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Judith Guest's novel Ordinary People evinces some main principles of the modernist literary movement, such as the philosophy that modern man is beset by existential angst and alienation. According to Carl Marx, a renowned existentialist, alienation, as a result of the industrial revolution, has made modern man alienated from the product of his own labor, and has made him into a mechanical component in the system. Being a "cog in the wheel" prevents modern man from gaining a sense of internal satisfaction of intellectual and emotional pleasure. Further more, according to Sigmund Freud, there are two pleasures, work and love. Consequently, Freud would say that being disconnected from pleasure from work, half of the potential for psychological fulfillment would be lost. Modern man is suffering from alienation as a result of large institutions, and as individuals, modern man neither feels that they are part of them nor can understand them. Additionally, the existentialists say, man is shut out of history. Modern man no longer has a sense of having roots in a meaningful past nor sees himself as moving toward a meaningful future. The modern man also suffers from alienation in his relationships with other people. Since he lives life not authentically and not knowing who he is, he cannot relate to others authentically. Hence, there are no real relationships at work and there are no real relationships of love. Also, according to Sartre, modern man is absolutely not a victim of his environments, of his childhood, and the circumstances in his life. The events in life are only neutral and since modern man is free, he chooses the meanings of the facts of his life. Modern man lives in a constant state of existential angst, which is dread of the nothingness of human existence and the fact there is no underlying purpose to human existence or set of objective truths or morals by which to navigate life. According to Martin Heideggar, German existentialist philosopher, the unaware person tries to escape the reality of death by not living life to the fullest. However, death can be the most significant moment for the individual, his defining moment of personal potential, if accepted and confronted squarely will free the individual from anxiety of death.
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Throughout the novel Conrad manifests post-traumatic stress with such symptoms of depression and anxiety as lack of feeling and isolation. While lying down Conrad gazes at the walls of his room he says, "They have been freshly painted. Pale blue. An anxious color. Anxiety is blue; failure, gray. He knows those shades"(1-2). Later, On the way home from swim practice, Conrad suddenly "feels the slow, rolling pressure of panic building inside of himself. The air in the back seat is being sucked out the windows by a huge and powerful vacuum. Relentless, it will soon crush the car like an eggshell"(16-17). Here, Conrad develops an anxiety attack that overwhelms him and controls his senses. Another symptom of depression that he dramatizes is self-absorption. After the brawl with Kevin Stillman, a member of the swim team, and verbal fight with Joe Lazenby, a friend of Conrad and member of the swim team, Conrad begins to have "A hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach, as if he has been punched- never mind screw him screw them all they were Buck's friends anyway- he walks on to class feeling nothing"(97). Conrad juxtaposes two signs of depression: a lack of feeling and a proclivity toward isolation. Hence, he creates an imaginary barrier between him and his friends. He also manifests these symptoms when he is in bed alone; he pulls his pillow tight around his head in order to "[block] out the sharp arrows of sun that pierce through the window"(2). The "sun" symbolizes happiness, truth, and clarity, and the "sharp arrows" represent the pain and anguish that the happiness, truth, and clarity inflicts him with. Thus, he hides from his unwanted emotions and feelings by becoming isolated. Sometimes to escape daily pressures of life Conrad "imagines himself safely inside [his house]; in bed, with the covers pulled up. Asleep. Unconscious"(15). Once more, Conrad yearns for refuge in order to protect himself from society and to deny the truth. Also, Conrad displays signs of depression through the lack of self-esteem and confidence. He evinces this especially when he thinks his parents "do not discuss the problem in the presence of the problem" (4). Conrad is truly projecting a self-image of himself through his parents. Thus, he suggests that he is "the problem". Conrad's depression is devastating to his life and the lives of the people around him.
Through a great deal of struggle, Conrad slowly but surely emerges out of depression and isolation. Conrad's healing begins in choir because "Choir is the one time of day when he lets down his guard [and] there is peace"(20). He releases tension and becomes relaxed, as if he were meditating. He also has more energy because he briefly escapes his depression, which consumes most of his energy. After Conrad admits to his parents that he quit the swim team one month after he actually quit, his mother becomes infuriated with Conrad. Conrad response and says, "I'm sure I would have told you, if I thought you gave a damn!"(109) Conrad does exactly what Dr. Berger, his psychiatrist, tells him, that healing from depression is not only feeling happiness, but it is feeling anything, even anger. It appears that Conrad has escaped from depression, when Judith Guest points out that, "Reduction of feeling. At least he is not guilty of that today"(231) because the depression is basically a reduction of feeling and if he does not have a lack a feeling, he does not have depression. Even though it seems that he has completely ended his depression, during a deep and intensive conversation with Jeannine Pratt, Conrad's girlfriend, he says, "I don't even know why I don't feel that way anymore"(250), which implies that he is not out of depression because he still doesn't know the reason for his change. The most emotional and touching three words in the novel is when Conrad tells Calvin, " I love you"(259) because not only has their relationship reached new heights, but also he finally reaches his capacity to feel happiness and love. A few days later, Conrad, wishing to make amends, goes to Lazenby's house and while "standing on Lazenby's front porch, he has that same, funny feeling in the pit of his stomach"(261). He feels strange because this is the first time where he reaches out to someone and comes out of isolation. The novel concludes on an optimistic note for Conrad; he is fixing his life one friend at a time; he is done with his therapy and is settled in to a new environment.
