be properly understood in the present, and it isn't until Conrad looks back upon his brother's...
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