Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late 1970’s and then in history in the early 1980’s, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction. The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever, and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996. Although her stories focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, her real emphasis is on the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse. Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: They involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges on and informs the present. All of Barrett’s stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts. “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” is typical, for it focuses on the human story of Mendel’s disappointment and loneliness and how such personal aspects bend and shape science.

A more pervasive theme throughout the story is the theme of heredity introduced by Mendel’s research in genetics. More generally, the theme of heredity suggests the effects of the past on the present, first hinted at by the fact that the narrator Antonia is named after her grandfather Anton and thus replicates him in some way. It is further emphasized by the fact that her Czech grandfather hates his German boss not only because of his attentions to Antonia but also because of an old animosity between the two countries. Antonia echoes this effect of the past on the present when she asks whether she is supposed to hate Germans also. It is also reflected in the fact that Antonia’s husband Richard is born with an extra finger and that he worries that their children will inherit the defect.