Ordinary People is the story of both Conrad and Calvin Jarrett. Because the novel focuses
on two different people, there are several conflicts throughout the novel that are specific
to those individuals. The central question in Conrad’s story is whether he will be able to
recover after his suicide attempt. As Dr. Berger points out, half the people who attempt
suicide will try to do it again at some point in their lives. The inclusion of Karen’s suicide
towards the end of the novel is a way of reminding the reader that Conrad may not have
recovered completely even when he seems to be getting better; after all, Karen seemed to
be doing well when Conrad met her for a Coke earlier in the novel.
The main question in Calvin’s story is whether he and Beth will be able to make amends.
Their conflict is based essentially in a communication problem: Calvin believes that the
way to heal the wounds of the past is to talk through them and discuss feelings, while
Beth only wants to move on from the past. She dislikes Calvin’s attitude and his
insistence on worrying about his son. The conflict between the two parents is resolved at
the end of the novel when Beth leaves.
Structurally, the novel does two things. First, it alternates back and forth between the
stories of Calvin and Conrad, with each chapter shedding some new light on their
individual struggles and conflicts. This alternating style gives the novel a kind of
mirror-image structure: just as Conrad gets better over the course of the novel until he is
really healed, the marriage between Calvin and Beth spirals downward until it fails.
The second structural tactic of the novel is that it begins in a world that is already in some
way ruined: Buck has already died, and Conrad has already tried to commit suicide even
before the first chapter opens. On the one hand, this indicates that the book is a novel
about healing and rebuilding a ruined world, rather than about how that world got ruined
in the first place. This structure, however, also gives the book a reverse coming-of-age
feel. There are countless children’s books about boys who begin the novel as innocent
kids and after a series of life experiences end the novel as slightly more mature and wiser
young adults (Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye are examples.) Ordinary
People tells a coming-of-age story backwards. Conrad has already been through his
moment of great experience–the death of Buck–and the novel is really the story of how
he tries to move on from that horrible moment back to a state of some youthful innocence
once again. Ordinary People is in this sense a subversion of one of the most oft-used
forms of narrative in English literature.
Indeed, the alternating chapters include many flashbacks to moments from the past. These
flashbacks show that Guest is very much interested in the “moment of experience.”
Calvin and Conrad retain certain key memories of specific moments in their lives, most
of which are relatively unimportant. Particularly in Calvin’s introspective chapters, we see
some of these memories emerge. Ordinary People illustrates the idea that humans always
undergo moments of experience, many of which we do not even understand until we look
back on them from the future. Many of the moments portrayed in the novel seem to show
that the present is a blur that we do not really understand until it has become the past.
Memories play a major part in the characterizations in Ordinary People.