Study Guide

Ordinary People Identity

By Judith Guest


Mary Tyler Moore—or, to be more precise, the character she played on her show, Mary Richards—had a solid identity. The theme song told us everything we needed to know about her. She turns the world on with her smile. She can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile. She throws her hat into the air while walking down a busy street just because she's happy, something that would surely get her flagged by the NSA for suspicious behavior today.

Well, Mary also played Beth Jarrettin the film version of the Ordinary People, and Beth Jarrett's identity is pretty much the complete opposite of Mary Richards. This is a woman who can take a worthwhile day and suddenly make it seem like nothing. But why is she this way? There's no opening theme song to this book to explain things to us. Instead, we have to discover for ourselves who everyone in the Jarrett family is, who they want to be, and why they are the way they are.

Questions About Identity

  1. From what you know about Conrad before his suicide attempt, how would you describe him? How has he changed after his suicide attempt? How does he change during the book?
  2. Why does Calvin not know who he is?
  3. Is Beth secure in her identity?

Chew on This

Conrad no longer wants to be defined as "Buck's brother," because that makes him think of his brother's death, which makes him depressed. As a result, Conrad pressures himself to become his own person more quickly than your average teenager.

Beth acts like she and Conrad are independent, but she lets Conrad affect her perception of herself more than she would ever admit. She cannot consider herself perfect if she acknowledges that her remaining son has tried to commit suicide.

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