Age and Youth, Present and Past
There are a series of contrasts in the story between age and youth, present and past, death and life. Linnaeus is bitterly and painfully aware of these two sets of opposing realities, and he attempts to bridge the gap between them. The contrasts bring out the irony of Linnaeus’s present condition. The aged, decrepit man was once famous for his prodigious memory, and his life’s work consisted of naming and classifying things in the natural world. Now his mind is so diminished that he can barely recognize his own daughter and is confused about the identity of her companion. At the height of his powers, Linnaeus was like the Biblical Adam, who gave names to all the animals (Genesis 2:19). To name something is a sign of knowledge and power and is associated also with memory: “Nomenclature is a mnemonic art”; that is to say, it assists the memory. Conversely, to forget and to no longer be able to name things accurately, is a sign of the loss of power and the inability to create order in one’s environment.
A sharp contrast is drawn between Linnaeus’s aged condition now and the memory of his youthful vigor, when, “wildly energetic,” he explored the natural beauty of Lappland. In those long-gone days, “with the whole world waiting to be named, he’d believed that he and everyone he loved would live forever.” The same contrast of age and youth is drawn regarding his apostles, whom he remembers in the fullness of their young manhood, when they went boldly off to explore the distant corners of the globe. The contrast is between the vividness of life in all its exoticism and diversity—the sheer range of the unusual experiences lived by the apostles—and the weak flame that life has become in the old man. Almost all the apostles are dead, though, a fact that Linnaeus dwells on repeatedly.
Contrary to his youthful belief, nothing lives forever, and death is everywhere recalled in this story, not only of humans but also of some of Linnaeus’s beloved animals. Pompey the dog, lovingly recalled, is dead. His monkey, Grinn, a present from the queen, is dead, as is Sjup, the raccoon, and the parrot who sat on his shoulder at meals and the weasel who wore a bell on his neck and hunted rats. Linnaeus sits in his kitchen “surrounded by the dead.” All the dear departed are recalled with a sharpness of detail that eludes Linnaeus in the present. It is as if only the past is real for him now. Because so much has been lost, the present somehow has to be transformed into the past or the past made to live again, to ease his pain. This is why he creates in his imagination a group of the apostles, as they were in life, standing around the fire, and also why his mind leaves his body and seems to become the apostles themselves and re-travel their route: one moment he is Ternström, the next he is Hasselquist. This mind travel is for him a release from the burden of being the great Linnaeus, famous and learned but now half-paralyzed and with his mind fading away. These friendships with his young apostles have meant so much to Linnaeus over the course of his life. The apostles were like extensions of himself, “his own organs: extra eyes and hands and feet.” This connection suggests an underlying theme of friendship and loyalty in pursuit of mutual goals; the ideal relationship between a teacher and his students that survives in spite of mental incapacity and even death.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Andrea Barrett, Published by Gale Group, 2006