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Tragic Stories

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Jo Ann beard is an American essayist who graduated from University of Iowa. She works as an editor for a physics journal in the same university. Beard is also a professor at Sarah Lawrence College of creative nonfiction. Beard employs an effective writing style to depict tragic events in her essays. She implements a series of allegorical scenes that intertwine with one another.  She uses metaphors and present tense in her works (“the Fourth State of Matter” and “Maybe It happened”) to relate events. Present tense is an uncommon and a shrewd way to relate events in a vivid way (Malone, 2011). The author cleverly draws its audience away from questioning his memory in relation to the occurrence. The author creates immediacy and the audience, who evidently, were not part what happened empathize with the author. They audience feel what the author went through at that moment. This paper aims to portray the similarity of “The Fourth State of Matter” to other works of Jo Ann Beard. It will also describe an effective style of relating tragic events to the audience, who did not experience the tragedy first hand.

The fourth state of matter, and its relations to other works by the Author

In her work, the author relates tragic events, in a faraway manner; as if it is a long bad dream that a victim hopes will never come out true. There is extensive use of metaphors in relating tragic events. In her work “the Fourth state of Matter”, the tragic events got related vividly by use of metaphors (Hansen, 2009).  Beard began her essay by depicting her daily routine of caring for her dog and the daily frustrations of feeling a sense of helplessness. While her routine sharply strikes the audience as boring, it serves to show how actions serve as a consolation to her resigned life. 

The main character, her dog-the collie, is particularly intriguing all through the story. Hansen (2009) argues that the author “might have used the dog as a metaphor to show how her life was going” at that moment. The author depicted the collie as overly dependent on her. It cannot go upstairs, but only lies at the bottom and stares at the furniture. The author has to change the dog’s bedding constantly as the dog pees on them. Again, this seems to sum up the life of Beard. The audience clearly pictures the author attending to the dog with pity.

The dog may as well represent her husband in a profound manner. She admits to Chris, her colleague at work that her husband was dumping her. The void left could only be filled by daily routine of work, whether dull or engaging. She hopes things would turn round for her, but on the contrary, there seems no hope. Her reaction to the message she found in the answering machine at the office shows her state of despair.  The first of her husband’s calls made her “…heart lurched with hopeful way.” Her hope however gets diminished when in the second call her husband tells her he was fine. She recounts how she has to put the dog to sleep. Chris- her colleague- wonders why she is “…letting this continue.” We could argue that Beard allowed the problems she was experiencing to torment her. She talks to her husband who had abandoned her hoping to reconcile. The husband however, does not seem ready to get back as she hoped.  Before she left for the office, she tells her dog to wake up “…and smell bacon…” because she was leaving forever. This might have been a way of empathizing with her husband when he said those words to her. It gave her the ultimate experience of her partner when he told her was quitting. The dog appears to be a culmination of her experiences after the separation (Olin, 2011).

The statement “I can take almost whatever thing at this point,” tells us that the author had fully accepted her misgivings; a helpless dog that constantly required her attention and a husband, who had quit on her. Although the dog, being an animal, was expected not to realize the gravity of its actions, the contrary has been related to the reader. The dog showed concern and tried to stand, but the author rested those concerns by patting her. This illustrated the author as a caring and concerned person. She brings out her personality in such a witty manner.

The squirrels on her house sent her sleeping downstairs on the dog’s couch. One would wonder why he did not simply exterminate the squirrels rather than sleep with dogs on the couch. She however, claims that she sleeps there to calm the collie that gets restless whenever she got up.  She finally decides to ask Caroline to rid her house of squirrels. Caroline is depicted as having a brave character. She finally got rid of the squirrels. The squirrels can be argued as being more than just squirrels. They could represent troublesome companions or noisy neighbours. After the tragic massacre, at the end of the essay, the author “…feels a surge of hope,” when a branch scraped against her house. She listens and hopes that the little squirrels would return. Could the squirrels have been used to represent real people? People in her work place or community that bothered her? She admitted that she did not get along with Bob, her colleague at work. Lu is also another person who seems not to like Beard. She greets him and sure to her expectation no reply came. The fact that she expected no reply from Lu means they might have had some differences. Her favourite colleague was Chris. She tries to console herself by deceiving her mind that Chris had escaped death in the tragedy. The phrase “they never come back once they’re gone,” in relation to the squirrels, show us how the departed go for good. It also contradicts the common notion that happiness sets in with the departure of those who make our lives hard. She missed the squirrels though they purely meant trouble to her. The statement could show how she missed her dead colleagues and how she hoped they would come back.

