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Literature: Ordinary People

"Don't admire people too much, they might disappoint you."
Cal Jarrett

"They are Ordinary People. And they are coming apart."
Tagline of the book

A 1976 novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People was brought to the screen in 1980 by Robert Redford in his directorial debut. That film, starring Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore, won four Oscars, including Best Picture.

The eponymous Ordinary People are the Jarrett family of Lake Forest, Illinois. They consist of Calvin the father, Beth the mother and their son, Conrad. Their elder son, Buck, was taken out of the picture in a sailing accident by the time the story opens. Conrad, who was with Buck during the fatal accident, was committed to a psychiatric hospital for four months after he attempted suicide out of grief. When he's released, we see just how Buck's death has affected the family. It's not pretty in the least bit. Also in the picture is Dr. Berger, Conrad's psychiatrist, who might be able to help Conrad, and ultimately the family itself, come out of its shell.

Not to be confused with non-magical people.


This work features examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Beth leaves her family, not knowing if she'll ever again be capable of love. However, father and son are finally able to connect with each other.
  • Broken Bird: Beth.
  • The Chessmaster: Beth's interpretation of Conrad's depressive behavior; she insists it's all an elaborate attempt to manipulate Calvin.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: More like "Lighting-Coded for Your Convenience". The Jarretts' house and all the other locations in the film are generally brightly lit and well-kept ... except for Dr. Berger's office, which by his own admission is untidy, and is always filmed in a somewhat noirish fashion. The fact that it's the one place in the film where Conrad can and must confront his demons is, of course, a complete coincidence.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Averted with Calvin (more so in the novel than the film, though it's mentioned in both). He grew up in an orphanage in Detroit and, while he admits to Dr. Berger that he sometimes still feels rootless, he has a family and successful tax law practice and is not about to go anywhere.
  • Crappy Holidays: Some of the drama takes place against the backdrop of the Christmas season.
  • Dead Sparks: Calvin and Beth.
  • Driven to Suicide: Conrad tried to kill himself six months before the story opens. Karen, a friend Conrad made during his stay in the hospital, eventually succeeds in doing so.
  • Doting Parent: Beth accuses Calvin of being positively fixated on Conrad. While Calvin does desperately want to make him happy, this only strikes Beth as unhealthy because she can't see Conrad as anything other than The Unfavorite.
  • Evil Matriarch: Deconstructed; Beth tries to put on this facade in the wake of Buck's death, but that soon crumbles.
  • Flashback: In the novel, Conrad recalls the accident that killed Buck in greater and greater detail as the story proceeds, culminating in him realizing he doesn't have to feel guilty about being the one who survived.
  • The Ghost: In the novel, Conrad often recalls Dr. Crawford at the hospital who, like Berger, was helpful to him. But Crawford is never actually present diegetically.
  • Informed Judaism: Berger is the only character in the story who arguably isn't a WASP. We know for certain he's Jewish by Beth's mother's tartly asking as much when the Jarretts mention his name at Christmas.
  • Jerk Jocks: Conrad's swim team friends. No wonder he decides to quit. Again.
  • Meaningful Names: Calvin and Conrad. The former suggests John Calvin, the Protestant theologian, and the character's work ethic; the latter, author Joseph Conrad and the conflicted characters in his works.
  • Moral Guardians: The book's themes and a short, rather tasteful actually, sex scene between Conrad and his girlfriend Jeannine have sometimes led to it being pulled off school library shelves.
  • Oscar Bait: Albeit successful, as well as a long Tear Jerker.
  • Parental Favoritism: Buck was always number one in everyone's eyes, especially Beth. This makes her post-Buck relationship with Conrad quite difficult.
  • Parental Substitute: Arnold Bacon, in the novel, to Calvin.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Buck.
  • Posthumous Character: Buck, as recalled frequently in the novel by his father and brother, and shown in brief flashbacks in the film. In the novel, Calvin also frequently recalls his relationship with Arnold Bacon, an older mentor who guided him from an orphanage to law school, until they had a falling out over him marrying Beth. He never reconciled before the older man died.
  • Power Trio: The Jarretts fall squarely into this trope:
    • The McCoy: Conrad (Stricken with depression and misplaced guilt.)
    • The Spock: Beth (Represses her emotions.)
    • The Kirk: Calvin (Tries to mediate between the two.)
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Calvin confronts Beth at the end of the film:
    Calvin: You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth; but you know something? You're not strong. And I don't know if you're really giving. Tell me something: Do you love me? You really love me?
    Beth: I feel the way I've always felt about you.
    Calvin: We would have been all right if there hadn't been any mess. But you can't handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don't know, maybe you can't love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him, and I don't understand that, I just don't know, I don't... Maybe it wasn't even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But, whatever it was... I don't know who you are. I don't know what we've been playing at. So I was crying. Because I don't know if I love you anymore. And I don't know what I'm going to do without that.
  • Shout-Out:
    • We learn that Conrad is reading Jude the Obscure in English class, and Karen's drama club is performing A Thousand Clowns.
    • When we first see Calvin and Beth in the film, they're attending a production of Same Time, Next Year.
  • The Shrink: Dr. Berger, who serves as The Awesome Shrink. He ping-pongs Conrad's rage when he needs it and comforts him in all other times. Judd Hirsch's portrayal of him in the film is often recalled by Psychology Today as one of the most positive depictions of a psychiatrist in American cinema.
  • Suburbia: The wealthy suburb of Lake Forest (and the Jarretts' unhappiness within it) is contrasted with the peace Calvin and Conrad find in Evanston (technically a city—and referred to as such in the novel—but still a suburb of Chicago). Calvin and Conrad move to Evanston at the end of the novel.
  • Survivor Guilt: Conrad has lots and lots of this.
  • Title Drop: In the novel:
    They are ordinary people, after all. For a time they had entered the world of the newspaper statistic; a world where any measure you took to feel better was temporary, at best, but that is over. This is permanent. It must be.
  • Trickster Mentor: Berger can be like this at times.

Operation ChaosLiterature of the 1970sThe Passion of New Eve
Breaking AwayAcademy AwardThe Elephant Man
The OctagonFilms of the 1980sPopeye
Only RevolutionsLit FicOrlando: A Biography
An Officer and a GentlemanCreator/ParamountPaint Your Wagon

alternative title(s): Ordinary People; Ordinary People
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