Study Guide

Ordinary People Setting

By Judith Guest


Lake Forest, Illinois, 1976

Stuck in the Suburbs

If MTV Cribs proved anything, it's that our rooms are often reflections of ourselves. And that Fifty Cent has almost as many shoes as Mariah Carey.

We open Ordinary People in Conrad's room. Freshly back from the hospital, he looks around and see "the walls are bare" (1.2). He's got a blank slate, baby, but whose name will he write?

Conrad wants to figure out who he is before bringing anyone else into the picture. Being in the hospital has erased his identity, and working to rebuild it is more difficult than buying a few posters from the local record store.

Outside Conrad's room, the Jarrett house still isn't welcoming. "The house is dark. Silent and empty" (3.79). That sentence describes the relationship between members of the Jarrett family, too: they're silent and empty. As Conrad says, "How do you stay open, when nobody mentions anything, when everybody is careful not to mention it?" (5.100). It's probably a nice house on the outside, but inside, it's emotionally condemned.

At the end, Calvin sells the house and downsizes. He and Conrad admit, "It's always been too big, hasn't it?" (31.25). And they're not just talking about square footage. They mean it was always too big and hollow, not filled with love. Not even a happy welcome mat would have helped this sad house.

The larger setting of Lake Forest doesn't really matter. This book could be set in any ordinary suburban town. Everyone in them has his or her secrets. Whether or not they share them with their neighbors or on a national TV show or YouTube channel is up to them.