Study Guide

Ordinary People What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Judith Guest

What's Up With the Epigraph?

But what a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,
For worse than that must follow—yet can write
Music, can laugh, play tennis, even plan.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay

What's up with the epigraph?

Have you ever lain in bed, not wanting to go to work or school, thinking that if you tried hard enough, time would stop and you'd never have to go?

It didn't work. It won't work. You have to get up, go to school, go to work, and then you die.

Tough, but true.

That's what this epigraph, from Edna St Vincent Millay's Sonnet CLXXI, is about. She's saying than humans are amazing animals because we continue to function even though we know someday we will inevitably stop.

But some people don't function. Some people get stuck in a depressive funk and can't do anything. One of those people is Conrad Jarrett, which makes this an appropriate epigraph for the novel. We watch him slowly resume his life. He goes to school. He finds a girlfriend. And makes up with his friends. At least Guest stops before the death part. That would be too sad. We'll be in bed not thinking about that.