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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2006

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.

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“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 Bunk, for red and white wines. Whereas Rose becomes an obsessed scientist, Bunk becomes the prodigal wanderer. In reflecting the contrasting parallels of the two women, the story centers on their relationship with their dying father and, through a psychic, their dead mother. Barrett’s more favored use of such parallels, given the historical nature of many of her stories, are those in which she sets up a present-day character or relationship that seems somehow to echo a past character or event. In “Soroche,” Zaga, the central character, is a woman whose husband has just died and left her with more than sufficient funds to support herself in good fashion. She seems compelled, however, to give the money to a number of charities and lost causes until she is broke. She describes it as a sort of fever that only writing checks seems to relieve. Two past events––one historical and one personal––symbolically presage her present fever. When she was first married, she went with her husband and his two children by a previous marriage to the Andes where she became pregnant and ill with what a local doctor diagnosed as “soroche,” or altitude sickness. The doctor tells her a story of Charles Darwin’s journey through the area 150 years previous at which time he took some young natives from the area to England and then later returned them. A year later when Darwin returns, one of the boys claims to be happy to be back in his native habitat, but he seems out of place. Zaga is like the native boy, dislocated and without a true home.

One of the most compact and highly unified stories in the collection, “The Littoral Zone,” uses the natural sciences only incidentally as setting, depending more centrally on biology as the source of its metaphoric title. The story centers on Jonathan and Ruby, teachers of zoology and botany who met fifteen years previous while doing summer research on an island off New Hampshire. The story is about the inexplicable puzzle of what draws two people together, even though both are married with children, and indeed what holds them together. At the time of the story, both are near fifty and their children cannot imagine them young and strong and wrung by passion. The title of the story designates the space between high and low watermarks where organisms struggle to adapt to the daily rhythm of immersion and exposure. When the two meet and begin to realize their mysterious attraction for each other, Barrett describes it in terms of the littoral zone metaphor: “They swam in that odd, indefinite zone where they were more than friends, not yet lovers, still able to deny to themselves that they were headed where they were headed.” The littoral zone, Barrett seems to suggest, is that time in a relationship between the high point of passion and the lowest point of everyday life. Neither of the two could now, if pressed, explain what drew them together. In a bit of romantic/naturalistic whimsy, Jonathan comes as close as perhaps it is possible to account for such mysteries when, after biting off Ruby’s fingernail and swallowing it, he tells her that it dissolved in his stomach, passed into his blood and then flowed into bone and muscle and nerve, where the molecules that were once part of her are now part of him. When she says one cannot digest fingernails, he tells her the example of moths who can digest wool because they have a special enzyme in their saliva. “I have an enzyme for you,” he says as he holds her to his chest.

The longest story in the collection, long enough to be designated a novella rather than a short story, is “Ship Fever,” another name for typhus in the nineteenth century when it was particularly prevalent among poor immigrants and refugees who fled Europe for North America. The story takes place in the 1840’s when thousands of poor people fled the great Irish famine. The central focus is on a fictional young doctor, Lauchlin Grant of Quebec, who volunteers for the pubic health service on Grosse Isle, a quarantine station for Irish immigrants. The plot is driven by the doctor’s initial motivation to volunteer for this seemingly hopeless effort by his love for the young Susannah Rowley, whose husband is a journalist in Ireland sending back stories and letters about the famine. Stung by her accusation that he is doing nothing to help the suffering Irish immigrants, the doctor goes to Grosse Isle and is so affected by the horrors he sees there that he becomes obsessed with doing what he can to care for the sick and dying and to prevent the spread of the disease. Barrett’s fondness for parallel actions is once again manifested in this story when the doctor rescues Nora Kynd, who looks very much like Susannah Rowley, a young woman who has been given up for dead. Separated from her two brothers who are sent into the central part of Canada because they have not been infected by the disease, Nora is nursed back to health by the doctor. Because of her own fine nursing skills, she stays on and helps others. When the doctor becomes ill himself, she tries unsuccessfully to bring him back to health. The story ends when Nora leaves Grosse Isle and goes to the city to tell Susannah about the doctor’s death, only to discover that she too is now ill. At the end of the story she goes to look for her brothers and says she will travel to the United States if she cannot find them. Thematically, the idea of starting fresh, that which brought the many immigrants to North America in the first place, is thus the story’s final emphasis.

Of all the stories in the book, “The Littoral Zone,” with its dependence on a central metaphor, its tight structure, and its complex psychological impasse, is the one most like a modernist short story in the Chekhovian sense. “Ship Fever” with its extensive detail, its creation of a fully realized world, and its focus on a social reality, is the one most like a traditional historical novel. All these stories are fascinating in their use of scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts. Moreover, 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, Andrea Barrett’s stories are similarly models of clarity, representing everything that narrative art should be.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, January 1, 1996, p. 785.

The Nation. CCLXII, January 29, 1996, p. 32.

The New York Times Book Review. January 28, 1996, p. 24.

The New Yorker. LXXII, March 25, 1996, p. 91.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 4, 1995, p. 54.

Science. CCLXXIV, November 29, 1996, p. 1478.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Summer, 1996, p. 92.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 11, 1996, p. 8.

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