Her work on “Maybe it Happened” is related to “The Fourth State of Matter” in that both use one tense. The latter uses present tense creating immediacy while the previous employs past tense. Both styles are useful in the situations surrounding each incidence. In the second incidence, the emotions surrounding what occurred could have overwhelmed the author if any other tense was used. The recount of the story would have not have been more real. She uses past tense in “Maybe it Happened”. She relates a story of a kid who ends up hurting herself from a fall at play. The baby’s elder cousins, who apparently got bored babysitting, left her. The elder children did not find the baby interesting and left her.  Left to her own demise, the baby climbed on to a milk crate. The shrill of phone might have startled the kid who fell off the crate, hurting her knee in the process. The single tense helps develop tone and mood in a narrative. The tone changes when phone rang. The author wanted to show how leaving a baby in the hands of children could end tragically. The act is brought out clearly through the use of events that follow each other. These acts can be used to warn or caution people on the occurrences of such tragic incidences. This is seen in the last paragraph when the author talks of girls playing the role of the mother, caring for a child, while mothers did other things. The girls were left to care for the baby while the mother got her hair done. The end results were tragic (Beard, 2008).

A relation in her works is also brought about by styles used to write. The author uses styles including metaphors and similes. Metaphors were widely employed in her work “The fourth State of Matter.” Dogs and squirrels were more than just animals. They symbolized human beings to some extent. The author enlists the help of a friend to have the squirrels chased but later misses them after the tragedy. The squirrels having been troublesome may depict people who did not go well with the author. Their exit in the tragedy would however, leave the author lonely, hence missing them. The statement “…petting her, like a puppy,” in “Maybe it happened amounts to a simile. This style of writing helps the reader to see more clearly.

The author ends her stories in a creative way that leaves the audience hoping that the tragedies never actually happened. The reason could lie in the fact that tragedies create a sad mood and the author in her ingenuity does not wish to leave her audience in that state. She therefore, creates some kind of doubt in the reader as to what happened. Doubt helps to lighten the heart and the reader hopes what had just been related did not actually happen. Chris is shown replying to the author in “The Fourth State of Matter” at the end. Doubt is created although we had been told that Chris had been killed. The closing statement in “Maybe it Happened” also creates a similar effect on the audience.

There is order in the presentation of events by the author in her work. She does not literally jump from one point to another confusing her audience. The events that take the starting point could be seen as inconsequential to the final tragedy. This is however, not the case since the events play an important role. It helps the audience understand what happened in a more clear and organized way. The tragedy is therefore, presented in a more orderly way to the audience. 

The styles used to relate tragic events.

The author related her experience more vividly using one tense throughout the narrative. The use of present tense helps the reader to associate with the events happening in the narrative and allows the author to pass the intended message more effectively. The style serves to create significance in the mundane experiences felt by many and universality in what occurred to a few. The broad issues under discussion are reduced to the specific events happening at that particular moment. Beard vividly relates her experiences in a mood that draws the reader into the events as though they were happening then. The author feels like it is happening to them rather than the writer. Her narratives create a deep interest in readers because of their uniqueness. The audience cannot help but pity Beard in “the Fourth state of Matter” as she relates her routine and her resigned attitude. She does nothing to change the problems she is facing. She allows the reader to feel and hear as the story unfolds; the boring routine of having to attend to a sickly dog, the anxiety of separation and the final massacre. The style brings immediacy to her recount of the tragedy that befell her at work place. This tense helped show the reader what really happened in what would otherwise be an unfathomable occurrence. The intensity of her tragedy does not escape the audience. The directness of the tense makes the reader to focus attaching them to the current issues. Her narration is so elusive that the message may escape a reader who is not keen. Malone (2011) notes that present tense helps develop a closer relationship and intimacy between the reader and the story. The reader is forced into experiencing events that happened long ago at that moment. This helps in passing the message that the author intended to relate effectively.

