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Written by Timothy Sexton
No Escape from Tragedy
The setting and milieu in which Ordinary People takes places is an upscale Chicago suburb far away from the gangs and criminal mischief characterizing the inner city of the metropolis. Despite the fact that the worlds through which the Jarretts move is as far away culturally from tragic reality of inner city urban warfare as it is geographically from the white sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast or the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest, however, the family discovers they are no more protected from the consequences of horrific tragedy. What is different, of course, is how economic circumstances are capable of dictating the response that one has toward tragedy.
The Journey Toward Self-Discovery
At the heart of Ordinary People lies the emotional and intellectual growth experienced by Conrad that, ironically, might have been delayed or even utterly obstructed were it not for the tragic boating accident which claimed the life of his older brother. Before Conrad that reach that point of acquiring knowledge about himself and his family, he must first survive his own attempt at killing himself. That decision to try taking his own life delays his arrive at the destination, but can be seen as essential path he must take on the journey. That journey mandates his meeting Karen and subsequently adding her suicide to the oppressive weight of guilt that is the driving force which ultimately allows him to arrive at the point of self-discovery.
Fathers and Sons
Ordinary People joins a very long list of novels that examines themes related to the relationship between fathers and sons. What sets this particular examination apart from the overwhelming bulk of the rest—especially those set in upper middle class white suburbia—is that the dominant parental figure here is not the husband, but the wife. Part of Conrad’s painful journey toward self-discovery is coming to a deeper understanding of the role his father plays in the family dynamic. Like Conrad himself, the reader is likely to fall into the trap of assigning Calvin Jarrett’s submissive position toward his wife to weakness on his part. Yes, Calvin does fulfill the more submissive role in this marriage, but eventually the reader comes to appreciate—like Conrad—that this role is not the result of weakness on the part of his father, but actually a strength more profound and significantly less demonstrative than that exhibited by his mother.
Guilt and Responsibility
The overriding theme of Ordinary People is that everyone is responsible for just one life: their own. The lives of these ordinary people become a crucible through guilt is forged into a weapon of destruction. The effect of guilt, the novel seems to suggest, can be both positive and negative, but whatever the ultimate consequences may be, one thing remains fully intact: no other person is the one singular agent of change in another person’s life. That role forever remains solely the domain of the person who changes and is the decision they make and those decisions alone which bear ultimate responsibility for the way any life turns out.
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