What are the literal and figurative leaps in "The Leap"?

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The Leap” by Louise Erdrich is a short story about choices people make in their lives. In the author’s view, decisions made over a lifetime carry with them consequences that often impact other lives to a great extent. This story is narrated by a daughter whose very existence is owed to decisions, or leaps, her now “sightless” elderly mother made during her lifetime, and she recalls through flashbacks three major incidents that have permanently affected her attitudes toward her own existence. However, there are numerous hidden literal and figurative leaps students should explore for a complete analysis.

Erdrich uses the literary technique of providing both literal and figurative challenges to portray decisions the narrator’s mother made, her motivations for making them, and the reasons the narrator feels forever indebted to her mother. The daughter states directly, “I owe her my existence three times.”

The elderly mother Anna was once a member of a troupe of trapeze artists known as the Flying Avalons. The first literal leap occurs when Anna’s first husband and trapeze partner Harold Avalon loses his life in a tragic accident when lightning strikes the trapeze pole during a storm. The narrator has no first-hand knowledge of the occurrence but pieces her conclusions together from tabloids. However, the narrator reveals a fact not shared with the news media of the time, which introduces the first figurative leap in the story:

Anna was pregnant at the time, seven months and hardly showing, her stomach muscles were that strong. It seems incredible that she would work high above the ground when any fall could be so dangerous, but the explanation—I know from watching her go blind—is that my mother lives comfortably in extreme elements.

The narrator makes it clear that the first figurative leap is when Anna makes the conscious though quick decision to save herself rather than grab her husband’s hand as he falls during his literal leap:

As he swept past her on the wrong side, she could have grasped his ankle, the toe-end of his tights, and gone down clutching him. Instead, she changed direction.

The narrator reflects on a second literal leap when illiterate Anna decides to jump into the world of her educated doctor:

I owe my existence, the second time then, to the two of them and the hospital that brought them together. That is the debt we take for granted since none of us asks for life. It is only once we have it that we hang on so dearly.

Anna meets her second husband, the narrator’s father, while recovering in the hospital. After falling in love and marrying, the couple chooses to remain in the same town where the disaster took place. They could have moved anywhere, but this conscious leap to move onto “the old farm” even after the loss of Anna’s baby in the accident is the factor that brings the narrator back to the locale of the tragedy to care for her mother, which becomes a figurative leap for the narrator:

Since my father's recent death, there is no one to read to her, which is why I returned, in fact, from my failed life where the land is flat. I came home to read to my mother, to read out loud, read long into the dark if I must, to read all night.

The final literal leap occurs when a fire breaks out at the home when the narrator is seven years old. She is trapped inside, and even the volunteer firefighters are unable to reach her. Anna climbs a broken ladder leaned onto a tree and jumps to the edge of the roof. Using her acrobatic skills, she manages to save the narrator from the burning building. Figuratively speaking, Anna’s love causes her to leap into action throughout her life. This story is a daughter’s drum roll for a loving mother:

I know that she's right. I knew it even then. As you fall there is time to think... I slowly wondered what would happen if we missed the circle or bounced out of it. Then I wrapped my hands around my mother's hands. I felt the brush of her lips and heard the beat of her heart in my ears, loud as thunder, long as the roll of drums.

Through the narrator’s flashbacks, the reader sees how love had influenced her mother’s choices in life, and she learns from those experiences. In extreme circumstances, life provides opportunities to leap to safety. It is worth further exploration of Anna’s leaps toward life rather than death in each of her extreme challenges. Furthermore, Anna’s mindset after losing her first child is material for examination of additional literal and figurative leaps, since she reacts quite differently than most people would expect. Rather than giving up or succumbing to depression, she moves on with her life, marries, has another child, and continues making her life choices bravely.

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The narrator of Louise Erdrich's story tells us, "I owe her my existence three times." She is talking about her mother. Each of these times that the narrator's mother saved her, there was some kind of leap.

The first time happened when her mother saved herself. As one-half of the blindfolded trapeze act The Flying Avalons, her mother survived a terrible fall. During an unexpected lightning storm, the circus tent came crashing down. Anna Avalon grabbed hold of a metal bar, scalding her hands but preserving her life. The narrator explains, "My mother once said that I'd be amazed at how many things a person can do within the act of falling."