This style of using a single tense is also seen in her work “Maybe It Happened.” The author employed past tense to relate how the baby’s play tragically ended in an accident. Past tense was used all through relating how, left to her own, the baby climbed on a crate of milk and ended falling with the result that she hurt her knee. Malone’s work on “The First Week of After” used this style extensively to relate the tragic event that befell the couple. She uses present perfect tense for her bigger part of her work to effectively pass her message. Her husband got diagnosed with cancer, a terminal disease. The audience may not immediately understand the pain that one goes through when a partner is diagnosed with such a disease. This style brings immediacy to the reader. It develops a feeling that the narrative was written as it unfolded. The experience becomes more relatable to the audience than the actual victim. It helps the reader to actually feel and understand what the narrator went through. The reader feels like they are part and parcel of the events that are happening.

The use of metaphors implicitly compares two things that might not be related. Metaphors assert that one subject is the same as another, completely unrelated, by comparison. The dog, which is the major character in her work “the Fourth State of Matter”, can be seen as a metaphor. In the literal meaning, the dog has taken the position of her husband. It has to be attended to, frequently. The dog also becomes restless when the author leaves the room. Its bedding has to be changed when she pees on them. This creates a scenario applicable to an invalid husband in the care of a loving and caring wife. One is left wondering whether the author dutifully attended to the dog out of pity or whether she did it out of fantasy. Perhaps she did it exaggeratedly because she did not have any person to attend to after her husband left her. In her work “The longest Night: saying goodbye to my beloved pet,” the author relates how she could not come to terms with the fact that her dog’s condition could not be treated. She does not agree with the vet who suggested that the pet’s life would have to terminate if its condition did not change. This could be seen as a protective behaviour only given to humans who suffer terminally. The void created by her husband’s departure was so big that she was reduced to talking to the dogs. Before she left for office, she tells the dog to wake up and smell bacon because she was leaving for good. This scenario could as well show the reader how the drama that led to the author’s separation with her husband actually happened. She played the role of a callous husband suddenly stating that he was leaving never to return. The audience is drawn into the saga feeling nothing but pure pity for the deserted. The squirrels could have represented neighbours whose endless squabbles gave one no peace of mind. They became lively at night and heir noises could not give her peace of mind.

The tone in the essay “the Fourth State of Matter” moves in one single direction for most part of the narration. We could only describe it as a monotone. The audience does not immediately realize that the events being related are part of a tragic happening. The audience does not a major thing to happen later when her daily routine becomes the beginning. The audience cannot help but sympathize for her at the beginning. This voice however changes near the end when Beard saw the letter that Gang Lu wrote before the massacre. The tone shifts and gets psychic before Lu committed the heinous act. The reader’s perspective immediately changes and they feel precisely as the author had at that time. This makes the climax a little more appalling.

The use of similes is also helpful in relating and making the reader to see how tragic events occurred. In her work “Maybe It happened,” the author says the elder children got bored “…with nothing to play with except a little kid who had just sat there…while they were petting her, like a puppy.” This style can be employed effectively in relating events. It helps the reader to see more clearly what the author intended to relate.


Conclusively, it can be argued that Jo Ann Beard’s works interrelate. Her works clearly indicate that the style chosen should suit the occasion in accounting terribly tragic events. This is shown in all the works of art. Her shrewd way of presenting tragic stories leaves the audience appalled. Her style of writing powerfully draws the audience into the narrative and creates immediacy. Use of present tense is extensive in her works (Beard, 1996). This is a powerful but rare style in literature. Its use could be helpful in relating events whose memories would overwhelm an author during a normal dialogue. It also helps to present what occurred in a systematic way leaving no detail behind. The audience also feels relatable to the ordeal than the victim. Right from the start the reader feels part of the narrative. Present tense is very powerful in relating tragic events even though it is very rare.  Beard sets the mood and the tone of her narratives right from the start. The tone is constantly monotone in “the Fourth State of Matter.” The tone shifts near the end as she relates the final horrendous ordeal. It is important to create a certain mood and vary tones of a narrative at appropriate points in order to capture the interest of the audience. Metaphors can also be very powerful when relating occurrences. 

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