Themes and Meanings

The central issue of “Pigeon Feathers” is David Kern’s search for a belief to compensate for his loss of confidence in the ideals and institutions of childhood. In re-creating this universal conflict, John Updike presents David’s confrontation with an unsettling idea, Wells’s summation of the life and significance of Jesus Christ. Once he accepts the historian’s skepticism, David’s doubts about long-held religious beliefs multiply. When the adults he questions answer him with only vague platitudes, he feels betrayed—not only by Christianity but also by the adult world that he used to regard as omniscient. Every experience intensifies his fear of the ultimate betrayal: that death is the end of everything. He keeps alive the possibility of hope but is tormented by fear that such hope is yet another delusion. Finally, he finds the answer in his own experience. His examination of the slaughtered pigeons leads him to a conclusion of his own: If order exists in such mundane aspects of nature, then God’s plan for humankind, his most complex creation, must surely extend beyond the temporary extinction of death. This realization, with its affirmation of the immortality of the soul as well as its validation of life itself, fills David with joy. The reader, who may or may not agree with David’s revelation, nevertheless recognizes that experience, however ambiguous or complex, is an adult’s source of truth.