Ordinary People


  • Conrad Keith Jarrett, the son of Beth and Calvin, "Con" or "Connie" to his family and friends. He celebrates his 18th birthday midway through the novel. Like his late brother, he is a good swimmer, but quits the school swim team because being around water reminds him too much of Buck. He had always been somewhat overshadowed by his brother. He has passive tendencies as well.
  • Calvin Jarrett, 41, "Cal". His professional success has enabled him to provide a very comfortable life to his wife and sons, which for a long time was a source of great pride to him as he had himself grown up in a Detroit orphanage without ever knowing his father. His mother died when he was eleven. He has long felt lucky, but the family's recent travails have caused him to begin to doubt that and wonder who he really is.
  • Beth Jarrett, 39. A homemaker who has long kept the Jarrett household neat and well-organized, to the point of being anal retentive. She plays golf and is very active in the community but does not work outside the home. The novel gives little detail of her personal background, although her still-living parents provide some clues as to how she might have become this way.
  • Dr. Tyrone Berger, the psychiatrist who helps Conrad work through his issues.
  • Jeannine Pratt, a new student at Lake Forest who eventually becomes Conrad's girlfriend. Like him, she has a dark episode in her recent past.
  • Joe Lazenby, one of Conrad's friends, who drives him to school. Alone among the swimmers, he recognizes that Conrad is still having difficulties. Conrad and he have a falling out during the novel, but they manage to mend their relationship towards the end.
  • Kevin Stillman, A member of Lazenby's carpool and the swim team's diver, a group of people Conrad has long concluded are generally lousy human beings. He can be very insensitive, and not just to Conrad (he is known to make suggestive comments to passing girls). One day after Conrad has quit the team, he and Conrad get into a fist fight which Conrad wins.
  • Carole Lazenby, Joe Lazenby's mother, and a friend of Beth Jarrett.
  • Ray Hanley, Calvin's law partner and longtime friend. Calvin had consoled Ray seven years earlier during a time when his wife Nancy had left him over an extramarital affair he was having; now Ray returns the favor.
  • Nancy Hanley, Ray's wife, very disillusioned about marriage even though she took her husband back and seems to be continuing to live with him. At one point she tells Calvin she wishes Ray had just stayed with his girlfriend.
  • Cherry, 19, Ray and Calvin's current secretary. Calvin does not think her competent at her job despite her pleasant personality, and he and Ray both lament the lack of talent once available to them. Her breakup with her boyfriend leads Calvin to ruminate about how "people are like icebergs ... only one-seventh visible".
  • Howard, Beth's father. Very jovial, he often speaks in clichés.
  • Ellen, Beth's mother. Her outward cordiality masks critical tendencies similar to her daughter. At one point Calvin speculates that Beth's fastidiousness may be a response to Ellen's personality.
  • Karen Susan Aldrich, a fellow patient at the hospital and friend to Conrad. Released three months before him, and likewise an unsuccessful suicide. When Conrad reads of her later, successful suicide in the newspaper, he is devastated as he had seen her as a role model for his own successful recovery.
  • Mr. Faughnan, the choir director at Lake Forest. He is a perfectionist who cares only that his choir perform well, and does not take a personal interest in any of its members. This allows Conrad to relax in the class.
  • Coach Salan, the swimming coach at Lake Forest. While he allows Conrad two days a week off to see Dr. Berger and stays late with him to work out on the other days, Conrad does not like him. He only begrudgingly allowed Conrad to rejoin the team, and once told Conrad that a friend of his with similar problems had "been in and out of institutions his entire life". When Dr. Berger says that remark may have been simply a sign that he didn't know what else to say, Conrad responds that it was simply "stupid".

Three other characters do not appear in the story directly but have a strong effect on it nonetheless, recalled extensively by Conrad and Calvin:

  • Jordan "Buck" Jarrett, the son who died in the sailing accident. Conrad and Calvin's memories depict Buck as a daredevil but also something of a natural leader, and a son any family would have liked to have.
  • Dr. Crawford, a psychiatrist at the hospital who had helped Conrad. Conrad trusted him as the only doctor who really understood him, and he refers Conrad to Berger.
  • Arnold Bacon, Calvin's mentor and father figure in college and law school, died a few years before the story starts. He and Cal had stopped talking while he was still a student because not only did he disapprove of law students marrying, he felt Beth was "not a sharer" (Beth in turn felt Bacon was trying to "own" Cal).

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