Study Guide

Ordinary People Dissatisfaction

By Judith Guest


To have a reason to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A believe of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will. (1.1)

People going through depression need motivation in the morning because bed and sleep are cozy and safe. But this first line makes us wonder if this is a novel or a self-help book. It's a novel, but Conrad Jarrett is in need of some help, which he'll have to get himself.

"I don't think it'll mess up my life if I stop swimming." (10.24)

One symptom of depression is no longer enjoying activities you used to enjoy. It's difficult to say if this is why Conrad quits swimming. But he needs to continue to swim, metaphorically, in order to keep his head about the figurative water and not drown in depression.

"Okay. Fine." He returns the ritual answer. It is not a lie, really; just the safest thing to say for now. (10.40)

Conrad's go-to strategy for anything is to avoid it. By not confronting anything, he avoids being disappointed or letting anyone else down. It seems logical, but it means he misses out on doing a lot of things and having a lot of important interactions with friends and family members.

[Calvin] had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that […] not anything cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world. (11.31)

Being a perfectionist is the perfect (har har) way to set yourself up for disappointment, since life is always just waiting to screw up your perfect world. Calvin has realized that, but Beth hasn't yet. Or she doesn't want to. This fact sometimes makes perfectionists just try harder. What is Beth's definition of perfection, anyway?

"If you ever do a survey, you'll find that people prefer illusion to reality, ten to one." (11.68)

We missed this episode of Family Feud. But Beth, who says this line, is in the "ten" camp, preferring her perfect illusion to imperfect reality.

"She hates me. There's nothing I can do about it." (13.117)

Just as trees and plants have many roots, so do problems. There isn't ever just one. But a major root of Conrad's dissatisfaction with life is the fact that he feels like he is always letting his mother down.

All his fault. All connections with him result in failure. Loss. Evil. (14.1)

This line shows us Conrad's rapid re-descent into depression. Instead of thinking that his strained relationship with his mother is neither person's fault (or both of their faults), he blames himself for everything. Not just his relationship with his mother, but any bad relationship he might have with anyone on the entire planet. Whoa, kiddo, put on the brakes.

"Depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling." (27.45)

This is most important quote on this topic in the book. Do you agree with Dr. Berger's assessment? He is accurate regarding Conrad specifically, but is his definition of depression in line with what you have witnessed or experienced?

"No sense taking the questions seriously, if there aren't any answers." (30.86)

It's difficult to say if this quote means Conrad is getting better, or if he's still depressed. You could say that he is too disinterested in life to care. Or you could say that he has come to terms with the fact that life doesn't need to have solid answers, so he will no longer be disappointed when he fails to find them.

"Well, don't admire people too much. […] They disappoint you sometimes." (31.76)

Calvin says this to Conrad, because he thinks he has disappointed his son. It isn't true; however, both men have experienced disappointed of their own. Calvin was abandoned by his mentor, Arnold Fagin, and Conrad was abandoned when his older brother, whom he idolized, died.

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