Ordinary People by Judith Guest
In today’s society, mothers play a significantly important role in the “typical American family.” They are expected to love and care for their children and are likely to display the love and affection towards their husbands throughout marriages. In the novel, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, Beth violates these norms by showing no emotions towards her family. Through the perspectives of Cal, Con, and her own actions, Beth is portrayed as an unloving member of the Jarrett family throughout the book.
Calvin’s perspective proves how irregular Beth’s role as a wife and mother is throughout the book. In the beginning of the novel, Conrad has returned from the hospital and the school year has begun. Beth meets Cal for lunch makes a proposal for a vacation to London for Christmas. Since things are hectic in the family with Con back home, Cal feels that going on vacation would be appropriate. He tells her “I don’t think we should plan to go away for Christmas this year” (Guest 27) and Beth complains that they go away every year. Cal then states that “the timing just isn’t right” (Guest 27) and Beth refuses to comprehend the fact that with Con back from the hospital, they should stay home for once and settle down. Cal brings up how their trip to Florida the previous year was too stressful and may have contributed to Con’s suicide attempt. Beth being unable to understand that the situation in the family is different this year reveals nothing but selfishness. She ignores the fact that everything is not normal. As expected, “Cal’s insistence that the family not travel during Christmas because of Con’s mental and emotional state is a decision which will cause tension in the family” (Plot Summary). The argument concludes with Cal disagreeing on the vacation idea when Beth responds “Then, I don’t understand you at all” (Guest 30). Cal’s failure to please his wife only adds something else to worry about. Beth being upset about not having things her way is the last thing the family needs. While Cal gets ready for bed one night, he realizes Beth is already asleep. Conrad had been sleeping on the couch earlier and Cal begins to wonder why Beth had not done anything. As unusual as it is for Con to sleep on the couch rather than in his own bed, Beth did not bother to wake him up or to check on him. Cal becomes very confused and asks himself “What the hell is wrong with her?” (Guest 191). He doesn’t understand why Beth does not take the time to make sure Con was okay and comes home without letting them know. This failure to fulfill her duty as a mother is typical of Beth’s careless attitude. It boggles his mind that she would just walk by Con and pay no attention to him. This incident is Cal’s first realization that something is actually wrong with Beth. When in Dallas for a golf tournament, Beth proposes to go on another vacation together. By mentioning a vacation, Cal thought that Beth implied the whole family and considers how Con would feel about going. Beth becomes angry since Cal brought Con up during their conversation and complains Cal is too obsessed by saying “God, I am sick of talking, talking, talking about him!” (Guest 236). Beth still has not “forgiven” Con and is uncomfortable talking about him since the suicide attempt. When Beth reflects back on Con’s incident, she begins to cry because she has difficulty looking past all the horrific memories. Cal sees Beth in distress and tries comforting her like a husband should and asks to help. She bitterly responds “Help? What do you mean, help? I don’t need it. Not your kind of help. I can help myself” (Guest 237). Beth’s refusal to accept Cal’s effort to relieve her during the argument shows how stubborn she is even when Cal reassures he is there for her. Evidently, “her addiction to her own sense of privacy makes it impossible for them to relate as a couple; she remains a stranger to him” (Dougherty). Beth’s unwillingness to allow Cal to reach out to her causes his attempts to become useless and therefore distances them even more after every argument.
