Study Guide

Pigeon Feathers

by John Updike

Pigeon Feathers Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Pigeon Feathers” showcases early several of Updike’s continuing strengths, for the story wrestles with ontological issues in a prose that is stately and powerful. David is a young boy who has moved with his parents to the rural Pennsylvania farm where his mother grew up, and the move has been disturbing. He is used to his parents’ bickering and his senile grandmother’s nervous habits, but when he stumbles upon H. G. Wells’s account of Jesus in The Outline of History (1920) that denies his divinity, “a stone that for weeks and even years had been gathering weight in the web of David’s nerves snapped them and plunged through the page. . . . ” The vague “terror” of his discovery of his mortality, “an exact vision of death,” follows him everywhere, and neither his mother (who senses that something is wrong) nor Reverend Dobson (his Lutheran catechism teacher) can help him. David has experienced his first loss of faith, and the “horror” does not leave him in the next difficult months.

Relief comes for David only when his mother asks him to rid the barn of pigeons, and he takes the Remington .22 he has received for his fifteenth birthday and kills half a dozen of the birds. In burying them, he studies their feathers and “a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Pigeon Feathers Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

During the year of his life that this story covers, David Kern must come to grips with many things that are changing and chaotic. The external action of the story is concerned with his family’s move from Olinger to a farm, his mother’s birthplace but an unfamiliar world for David and his father. Besides the usual adjustments—to a new school, a new youth group at church—David must also deal with dissension between his parents about the move. His mother loves the farm and feels a deep kinship with the soil. His father, on the other hand, is uncomfortable there. Bitter and sarcastic, he tries to reduce every argument to chemistry, his college major and, presumably, the subject he teaches. Further complicating the family’s life is the presence of Granmom, who used to work this farm with her husband but is now crippled and bewildered by Parkinson’s disease. She irritates her daughter and seems always to be in the way.

These external conflicts closely parallel the internal action of the story. David is moving away from the safe, easily understood attitudes of childhood toward a confrontation with frightening and confusing adult realities. At first, this movement is only a formless dread of change. As the story progresses, however, it becomes a specific fear that death is absolute and final, thereby negating any meaning in life.

The story opens on Saturday of the second week after the move to the farm. David tries to work off some of his disorientation by arranging the family’s books, mostly old college texts and novels that belonged to his mother. He opens H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920)—he had once read Wells’s The Time Machine (1895)—and reads Wells’s account of Jesus: an obscure political agitator who by some accident survived his own crucifixion and became, thereby, the central figure in a myth that grew into a church. That God had allowed such blasphemy to exist and to be recorded in a book seems, to David’s shocked mind, to give it credibility and to cast other long-held but unproven ideas into doubt. He has never been visited by Christ. Even answered prayers could have been coincidences.

Later that same evening, while his mother and father are conducting an endless argument about organic farming, David, still distracted by the formless...

(The entire section is 951 words.)