Ordinary People

What is the author's style in Ordinary People by Judith Guest?

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Judith Guest's style in Ordinary People includes several elements including:

Point of View

One of the concerns in Ordinary People is how the characters perceive their situations, and so point of view is an important part of Guest's writing technique. The point of view shifts between Conrad Jarrett and his father, Calvin, and thus the reader gets two different perspectives on the events in the story. This is most apparent with regard to their impressions of Beth. Both see her as distant, but Cal romanticizes this quality in her, while Con feels anger at her apparent lack of love for him. Con's perceptions of his mother are influenced by his sense that she loved his brother more than she loved him. This sense of being slighted as a child was caused, perhaps, by his identity as the younger, less carefree, more serious and needy child. Cal's romanticization of Beth is influenced by his isolation from his mother as a child; Beth is distant as well, but she is present in a way that Cal's mother was not. As a result, Cal feels grateful to Beth for staying With him As each man gains perspective on the outside world, they both realize that Beth is more fragile than they had thought, but the reader's impressions of her, and of all the characters and events in the story, continues to be filtered through the points of view of Con and Cal. Their childhood experiences affect the way that they see others and their motivations, and their subjective perceptions often prevent them from seeing events from a more objective standpoint


The narrative technique used by Guest to present the points of view of Conrad and Calvin is that of a third-person narrator, who is omniscient only with regard to Cal and Con Because the narrative focus shifts back and forth between Cal and Con, the narrator can only relate the thoughts of one of them at a time. Thus, during the family fight at Christmas, the reader's perceptions are filtered through Cal's subjectivity; the reader has access to Con's thoughts only through his dialogue and Cal's sense of what is going on The narrator does not intrude or editorialize in the narrative, but rather functions as an implied narrator, presenting events as Cal and Con see them in a third-person, rather than a first-person ("I"), format.

Plot Structure

The overall structure of Ordinary People consists of thirty-one chapters and an epilogue. With two exceptions, the chapters alternate between the points of view of Calvin and Conrad. The story begins in the fall and extends into the spring, with an epilogue that takes place in the summer, closing the story thematically almost a year after It has begun. The story begins in medias res (that is, in mid-action), as Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt have already taken place when the story begins.

Tragic Flaw

Though the obviously tragic events of Ordinary People, Buck's death and Con's suicide, have already taken place when the story begins, the real tragedy of the novel lies in the inability of the characters to cope with these uncontrollable events. As Cal reflects on Beth's character, he wonders if she possesses a tragic imperfection, a personality flaw with which she was born. He speculates that she might somehow lack the capacity to forgive. Beth's congenital inability to forgive prevents her from understanding her son, thus causing problems between herself and her husband.


Conflict is ever-present in Ordinary People.

Because of the differing perspectives of the characters, they remain in conflict throughout the story. The conflict between Con and Beth mostly remains under the surface, only exploding at Christmas, though it has long been evident in their strained and distant relationship with each other. Cal internalizes the conflict between Con and Beth, becoming inwardly conflicted, which in turn leads to his increasing clashes with Beth. Their fights grow in intensity during the course of the novel, as Beth accuses Cal of coddling Con and becoming depressed, while Cal feels that she is cold and unforgiving towards Con. It is only in the Epilogue that Con begins to feel that love can close the rift between himself and his mother, but the different needs and viewpoints of the characters have already changed the family, perhaps forever