Conrad emphasizes how Beth’s inability to forgive him prevents him from fully recovering after returning home from the hospital. When Con returns home from swim practice, he encounters Beth in the hallway and startles her. He attempts to start conversation about her day but she claims to have a headache and walks away. Again, he makes another attempt to talk to her by telling her how his situation on the swim team is going well but she simply replies “Good” (Guest 24) and closes the door. Beth being her careless self “responds coolly and offers only a few indifferent words as she walks by” (Lilburn). With Con adjusting back to his old self, the least Beth could do is be encouraging about his news and acknowledge what goes on in his life. Instead, she gives very vague responses and it instills painful responses within Con. For instance, after she closes the door, he returns to his room and trembles, “his stomach tightens, as if it ward off a blow” (Guest 24). He has trouble coping with the awkwardness because Beth won’t allow Con to connect with her. The Jarrett family sets up Christmas decorations when Beth brings up the subject of Con quitting the swim team. She begins to place focus on Con and leaves him to explain himself for quitting the swim team without telling either Calvin or Beth. Beth admits “it was rather embarrassing” (Guest 109) to hear the news from somebody else’s mother. Con bursts out and tells Beth she doesn’t care about anything in his life. He yells “The only reason you give a f*** about it is because someone else knew about it first!” (Guest 110). He finds it unusual that Beth is all the sudden interested in the swim team. Con is angered by the fact that Beth is mad at him because she had no clue what Lazenby’s mother was talking about. She was mad at Con because he embarrassed her; she never cared about anything that was going on in his life before this incident. The argument allowed Con to finally express his conflicting feelings since “it has long been evident in their strained and distant relationship with each other” (Themes and Construction). When Con and Beth continue arguing, Con reveals what bothers him most when he reflects back on the previous year. He mentions how Beth never visited him while he was in the hospital. Con exclaims “Listen, I know why she never came out there, not once! I know! Hell, she was going to goddamn Spain and Portugal, why should she care if I was hung up by the goddamn balls out there—” (Guest 110-111). She was busy traveling around Europe and enjoying herself while in the meantime, Con was depressed and in emotional distress at a mental hospital. With the reader’s knowledge, it is no surprise that “she did not visit Conrad in the hospital and remains painfully distant after he returns home” (Lilburn). There is no excuse for why Beth chose not to take some time to see Con because nothing has changed even when he is home. She does not seem to “forgive” Con for what he did and gives him little attention when a son would need his mother the most. The only option left to the reader is Con’s, that Beth simply does not love him and will never forgive him.
Through Beth’s actions, Guest reveals how inconsiderate Beth is of her family throughout the novel. Beth and Cal go to the Murray’s home for a dinner party. Cal drinks and converses with friends about how Con is seeing a psychiatrist. The conversation catches Beth’s attention and she tells Cal its time to leave. On the way home, Beth gets upset at Cal for telling other people about Con’s situation. Her argument was that what Cal did at the party was a violation of privacy. Cal then asks whose privacy he was violating and Beth “does not answer” (Guest 70). Beth doesn’t respond to Cal’s remark because she knows that the truth is it’s really her own privacy she is insecure of. Without a doubt “survival for Beth means secrecy and a strict adherence to privacy” (Overview). Beth clearly implies herself when she blames Cal for a violation of privacy because she is uncomfortable with people thinking that there are problems in the family. She is worried what people will assume if her son is seeing a psychiatrist, it makes her as a mother look bad. Beth is embarrassed because she worries people will think their family is dysfunctional, when her manners are actually a huge contribution to the awkward moments the family faces. After returning home from the dinner party, Cal and Beth both make love before going to sleep. After they finish, Cal asks to hold her but “she curls away from him; pushes him gently from her, in sleep” (Guest 71). Beth turns Cal down after having sex. Cal wants intimacy and reassurance that Beth loves him but Beth turns Cal down by claiming she is tired and separates herself away from him in bed. This rejection of Cal leads him and the reader to question if Beth really has the love and affection that wives usually have. The Jarrett family goes Christmas tree shopping and Beth reveals another example of one of her “typical responses.” It’s a good change for the family since they’ve always been going on family vacations for the past five years. Con is happy with the decision he makes but Beth ruins the mood when she says “I think it’s silly” (107). Beth claims that it was unnecessary to buy a new Christmas tree since they have an artificial tree in the basement. The family stays home for Christmas and Beth does not get to go to London. She doesn’t bother to make the best of the holidays at home and her behavior brings a sense of restriction on the joy the rest of the family can have.
Through the use of third person omniscience of Cal and Con, as well as Beth’s dialogue, Judith Guest leaves the reader with little information regarding Beth’s motivations and purpose of her actions. Throughout the novel, Beth constantly tries pushing the family to forget the past faster than they are able to. Beth Jarrett’s narcissistic role in the novel reveals examples of selfishness and arrogance. Clearly, she does not prioritize family since she always persisted in going on vacations at the worst time possible. She falsely assumes Con’s suicide attempt was directed towards her and has no legitimate reasoning for her cold hearted personality. Thus, Guest portrays Beth as the “outcast” in the novel since she fails to fulfill her role as a loving mother and wife, when an ordinary family needs her the most.