(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although the stories in Andrea Barrett’s National Book Award-winning Ship Fever, and Other 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 upon and informs the present. All of Barrett’s stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

Barrett is a consummate stylist, a writer who chooses words carefully and never wastes a single one. In “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” Mendel’s paper on the hybridization of edible peas is held up by his present-day admirer as a “model of clarity. It represented everything that science should be.” Indeed, Barrett’s stories are similarly models of clarity, representing everything that narrative art should be.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds”

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” which was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1995, is typical of Barrett’s short fiction. Told by the wife of a mediocre twentieth century science professor, who greatly admires the geneticist Gregor Mendel, it includes the historical account of how Mendel allowed himself to be misdirected from his valuable studies of the hybridization of the edible pea to a dead-end study of the hawkweed by the botanist Carl Nageli until he finally gave up in despair.

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds” also contains the more personal story of how the narrator’s grandfather accidentally killed a man who he thought was trying to abuse her as a child. These stories from the past are paralleled by stories in the present in which the narrator finds herself leading a meaningless life at middle age and in which her husband, having achieved nothing of scientific value himself, spends his retirement continually retelling the Mendel stories his wife told him.

“Birds with No Feet”

“Birds with No Feet” is about the difference between the impulse that drives the true scientist and that which compels the mere collector and observer. It is the story of contrasting parallels between Alec Carriere, a young man who gathers specimens in the Amazon in the 1850’s, and Alfred Wallace, a more established scientist, who is also a collector of biological specimens. The basic difference between the two men is that whereas Wallace is interested in...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)