Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

John Updike, in this brief but intricate story, evokes the complex tissue of relations and events that connect a person to others, to nature, and to the human spirit. Human beings find themselves in an awkward position between the natural world and their supernatural spirits, between earth and heaven. Nature itself exists without morality or guilt. It simply happens and need not search for meanings in all of its actions. Humans exist within nature yet they must struggle to find meanings and standards beyond nature in order to fulfill the urges of their spirits. They cannot act solely by nature, but must be responsible and self-conscious of their behavior. Thus, humans are in-between, drawn by the instincts of their natural bodies yet commanded by the rules of their supernatural spirits. Often, they are confused by this duality and torn between the two poles of their existence.

The writer in “Leaves” feels this split with painful clarity. He longs to be able to merge into nature in order to free himself from the agonies of guilt and sorrow that trouble his existence, yet he also desires to fulfill his ability to draw meaning out of events and shape his own future. He is able to capture in words enduring images of natural beauty, yet he feels unable to bring order out of the images of his own life. He wrestles to rediscover his place in the pattern of existence after the disaster of his divorce; his attempt to find meaning in his past actions still...

(The entire section is 408 words.)