Study Guide

Ordinary People Isolation

By Judith Guest


They do not discuss a problem in the presence of the problem. (1.9)

The Jarrett family has a tendency to ignore things and hope they'll go away. This strategy works about as well as it would if you were defusing a bomb. Ignoring it won't make it go away. It'll explode.

He wants to belong to this house again, needs to be part of these tall windows set low to the ground, walls half-hidden behind thick waxy rhododendron leaves, the cedar hedge in the front, all of it—all elegance and good taste. (3.4)

The house might be elegant, but it doesn't seem very welcoming. The windows create a false sense of openness, but the house—and the family—is hidden behind the hedges and the plant life. Everything on the outside is just for show.

Okay Karen we'll see you around who needs you anyway who the f*** needs anybody? (7.58)

Conrad finds it easier to isolate himself and get angry than to try and come to terms with his feelings. He gets that from his mother.

"What is it that you don't feel, huh? Anger? Sadness? Any of the twenty-eight flavors?" (12.42)

This line shows us three things. 1) Conrad is isolated from his emotions. 2) Berger has a quirky way of making analogies. And most importantly, 3) There was a time when Baskin Robbins only had 28 flavors.

He sits down, suddenly, looking out of his window again. […] Everything as usual; fuzzy and slightly out of focus, no, wait a minute, wait a minute, it is not out of focus. It is clear and sharp, distinct, in place. His whole life is in place and it spreads out around him, steady and full of purpose. (16.10)

When Conrad initially sits down, he feels isolated, as always—so isolated that the world looks blurry. And although he doesn't explain the near-mystical feeling that washes over him, it's a bit of inspiration that strikes. Now he thinks he knows how he can fit in.

"It takes a long time to get over the feeling that everybody's watching all the time." (16.45)

Whether or not Conrad attempted suicide to get attention is up for debate. What isn't debatable is the fact that he gets lots of attention after his attempt, and he finds out that he doesn't want to be the center of attention…at least not from those people who are paying attention to him. This is why Conrad often withdraws: he wants to be by himself and escape everyone watching him, even though they mean no harm.

"She can't think about them at all. Now what does that say to you?" (19.53)

One of Calvin and Beth's biggest arguments centers on the fact that Calvin apparently thinks about Conrad too much, and Beth apparently thinks about Calvin not at all. Where is there a healthy balance? How can these two reach a compromise?

They had been happy there. Away from home, away from all of it, everything seemed orderly and safe. (21.10)

Beth and Calvin also isolated themselves from their problems by going to Grenada while their son was in the hospital. Nice for them to get away, sure, but it was also selfish. By isolating themselves and creating the illusion that everything was "orderly and safe," they were doing just the opposite for their son, who felt as if they had abandoned him.

The distance between people. In miles. In time. In thought. Staggering, when you think about it. (23.1)

Although this comes dangerously close to REM's "Everybody Hurts" territory, Calvin is honestly thinking about how everyone is lonely and isolated. Oddly, these thoughts make him feel closer to other people. They make him feel—say it with us now—ordinary.

He walks swiftly, without direction. (26.40)

Although this sentence is describing a literal walk that Conrad is going on, at this point, it also describes his life—lonely and aimless.

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