What Is the Significance of the Water Imagery in “Ordinary People”?

The opening scene in the Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980) presents a placid lake representing calm and peace. We then view reassuring vistas of autumnal trees and a safe, affluent suburban setting while the ordered, hypnotic sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in D wash over us. We zoom in on a youthful choir singing words accompanying the music. Then, almost brutally, there is a cut to the main character, a sweat-soaked Conrad (Timothy Hutton) waking up from a nightmare. With these contrasting images the movie offers up the theme of conflict between the appearance of emotional order on the surface and the psychological chaos raging beneath the imposed control.

Following the juxtaposition of the lake and the sweating fit, water references continue to show up in Ordinary People. Before the film’s start, Conrad survived (at least physically) a boating accident during a storm, in which the only other member of the crew was his older brother, Buck, who drowned. Conrad is now psychologically underwater, suffocating from guilt, not only for what happened to his brother but also because he attempted suicide after the accident by cutting his wrists in the bathtub (which, of course, is also associated with water and thus the drowning). When he learns of the recent suicide of a friend who was at the psychiatric hospital where he was treated after the attempt, the first thing Conrad does is throw water on his face, revealing his scarred wrists, implying that he feels guilty that he could not help her, just like he couldn’t save his brother.

Conrad states that his control-obsessed mother (Mary Tyler Moore) will not forgive him because it was almost impossible to wash out the bloodstains in the bathroom after his suicide attempt. Water is here used as an analogy: the desire to clean up a mess is similar to trying to wipe the memory clean of tragic events instead of dealing with our disturbing recollections.

Conrad is a member of the high school swim team, and his continuing with the activity after the tragedy symbolically mirrors his inability to pull himself out of a dangerous mental ocean threatening to swallow him up with obsessions on his self-perceived faults. He finally quits the swim team as part of his psychological healing, and the act signals that he is gradually letting go of his guilt. Conrad’s psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) makes him realize that he must let himself off the “hook” (yes, that’s a fishing reference) because he could not save his brother and had to rescue himself by staying afloat on the capsized boat. By the conclusion of the film, Conrad is no longer at sea.