Andrea Barrett’s interest in the history of science is reflected in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” a complex exploration of how the past is paralleled in the present. The story take place in several different time frames. The primary story focuses on the marriage of Antonia and Richard, who met in the late 1940’s when he was finishing his doctoral thesis. As a way to get him to love her, Antonia tells him a story about her grandfather’s personal relationship with Gregor Mendel, who she knows is Richard’s hero; she tells him how Mendel was disillusioned in his research by a disastrous suggestion made to him by the well-known botanist Carl Nägeli.
When Richard becomes a professor, he tells the story to his students to impress them, identifying with Mendel as being unappreciated and misunderstood. Antonia believes Richard muddles the story and that he is more like Nägeli than Mendel. In the 1970’s, when Richard invites Sebastian Dunitz, a bright young student scientist from Germany to come live with them, Antonia, bored with the tedium of her everyday life, is attracted to him. When he misunderstands her attraction as being sexual and rebuffs her, she calls him a German pig, the same name her grandfather called his boss when she was a child.
The second story is about Antonia’s experience when she was five and working with her grandfather Anton (who she calls Tati) in a nursery in Niskayuna, New York. One day her grandfather came into the nursery and caught his boss, Otto Leiniger, a self-important and condescending German, trying to look down Antonia’s dress. He called Leiniger a German pig, then struck him. Leiniger fell, hit his head on a heating pipe, and later died. Antonia’s grandfather dies before he can be tried. Antonia does not tell this story to Richard until the 1970’s, when she tells it in his presence to Dunitz.
The third story is the one that the grandfather tells Antonia about Mendel. After doing years of research on the hybridization of the edible pea, the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel presented his findings to scientific societies but was ignored. When he sent his ideas to the famous botanist Nägeli, the expert on hawkweeds advised Mendel to concentrate on them rather than peas. Mendel spent years working on hawkweeds, but because the plant does not hybridize in rational ways, Mendel began to believe that his work was useless and gave it up.