Ordinary People (1980)

by | Jul 2, 2013 | - 1 - Gain Stories

A teenage boy attempts to find internal peace and resolution after a suicide attempt brought on, in part, by the guilt of surviving a boating accident that took the life of his brother.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Alvin Sargent, Judith Guest

Director: Robert Redford

Production Co.(s): Paramount Pictures; Wildwood Enterprises

Adapted from: Ordinary People (Novel) by Judith Guest (© 1976)

The Story on the Screen

In Ordinary People, the main character, Conrad, is a high school senior who has returned recently to live with his parents in their upscale suburban home after spending four months in a mental hospital, following a suicide attempt. Although the outward trappings of his life suggest that he is progressing in his return to "normalcy" after the hospital stay, it is clear from the start that the internal conflicts that led to the suicide attempt still roil inside him, infecting him with a dangerous depression that haunts both his waking and sleeping lives.

Conrad is a high school senior who has recently returned to live with his parents after time spent in a mental hospital, following a suicide attempt.

The world that Conrad is attempting to reenter is populated by friends and acquaintances, but its most significant denizens are his successful tax-accountant father, Calvin, and housewife mother, Beth—whose attitudes and approaches to his recovery differ markedly from each other. While Calvin expresses a level of patience and support that suggests a Pollyanna-ish inability to recognize the internal family conflicts that might be contributing to Conrad's angst, Beth maintains a stern and unsympathetic emotional distance, mostly by busying herself with the trivial concerns related to maintaining an upscale suburban life.

His family includes a passive, peacemaking father, a determined and somewhat-unfeeling mother, and the memory of his older brother, who died in a two-person boating accident that Conrad survivied.

The family may be said to include, as well, a significant unseen member in the person of Conrad's late brother, Buck, who died in a two-person boating accident that Conrad survived—an event the particulars of which Conrad seems condemned to replay repeatedly in his mind, especially in his dreams.

In an attempt to find peace from terrifying dreams, Conrad seeks the help of a psychiatrist, which sets him on a path of discovery that threatens to break the outwardly happy and normal family.

In an attempt to gain internal peace and find solace from the terror of the dreams, Conrad seeks out the help of a psychologist, Dr. Tyrone Berger—a move that is applauded by Calvin and condemned by Beth, who appears to be more concerned with what their friends will think (about the psychologist) than she is with Conrad's well-being. And although Conrad approaches the psychology sessions at first with a defiant reticence, they soon begin to do their work inside him, revealing to him important insights about his feelings—especially with respect to his parents, his brother, and the boating accident—and paving the way to the peace that he seeks.

Behind the Scenes

Although the story explores the psychological impacts of Buck's death on the family as a whole, it is Conrad whose journey we-the-audience follow as he attempts to gain internal peace and resolution. While Beth concerns herself with maintaining (keeping) a veneer of social normalcy, and Calvin supports Conrad, seemingly to help regain the happiness that the family enjoyed before Buck died (which he does not seem to want to believe is gone forever), only Conrad engages in a stalwart effort to understand and change himself—bravely exploring his own feelings to do so.

The endeavor of the main character in this case involves his attempt to find inner peace and resolution even if it means confronting the deep-seated family conflicts and personal feelings to which he is reluctant to admit. The issue, therefore, may be said to involve "gaining internal peace by confronting the deepest truths about one's feelings," and it appears to be one that the storytellers consider advisable. Therefore, it is possible to state the proposition as:

  • One should attempt to gain internal peace by confronting the deepest truths about his feelings, because success in the attempt will provide him with the peace that he seeks and enrich him with self-knowledge in the process.

In Ordinary People, Conrad succeeds in facing the truths about his feelings, and his success sets the stage for psychological healing going forward—a result for which we-the-audience can feel pleased. As consequence of his attempt, however, his father is forced to face difficult, long-standing truths about his marriage that he has tried to avoid, and his mother leaves the house (and, perhaps, the family), unable to defend herself from the assaults on the protective artifice of her suburban life—and the internal walls that she has erected in an effort to cope with the loss of her favorite son.

Conrad succeeds in his attempt to find peace, and although the ending is not completely happy, the film is, in fact, a succeed/pleased story.

Consequently, Ordinary People stands as a succeed/pleased story the consequences and collateral damages of which prevent the ending from being thought of as happy.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).

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