Study Guide

Ordinary People Identity

By Judith Guest


Lying on his back in bed, he gazes around the walls of his room, musing about what has happened to his collection of statements. […] Gone now. (1.2)

There is a lot going on in these lines. For one thing, they show our main character's sadness: he's tossed out all his motivational statements. But they also say a lot about his identity. We're on the second paragraph of the book, and our main character doesn't yet have a name. Also, throwing stuff out shows us that he is changing from his old self, whoever that was, and is becoming someone else.

Everything's okay, he's here, wearing his Levi's, boots, and jersey shirt, just like everybody else, all cured, nobody panic. (1.8)

Conrad has an intense need to conform and feel "normal." Or you might say, "ordinary." Hmm, wonder who he got that pressure to conform from? Anyway, as this book shows us, the most so-called ordinary people are sometimes the unhappiest ones.

"Don't expect him to be the same person he was before." (2.60)

Calvin is told to not expect Conrad to be the same after his suicide attempt. What Calvin doesn't yet realize is that every member in the family will undergo an identity crisis because of the suicide attempt. None of them will be the same.

A good thing you do not have to know who you are, Jarrett, in order to perform, because today there is a minimum of information available on that subject. (6.5)

Both father and son have the same "fake it till you make it" attitude. We guess Beth does, too, in a way—but she never actually makes it.

"It's called Search for Identity." (11.19)

Carole Lazenby, a very minor character, shares the name of a course she's taking. It's a sly wink at this book's major theme of searching for identity. And because she is a mother, it shows us that the search for identity never stops, not even when you are an adult.

"There's a guy in the closet. I don't even know him, that's the problem." (12.67)

Conrad isn't alluding to homosexuality here; this line has real a "skeletons in the closet" kind of flavor. Conrad's in therapy to try to understand who he really is, even if he might not like what he finds out.

Besides, their old buddy, Jarrett, no longer exists. He is extinct. (16.7)

It's difficult for Conrad to accept that he is different not just because he is depressed, but also because he's realizing who he really is. When he quits swimming, he grows away from his friends, because no long being on the team makes him different from them.

"You're very good-looking. But I'm sure you already know that." (16.24)

An unnamed woman appears in the library parking lot and says this to Conrad. Call her his fairy godmothers: she bestows him with a little bit of much-needed confidence.

I'm not myself," he says. "Okay, Howard, who am I then?" (19.25)

We're over halfway through the book, and Calvin—the father, not the son—still hasn't worked out his own identity. Finding your identity is a lifelong process, one that isn't set in stone when you're a teenager, as much as Conrad—the son—might like it to be.

He has never felt so strong, so needed. (24.106)

Conrad is kind of pleased to discover that Jeannine doesn't have a perfect home life, either—it makes him feel a little more ordinary, and this discovery brings him and Jeannine closer together. Although it borders on creepy that Conrad is turned on by Jeannine being upset, it makes sense that Conrad, a person who normally feels helpless, is excited about feeling needed.