The second time the narrator is saved, she is saved by the meeting of her parents. Her father was a doctor in the hospital where her mother recovered. In this medical setting, her father taught her mother (an illiterate circus performer) to read. This was perhaps the spark that blossomed into her parents' love. In learning to read, her mother (no longer able to leap from a trapeze) exchanged "one form of flying for another."

The third and final time that the narrator was saved by her mother occurred when their farmhouse caught fire. The narrator was seven at the time. She became trapped on the second floor of the house when the staircase went ablaze. Her mother, catapulted back into circus training, scaled a small nearby tree and retrieved her small daughter through the second-story window. Together, the two women leaped toward safety. Erdrich's narrator tells us, "I know that she's right. I knew it even then. As you fall there is time to think."

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In "The Leap," there are a number of literal leaps. The first one occurs when Anna leaps to safety while she is performing as part of the Flying Avalons. She takes this literal leap after the tent in which she is performing is struck by lightning and catches fire.

Another literal leap occurs when the family home catches fire, and Anna leaps into the bedroom window to rescue her daughter. They take a leap together to escape the house and land safely on the ground.

In contrast, a figurative leap takes place when Anna is recovering in the hospital. She "leaps" into a new life when she befriends and falls in love with her doctor, whom she later marries. Given their very different backgrounds, this is a leap of faith for Anna in which she is guided only by love. This figurative leap is also important because it guaranteed the existence of the narrator.

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In "The Leap" by Louise Eldrich, the narrator relates the life of her mother, one-half of the Flying Avalons, who executed an amazing leap that saved her life and the life of her unborn daughter. Now she is an old woman who is blind, but she has never lost her wonderful sense of balance and negotiates her way with ease.

  • The Literal Leaps

1. When lightning strikes the main pole of the circus tent in which Anna and Harold Avalon are in the midst of their blindfold trapeze sequence and her husband falls to the ground.

...she could have grasped his ankle,...and gone down clutching him. Instead, she changed direction. Her body twisted toward a heavy wire and she managed to hang on the the braided metal, still hot from the lightning strike.

2. After the narrator's mother marries the doctor who treats her injuries from the fire, the narrator is born. Later as a child, their house catches fire and, when the extension ladder on the fire truck breaks, the mother knows she must do something. So, she climbs a tree near the daughter's bedroom window. But, she cannot reach her daughter without leaping through the air onto a branch that breaks as she falls.

She was hanging by the backs of her heels from the new gutter we had put in...and smiling.

Then, the mother coaxes her daughter out of the window, holding her tightly.

3. The third leap is that taken after the mother has her child in her arms, as they dive for the rescue net, the "circle." 

  • Figurative Leap

The figurative leap is one made by the mother, who learns to read and "leaps" into the world of her well-educated husband.

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In "The Leap" by Louise Erdrich, which leaps are literal? Which are figurative?

It is clear that the title of this excellent short story is symbolic in a number of different ways. Firstly, you are right in identifying that it refers to the various literal leaps that make up this story: the leaping that her mother used to engage in when she worked as a trapeze artist, her final, fateful leap that she managed to change so that she landed on some heavy wire, and then her final leap down to save her daughter from their burning home.

Yet, apart from the literal instances of leaping, there appear to be two specific "leaps" that are much more metaphorical in nature. Firstly, we have the narrator's mother's second marriage, which is described by her daughter as follows:

I wonder if my father calculated the exchange he offered: one form of flight for another. For after that, and for as long as I can remember, my mother has never been without a book.

The literal leaping is exchanged by Anna for metaphorical leaping or flying of the imagination, as Anna finds new worlds opening up before her thanks to her newfound literacy.

Secondly, the narrator herself has made a leap from her "failed life where the land is flat" to come home and look after her mother. We are given no more information about the nature of how the narrator has failed in her life, but it is clear that coming back and looking after her mother has given her the excuse she needs to make a leap in her life, closing one chapter and beginning a new one.

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