Ordinary People is the story of both Conrad and Calvin Jarrett. Because the novel focuseson two different people, there are several conflicts throughout the novel that are specificto those individuals.
The central question in Conrad’s story is whether he will be able torecover after his suicide attempt. As Dr. Berger points out, half the people who attemptsuicide will try to do it again at some point in their lives. The inclusion of Karen’s suicidetowards the end of the novel is a way of reminding the reader that Conrad may not haverecovered completely even when he seems to be getting better; after all, Karen seemed tobe 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 theway to heal the wounds of the past is to talk through them and discuss feelings, whileBeth only wants to move on from the past. She dislikes Calvin’s attitude and hisinsistence on worrying about his son. The conflict between the two parents is resolved atthe end of the novel when Beth leaves.Structurally, the novel does two things. First, it alternates back and forth between thestories of Calvin and Conrad, with each chapter shedding some new light on theirindividual struggles and conflicts.
This alternating style gives the novel a kind ofmirror-image structure: just as Conrad gets better over the course of the novel until he isreally 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 someway ruined: Buck has already died, and Conrad has already tried to commit suicide evenbefore the first chapter opens. On the one hand, this indicates that the book is a novelabout healing and rebuilding a ruined world, rather than about how that world got ruinedin the first place.
This structure, however, also gives the book a reverse coming-of-agefeel. There are countless children’s books about boys who begin the novel as innocentkids and after a series of life experiences end the novel as slightly more mature and wiseryoung adults (Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye are examples.) OrdinaryPeople tells a coming-of-age story backwards. Conrad has already been through hismoment of great experience–the death of Buck–and the novel is really the story of howhe tries to move on from that horrible moment back to a state of some youthful innocenceonce again. Ordinary People is in this sense a subversion of one of the most oft-usedforms of narrative in English literature.Indeed, the alternating chapters include many flashbacks to moments from the past. Theseflashbacks 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, mostof which are relatively unimportant.
Particularly in Calvin’s introspective chapters, we seesome of these memories emerge. Ordinary People illustrates the idea that humans alwaysundergo moments of experience, many of which we do not even understand until we lookback on them from the future. Many of the moments portrayed in the novel seem to showthat 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.