Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The clearest theme in “The Leap” is presented by the title itself, that of bridging gaps, making connections between things. Physical, temporal, and emotional connections provide a thread that runs through the story. The most obvious are the two physical leaps made by Anna, as a trapeze artist, to save herself and her children from fire. In each leap she bridged a physical gap, but she also made an emotional leap. When lightning struck and her first husband fell, she clearly chose where her loyalties lay. Instead of grasping his ankle and going down clutching him, she chose to save her own life and that of her unborn child.

Anna’s final leap also involved an emotional jump, a leap of faith. The narrator says that her mother saw that there was no rescue for her, yet she stripped off her clothes to make the attempt. Anna’s again choosing life for her child manifested her continued connectedness with the future.

Another temporal bridge to which the narrator refers is that of her feeling of oneness with her mother’s stillborn child, whom she considered a “less finished version” of herself. In her youth she sat at the child’s grave, watching her tombstone, which seemed to grow larger with time, “the edge drawing near, the edge of everything,” closing, then, the gap between her and the child.

This theme can also be seen in the various circular implications that permeate the story, such as the narrator’s own return from her “failed life, where the land is flat,” to her childhood home, and in her mother’s return to a more dependent state. Anna’s blindness in old age is reminiscent of her blindfold trapeze act of her earlier years, as well as her leap onto the burning house. In an act of redemption, perhaps for the first child who had died, she provided onlookers with the kind of spectacle that she had once performed for crowds—an impossible feat that she made look easy by hanging by her heels from the rain gutter and smiling after she landed. This time she succeeded where earlier she had failed, and she saved her child.

A more pervasive but less obvious theme is that of preparation and anticipation. Throughout the story the narrator is preoccupied with harbingers, ignored warnings, and signs of impending doom, as well as with the choices that people make to prepare for the future. She couples this theme with that of acceptance of fate, recognizing that individual choices are often lesser evils, and bring with them negative consequences that must be endured.

During the fateful circus performance, the images of the approaching storm, unperceived but deadly, are vivid. The narrator contrasts the way that New England storms can come without warning to those in the West, where one can see the weather coming for miles. She also emphasizes the circus crowd’s ignorance of the signs that could have been seen—“the clouds gathered outside, unnoticed.” The thunder rolled, but it was drowned out by the circus drums.

During the trapeze leap and the fall itself it is clear that Anna had time to think, consciously to decide what her future would contain. Her grasp on the hot metal wire burned all the lines off her palms, leaving her with “only the blank scar tissue of a quieter future.”

The other idea that runs through the story is that of gratitude. The narrator is clearly grateful for what her mother has given her: Saving her own life to allow her later to bear another child; life itself through birth; and life again, through her rescue from the fire. It is her gratitude that pulls the narrator home to read books to her mother, “to read out loud, to read long into the dark if I must, to read all night.” Although it is implied that her return comes at a crucial juncture in her own life (implied by her reference to her failed life), it is a rare child to show a parent such self-sacrificing gratitude. She returns to fulfill the function that her father initiated in the hospital, that of reading aloud.