Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The pervasive technique of the story is Barrett’s presenting three separate but parallel stories to embody the theme of the persistence of the past on the present. First, there is the story of Mendel and Nägeli, then there is the story of Tati and Leiniger, and finally the story of Antonia and Sebastian. In all three, a misunderstanding results in a conflict or split as a result of one person treating the other with condescension. Antonia becomes confused about these relationships, jumbling together the various figures, reorganizing them as pairs of men who hated each other and pairs of friends passing papers.

This motif of misunderstanding is suggested by the metaphor of “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds.” When Mendel tries to take Nägeli’s advice and concentrate on hawkweeds instead of the edible peas he has been working on, his experiments fail, and he wastes years of work. The problem is that the hawkweed does not hybridize in rational ways, for it grows from seeds formed by parthenogenesis and therefore each new plant is an exact copy of the mother plant. The inexplicable behavior of the hawkweed, which cannot be classified or organized in a scientific or rational way, is reflected in the behavior of human beings who similarly often act in irrational and unpredictable ways. The best one can do, given the irrational nature of human beings, is to tell their story as accurately as possible, even though such stories may not always be as neat,...

(The entire section is 545 words.)