Some of the themes in Ordinary People include:
Grief and Sorrow
One principal theme of Ordinary People is grief over a loved one's death. As Beth, Cal, and Con struggle to cope with Buck's fatal accident, they turn inward, causing conflicts within the family. It is only after Con comes to terms with his guilt that he is able to grieve for Buck and to realize that he is not responsible. Con's journey toward good mental health is contrasted with Beth, who never manages to deal with her sorrow Beth is unable to accept what has happened and accuses others of changing rather than understanding that their lives have irrevocably changed Cal's grief for Buck underlies his growing questions about his identity and his relationships with Beth and Con, as his tightly organized life has been ripped apart by the tragedy. Buck's carefree charm makes his loss that much harder for the family to accept, as his belief that he would live forever and his physical vitality convinced everyone that he would indeed live a long time. It is only when the other family members realize that there is no good explanation for Buck's loss, and no lesson to be learned from his death, that they can begin to mourn
Atonement and Forgiveness
Closely linked to the theme of grief is the theme of atonement and forgiveness Con is consumed by survivor's guilt over Buck's death; he feels that he should have been the one to die so that Buck could live. Though Con apologizes repeatedly for the boating accident that killed Buck, he never apologizes for his suicide attempt, and his parents must also struggle to forgive Con. Con realizes that although his mother has not forgiven him, his anger towards her indicates his lack of forgiveness for her and his refusal to accept her limitations. Cal's recognition of Beth's limitations is a milestone for him, but Beth cannot do the same When she and Cal fight in Texas, she tells Cal that she will never forgive Con for the "bloody, vicious thing" he has done, which she feels was Con's way of punishing her. Beth does not have a capacity to forgive, and this makes a reconciliation with Con impossible. Unlike Beth, Cal only realizes the extent of his anger at Con at the end of the novel, when he remembers that Con has never apologized for his suicide attempt. Cal recognizes that Con's attempt has done something terrible to Beth, and he allows himself to get angry at Con, who reacts positively, happy that his father is no longer being over solicitous of him. This in turn allows for a resolution of the relationship between father and son.
Alienation and Loneliness
Con's alienation and loneliness following his release from the mental hospital is obvious from the beginning of the story He is barely able to speak with friends, teachers, or family members, and he feels depressed and anxious Cal's alienation is less immediately apparent, but it becomes more obvious as the story progresses. Cal feels disconnected from those who share his grief and from those who do not. The person who is most likely to understand his pain, Beth, cannot listen to his feelings or express her own. Cal is struck throughout the story by the ability of language to express feelings and by the contamination that is caused by contact with others. He gets through most social encounters by drinking too much, and his attempts to connect with Beth are rebuffed. Con fares better: his relationships with Dr. Berger and Jeannine help him to open up, to trust others, and to establish communication. Through their understanding, Con becomes much more connected to others and is able to ease his feelings of isolation.
Linked to issues of alienation and loneliness is the search for identity. Buck's death has forced Cal and Con to examine their own lives Each feels as if he has lived in the shadow of others-Con in Buck's shadow, Cal in everyone's shadow. Con looked up to Buck and tried to be like him, and he is forced to create his own identity after Buck dies. Berger identifies Con's inability to live up to Buck's legacy as the reason for his suicide attempt, and Con spends much of his time With Berger trying to figure out what kind of person he is Berger tells Con repeatedly that he knows who he is, but he is trying so hard to hide his feelings that he represses his identity, too. It is only after Con expresses his feelings that he begins to understand who he really is. Cal is also prevented from expressing his feelings; his inability to connect with Beth forces him to discover what his needs are, and thus what his identity is Each man is forced by circumstance to modify his identity, as the familiar roles they had played in the family vanished when Buck died. Beth's refusal to understand that life has changed for the family leads her to flee instead of transforming herself, suggesting the importance of adapting one's view of one's self in the face of difficult circumstances.