In the course of the novel, Calvin Jarrett struggles in his relationship with his wife, Beth, defining himself and fatherhood. Calvin and Beth suffer from the existential problem of alienation. In a time of crisis, after an unforgettable tragedy, when their relationship should be the strongest, they go "to their bedroom, where they will silently undress, and separately grieve"(129). When they do express their emotions, they always convey them indirectly. The couple evinces this when Beth tells Calvin "I love you..."[while] looking at him in the mirror"(7). Also, this might suggest that Beth does not love him truly because she cannot tell him she loves him straightforward. Similarly, "she opens to him only in darkness, only in sex"(143). When Calvin was younger he was in an evangelical home and "when [his mother] came to see him, she came alone. No one claiming to be his father had ever been in attendance; he had no memories of being any man's son. So, if anyone should ask, he can point out that he had no example to follow"(8). For this reason, Calvin poses a vital question, "what is fatherhood anyway?"(8). During college he had a mentor named Arnold Bacon, which "was the closest thing to a father-son relationship- it was a father-son relationship, he thought"(49). Another question that he asks himself is, "Who the hell are you?"(48), but all he can come up with is, " I'm the kind of man who - he has heard this phrase a million times, at parties, in bars, in the course of normal conversation, I'm the kind of man who- instinctively he listen; tries to apply any familiar terms to himself, but without success"(48). Finally, he has a realization and thinks to himself, "I'm the kind of man who- hasn't the least idea what kind of man I am"(51). He is in a time of existential crisis and does not know the essence of who he is and what is the meaning of his life. Additionally, he has a terrible relationship with Beth, which is not improving.
Calvin realizes that he is not to blame for the tribulations in his marriage and that life is non-existential, which leads him to the realizations of who he is and what is his purpose. During a conversation with Ray Hanley, a tax attorney, Ray articulates a truly existential comment; "People are born. Then they die. In between, they perform a lot of pathetic and more-or-less meaningless actions"(162). Calvin replies, "You don't believe that"(162). Calvin believes "Life is not a series of pathetic, meaningless actions. Some of them are so far from pathetic, so far from meaningless as to be beyond reason, maybe beyond forgiveness"(163). Calvin interjects the last statement that some actions are beyond forgiveness to cover up for Beth because "It is not in her nature to forgive"(176). Calvin analyzes this characteristic of Beth again and realizes, "No. That is absurd. Again, a reducing of the complicated dimensions in life to a formula that is more simple than sensible"(176). Once, Conrad was sleeping on the couch when she got home at a time he usually is not sleeping and she walk right past him to her room. Calvin's responds by asking himself, " Wouldn't she think it strange, him sleeping on the couch at whatever time she had come in? Wouldn't she wakened him to ask-at least- what the hell is wrong with her?"(191) Later in the novel Beth admits that she is narcissistic when Calvin asks her, "Can't you see anything except in terms of how it affects you?" She replies, "No! Neither can you! Neither does anybody else! Only maybe I'm more honest that the rest of you, maybe I'm more willing to recognize that I do it"(238). After a terrible fight Beth and Calvin came to an important point, which is that they never agree. Therefore, Beth decides to leave for an undisclosed time. Calvin realization about himself comes to him during a conversation with Conrad. Conrad tells Calvin to tell him to shape up the way that he told Buck to. Calvin looks up in astonishment. "He needed it you didn't. You were always so hard on yourself, I never had the heart. Besides, you were the good kid. The easy one to raise...It's the truth. You were the one I never worried about. That was the problem. I should have been worrying. I wasn't even listening"(257). Conrad tells Calvin, "You know, I used to figure you for a handle on everything. You knew it all, even thought you grew up alone, with nobody looking after you... Nobody helped you with the decisions-I've thought a lot about that. I really admired you for it. I still do"(259). Calvin realizes although he has a lucrative profession, who he is is less significant than the road he traveled to get there.
All through the novel, the Jarrett family has no set of objective truths or morals to facilitate in the road of life. They, just like modern man, are faced with the struggle of creating their own ethics and morals. A person that is part of a religion or belief that has a strong foundation of objective truth, absolute morality, spirituality, and or historical roots, does not face the existential anguish and despair facing modern man who must create purpose and meaning in what he or she falsely perceives as a vacuity. Nor does the religious person suffer from the alienation and estrangement facing modern man, giving the kind of connection possible in his or her society or home. While reading any novel it is usually an excellent idea to pay attention to the title. Judith Guest goes to great lengths to make everything in this book appear ordinary. The novel opens on an ordinary day. The Jarrett's live in and ordinary suburb. The friends of the family seem ordinary. But the irony of the title is since the death of Buck and the suicide attempt of Conrad the Jarrett family has been a particularly extraordinary family. Guest therefore juxtaposes the mundane side of American life with dark, gloomy connotations.