Study Guide

Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People

By Judith Guest

Conrad Jarrett

Boy, Interrupted

Being in the hospital might be a nice alternative to going to high school, especially if it's just to have your tonsils out or something. There's no homework, and you get to eat ice cream all day. Perfect. But Conrad Jarrett is returning to school after getting out of the hospital, and it wasn't for a tonsillectomy. Conrad was hospitalized because he tried to kill himself.

Poor guy is going to need more than ice cream.

Conrad is seventeen going on eighteen, and his hospitalization has set him back a year in school. He's discouraged because he won't graduate with his friends now that he's a year behind. Being held back puts distance between him and his friends, but on the other hand, Conrad wouldn't talk to them about his problems even if he saw them in all his classes.

Conrad doesn't talk about his hospitalization, which occurs before the book begins, because being in a psych ward isn't the type of thing people talk about in the 1970s. Mental illness has a stigma around it, so Conrad only alludes to his electroshock therapy once, when his nosy swim coach asks. Stick to the backstroke, man.

This stigma is portrayed as part of the problem, because it makes people clam up when they should be sharing. Conrad's therapist encourages him to talk about his feelings. Any feelings: vulnerability, love, anger. Conrad needs to spin the wheel of emotions and just pick one. [] Showing any feelings is better than keeping it all inside.

When he is fresh and shiny from the hospital, though, Conrad adopts a philosophy he got from his mother: "Keep moving, keep busy, everything will fall into place, it always does" (1.7). Well, except when it doesn't. Life isn't a Tetris game, and even if it were, you still have to guide the blocks in order to do well.

Lost Boy

The hospital gave Conrad a structure he lacks in his real life. His perfectionist mom, Beth, barely talks to him, making him assume he isn't living up to her standards. Heck, Martha Stewart wouldn't live up to Beth's standards. And his dad never disciplines him, which gives him too much freedom. Conrad tells Dr. Berger, "I'd like to be more in control, I guess. So people can quit worrying about me" (5.59).

But Conrad isn't Major Tom, and ground control isn't going to be calling him to issue orders anytime soon. Conrad's lack of control makes him feel very insecure, just as it makes his mom feel insecure; it's "as if he could shatter into a million pieces if he is jarred" (9.38). Is it a coincidence that "jarred" and "Jarrett" are only a couple letters apart? We don't think so.

Berger convinces Conrad that simply making peace with his feelings and rolling with them is better than trying to herd them like a pack of greased pigs. "You got any idea how much energy it takes to hold the door closed like you do?" he asks. "That's power" (12.70). This isn't a power than comes with great responsibility. It's a power that corrupts.

The Deep End

So why does Conrad have all this angst? His parents' hands-off parenting is part of it, but the biggest issue is the death of Conrad's older brother, Buck. Buck and Conrad were row, row, rowing a boat of some sort when it capsized. Buck fell off and drowned, while Conrad hung on. Now he has survivor's guilt.

Conrad idolized his older brother, and now has no one to look up to; Beth and Calvin just don't cut it. Conrad also thinks he has to live up to what he sees as the perfect standards Buck's set. (You see why Mama liked Buck better—you just know she would rather it had been Conrad who had drowned). Berger summarizes the sitch like this: "The not-so-perfect kid makes it. The other kid, the one he has patterned his whole life after, isn't so lucky. So, where is the sense in that, huh? Where is the justice?" (27.34).

The answer: there is no justice. If that sounds hopeless and pessimistic, well, it is. But in order to heal, Conrad must accept that some things happen for no reason, and he has to make the best of them. He can deal with any long-term existential crisis in the sequel.

Conrad repairs his psychological damage by acting like an ordinary teen. He gets into a fight. He gets a girlfriend. And he makes up with his best friend. Ordinary actions for ordinary people—especially now that Beth's out of the picture. Without the pressure to be extraordinary, Conrad is content with his life.

Turns out being extraordinary is overrated.

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