Study Guide

Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Beth Jarrett

Building a Mystery

We don't know much about Beth. She's described by her husband as "a marvelous mystery" (4.1), but not even Sherlock Holmes or Scooby-Doo would be able to crack her case. For over twenty years of marriage, Calvin has thought Beth was "Like a watercolor. […] You disappear in them sometimes. And after, you don't know where you've been, or what's happened" (17.82).

That description makes Beth sound like a painting from a horror movie. You can check in, but you can never leave. She is definitely not a Bob Ross oil painting, filled with happy trees.

Beth Jarrett is so cold and distant, she makes Joan Crawford of "No wire hangers, ever!" fame seem warm and cuddly. We're not even sure why she decided to have children, because she doesn't want anything to do with them. Did this woman even give birth, or did Conrad and Buck come to exist through some sort of mitotic division?

Beth went on vacation while her son was in the hospital after trying to commit suicide. She never talks to him. She never asks how he's doing. She seems to think any interaction whatsoever is too much, and she gets angry when her husband says "good morning" to their son. Eventually, Calvin realizes just how great the distance is between Beth and Conrad and he asks himself, "What the hell is wrong with her?" (23.61).

Good question, Cal.

A Perfect Circle

Beth's own sister says that "emotion is [Beth's] enemy" (25.25). Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. Harry Potter has Voldemort. And Beth Jarrett has happiness, sadness, and anger as her mortal enemies. Don't let her watch Pixar's Inside Out. Emotions coming to life is this woman's greatest nightmare.

The reason for this is Beth's extreme perfectionism. To her, showing emotion is to show her flaws, and she wants to be flawless, like Beyoncé. Beth's whole identity is built around being the perfect upper-middle-class WASP wife. Because in this ordinary WASPy world, being perfect on the outside means you made it: you're successful, you've got the perfect family, you've got a country club membership. That means you made all the right choices, and you don't have to worry about big things like life, death, identity, and emotions. Right? Right?

Yeah, the problem is that no one is flawless, not even Beyoncé. All people and families are flawed, and the way Beth ignores it makes things worse. Her son attempted suicide, but she thinks if she doesn't talk about it, then it didn't happen. Acknowledging her son's problems means she has to acknowledge that she isn't perfect, and that means she has to question her entire identity.

Yeah, she's not gonna do that.

Beth won't talk about Conrad's suicide attempt at all. When Calvin mentions it, she snaps, "Are we going to live like this? With it always hanging over our heads?" (4.51). The truth is that it's only hanging over Beth's head because she lets it.

Another reason Beth won't talk about it is because she feels guilt. Not that she'll admit that, either, of course. Beth believes that Conrad's suicide attempt was done "to try to hurt [her]!" (13.60), and she blames Conrad for manipulating her, too. (13.93) She sounds selfish, making Conrad's attempted suicide all about her. (Is she totally wrong?) That's the way Beth sees things—only as they relate to her. Her image is more important to her than her husband and son, but it's not even clear if she realizes that on any level.

The most honest thing Beth says is when she calls herself "an emotional cripple" (31.11). But instead of getting help or finding a crutch to help her back on her feet, she leaves the family. Calvin and Conrad seem to realize that her behavior is just like running in "Circles and more circles, where does it end? How can it end?" (28.98). Life's given Beth a chance to get over herself and get on with her life, but unless she takes that chance, she's never going anywhere.

We're not sure exactly where Beth will go after this, but we know that trying to figure her out is making us dizzy. Perhaps Calvin and Conrad should be glad they're off that ride.