Study Guide

Calvin Jarrett in Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Calvin Jarrett

Adding Up

Calvin Jarrett. Batman. Harry Potter. What do they all have in common? No, Calvin Jarrett doesn't have superpowers. And yes, they all have been portrayed by hunky leading men in movies—but that's not the answer we're looking for. The answer we want is that they're all orphans—like Annie, but without the great hair.

Calvin is a forty-one-year old tax attorney, and he is feeling the sting of two major losses. The first loss is the loss of his mentor, Arnold Bacon, with whom he had a "father-son relationship" (6.17). Bacon supported Calvin financially, helping him through school. But he forbade Calvin to get married, because he believed it would hurt his studies. When Calvin did get married, Bacon disowned him, and Calvin had to pay back all the money.

We've heard of people giving up bacon, but never the other way around.

As we see with Conrad and Calvin, or Conrad and Beth, a person's relationship with his parents affects his entire life. And this relationship with his pseudo-foster dad affects Calvin. Because he didn't have parents of his own, and because his own mentor abandoned him, Calvin is a little extra clingy to Conrad—and wary of disciplining him. His biggest challenge is finding a balance between smothering the boy and laying the smack down.

A Man to LeMans Chat

Perhaps because Calvin's mentor put him through college, Calvin believes he can make his own son's life better with money. He buys him a brand-new car, a Pontiac LeMans, for Christmas. He doesn't realize that Conrad will feel exactly as he felt when Bacon gave him money—as if it were a bribe that forced him to try to live up to the old man's standards.

Calvin's treatment of his son pushes Beth away from him. She thinks Calvin worries too much about Conrad. Calvin tells Beth, "I think that you don't worry enough" (15.56). Calvin keeps remembering how Conrad's suicide attempt came at a time when he wasn't paying that much attention to his son. He doesn't want to make that mistake twice.

Anyway, parents need to work together, but Calvin and Beth are playing for separate teams.

In the end, Beth leaves. It surprises Ray, Calvin's business associate. "Two intelligent people," he says, "why can't they understand each other? Why can't they work out their differences?" (31.20). Good questions, Ray. You should work for Shmoop, because we're asking the same things.

What's really shocking about Beth's departure is that she doesn't even tell her son she's leaving. Calvin and Conrad are initially confused. Calvin tells his son, "I don't know why she left. And neither do you. […] People don't always know the answers! I'm no authority on her! You're no authority, either!" (31.47).

We consider ourselves an authority on most people, real and fictional, but we'll say it again: Beth is a mystery. Our best guess is that she left because avoiding her emotions is what she does best. If that means she has to leave her family, then that means she has to leave her family. At least on her own, she'll still be the perfect WASP she was brought up to be.

Calvin, perhaps still in denial, thinks Beth might come back. However, Beth was like a fence between father and son, and with her gone, Calvin and Conrad can finally have an honest chat—and they seem happy now. "I'm not disappointed [in you]," Conrad says to his dad. "I love you, man" (31.78). And Calvin says he loves Conrad, too. It's quite the tearjerker.

Calvin might feel sad about all his losses: his mentor, his older son, and his wife. But Beth's absence proves that a little loss can sometimes be a good thing.