The central thematic device that unifies Andrea Barrett’s stories and gives them their originality is that they all focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, and they all suggest that a vulnerable human element lies behind the scientific impulse. Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense that 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. They are written in a straightforward, uncluttered, and transparent style in which the language never draws attention away from the story to itself.
“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” which was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1995, is prototypical. 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. Mendel’s story is described by Barrett, in terms that might well apply to all the stories in this collection. as one in which science is “bent by loneliness and longing.” “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. 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 has told him.
“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, in true Darwinian fashion, is interested in the method whereby species mutate into new species, Carriere has no concept of “method” and no time to theorize. Obsessed by the urgency to capture and name everything he sees, “caught like a fly in the richness around him, drowning in detail,” he wonders why all he has observed has not crystallized into some “shimmering structure.” Even his capture of the great Bird of Paradise that a Dutch naturalist had previously reported was without wings or feet, is superseded by Wallace’s successful return to London with the same bird. The story ends with Carriere’s fear that all the creatures he has collected have died for nothing and that he has never been a true scientist.
Two stories focus either directly or indirectly on the great eighteenth century scientist, Carl Linnaeus. In “The English Pupil,” Linnaeus has grown old and feeble; his once great memory almost destroyed by a series of strokes, the famous creator of botanical systems is no longer able to bring order to the study of anything. Although the plot focuses on the Linnaeus ordering his coachman to take him to his deserted old home, the story is really about his memories of the past, as he tries to revive all his most important former students who he sent out into the world like his own extra eyes, hands, and feet, observing, gathering, naming. “The death of many whom I have induced to travel has turned my hair gray, and what have I gained?” Linnaeus thinks. “A few dried plants, accompanied by great anxiety, unrest, and care.”
In “The English Pupil,” Linnaeus recalls one of his less successful theories, more mythical belief than scientific hypothesis, that swallows retire under the water of lakes and streams during the winter instead of migrating. The story “Rare Bird” is about a young woman who sends a letter to Linnaeus, proposing, in true scientific fashion, an experiment to settle this issue once and for all. Although she is ignored by Linnaeus and all the other men around her, she finds a sympathetic friend in an older woman who helps her set up the necessary experiment. They succeed in disproving Linnaeus’ theory, but knowing that in their own country and era they will be ignored because of their sex, they disappear, like “rare birds” themselves, migrating to the United States where they think they may be allowed to be independent thinkers in the true scientific spirit.
Barrett centers so many of her stories on parallel actions that the device becomes at times self conscious and a bit studied. “The Marburg Sisters,” for example, focuses on two daughters of a wine maker, who he has named Rose and...
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