What are the main themes in State Of Wonder by Ann Patchett?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! The main themes of Ann Patchett's 'State Of Wonder' are:

1) Abandonment

Dr. Marina Singh is the daughter of an Indian father and an English mother. As a child, she remembers visiting her father in India. Marina's abandonment issues stem from the absence of her father in her daily life while she is growing up. Interestingly, her current lover is also her boss, who is old enough to be her father. When she is forced to exchange Easter (the native Hummocca boy who is Dr. Swenson's informally adopted son) for Eckman, she has to rationalize the exchange to herself. As Easter screams at her not to leave him, she is forced to abandon him for Eckman's sake. This theme of abandonment invites us to ponder the circumstances of abandonment and its ramifications.

2) The contrasting worlds of landscape and culture and its influence on a woman's life.

In Minnesota, she stands out due to her skin color, but in Manaus (Brazil), she blends in with the crowd.

With her black hair caught back in a barrette beneath the hat she’s bought and her cheap clothing and her flip-flops, she was able to pass in Manaus the way she was never able to pass in Minnesota.

While Minnesota is all 'prairie and sky,' the Amazonian rainforest is still further contrasted with both Manaus and the prairie land.

At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find.

Added to the contrast between Minnesota, Manaus and the Amazonian rainforest is the childhood world Marina remembers with her father in India:

Marina remembered a funeral her father had taken her to as a child, thousands of lights in paper cups floating down the Ganges, the people crowded onto the banks, walking into the water, cutting through the night air filled with incense and smoke. She could smell the rot of the water beneath the blanket of flowers.

Marina's experiences in all these settings mirror her state of mind as she resolves her abandonment issues and her struggle between two worlds: is she Indian or White? Is she a competent scientist or lost little girl? As Marina faces the nightmares of her past, she finds herself comforting Easter about his own. The anti-malarial pills she takes for her rainforest trip bring back the nightmarish moments of her childhood and she is forced to confront them.  Her own foray into the rainforest finally leads her to conquer old memories and fears.

3) The temptations and moral implications of knowledge

In the novel, Marina discovers that her colleague, Anders Eckman, has died while participating in research for a new miracle fertility drug company for their company, Vogel Pharmaceuticals. Her boss, Mr. Fox, sends her to the Amazonian rainforest to find out why Eckman died. The head researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson, has not been at all forthcoming to Vogel Pharmaceuticals regarding the location of the research station nor the true status of the research regarding the fertility drug. There is a reason for her secrecy: the bark of the martin tree not only prolongs the fertility of the Lakashi tribal women, it also serves as a vaccination against malaria.  This secrecy has allowed Dr. Swenson to raise funding for her own research into the second use of the martin bark. Two complications arise regarding the knowledge of this bark:

a) Will delaying the effects of menopause and allowing women to bear children beyond the natural child-bearing years lead to complications of pregnancy, childbirth and/or birth defects? (Dr. Swenson's baby is stillborn and has the congenital deformity sirenomelia, a fusing of the legs).

b) Will the Lakashi way of life be destroyed (as Dr. Swenson fears) if the discovery of such a miracle drug leads to encroachment into their world?

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