Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

Personal Limitations

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The title of the essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” represents a state of being in the physical world that many of the characters in the story experience in their private, personal worlds. The fourth state of matter is plasma, and the narrator, Jo Ann Beard, is surrounded by people who have devoted their lives to this strange and ineffable substance. Plasma is what makes up the dust of the rings of Saturn and the substance of the sun, and it can therefore only be understood within the absolute limits of human perception and reasoning. Just as the scientists who work in Jo Ann's office have reached the limit of their understanding about the mysteries of space, so have other characters reached their limit in the management of their personal lives and relationships. Jo Ann herself has begun to reach the limit regarding how much she can watch her beloved collie suffer illness. This is revealed in her conversations with Chris, where she confesses, “what I really want [is] for her to go to sleep and not wake up, just slip out of her skin and into the other world.”

Gang Lu also had reached his own personal limits. Tired of being overlooked by his advisors and colleagues and embittered by the fact that he has not been accorded the respect he believes he deserved, Gang Lu laments his situation in the letters he writes to his sister: “All my life I have been honest and straightforward, and I have most of all detested cunning, fawning sycophants and dishonest bureaucrats who think they are always right in everything.”

For the characters in this essay, reaching limits produces various effects. For Jo Ann, watching her collie suffer has led to feelings of frustration and desperation. For Gang Lu, however, reaching the limits of his patience with his coworkers leads him to rage and violence.

The Pain of Betrayal

The theme of betrayal can be seen in multiple storylines in Jo Ann Beard’s essay. Ultimately, Gang Lu decides to murder his colleagues and then kill himself, because he feels that he is the victim of a profound treachery: His dissertation committee advisors have not nurtured him or supported his academic success. His co-researcher in physics, Linhua Shan, is (in Lu’s mind) a nepotistic, self-serving careerist who has repeatedly been rewarded, despite his lack of real scientific acumen. And the entire university system has overworked and underpaid Lu for his cutting-edge intellectual labor. Jo Ann describes Lu’s growing frustration as such:

Gang Lu looks around the room with expressionless eyes. He’s sick of physics and sick of the buffoons who practice it. The tall glacial German, Chris, who tells him what to do; the crass idiot Bob, who talks to him as if he is a dog; the student Shan, whose ideas about plasma physics are treated with reverence and praised at every meeting. The woman who puts her feet on the desk and dismisses him with her eyes.

For Lu, there is no worse feeling in the world than having been betrayed by the very institution and the very people to whom he has devoted his heart and soul for so many years.

Jo Ann herself feels the bitter pangs of betrayal every time her husband leaves her a message on her answering machine. Her husband is an unsettled man, and Jo Ann realizes that in the long run, she is better off without him. Still, as she comments in the beginning of the essay, Jo Ann often has trouble opening the door to her upstairs spare bedroom, because this is where her ex-husband left all of his things. Although her sense of marital betrayal does not express itself in the outward rage and violence of Lu, it still cuts deep. This is why when Jo Ann’s husband finally does come to meet her face to face—after news of the mass shooting becomes nationally televised—she reacts with mechanical stiffness. Jo Ann cannot quickly forget the pain that he has caused her.

Accepting Loss

Just as Jo Ann is challenged with the painful reality that her beloved collie will likely not survive much longer, she must come to terms with the unimaginable reality that all of her coworkers had been taken from her in an instant. When the news first arrives that there has been a disturbance at the university, Jo Ann is incredulous. Friends and family begin to call her to see if she is alright, but it is only when Jo Ann calls Chris’ mother, who tells her that Chris has not yet come home, that the gravity of the situation begins to settle on her. Still, Jo Ann refuses to believe the inevitable. When the news begins to relay unspecified details about the number of dead and injured, Jo Ann consoles herself with the belief that Chris, the only person she has ever felt particularly close to, must simply have been one of the injured. “Eventually I sacrifice all of them except Chris and Bob; they are the ones in critical condition, which is certainly not hopeless.”

When news of Chris’s death is finally confirmed, it almost breaks Jo Ann. She stands at her door and looks up into the stars—the same stars that Chris had devoted his life to.

They might have come back. And I stand at the foot of the stairs staring up into the darkness, listening for the sounds of their little squirrel feet. Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone.

Just as she struggles to accept the impending fate of her collie, Jo Ann struggles to cope with the tragic events that have occurred with her coworkers. She must learn to let go, move on, and allow her loved ones to join the stars.

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