The story begins with fourteen-year old David trying to adjust to his family's move to Firetown. He is a bookish kid, and he peruses books as he tries to shelve them in an orderly way in the new house.
His father is a teacher, and the family has moved to a rural area, to the farm where his mother grew up. Her mother (David's grandmother) lives with them. The family is beset by tension. The grandmother has Parkinson's disease, and the mother is stressed from caring for her. The father tries to escape the domestic tension through working.
David contemplates death and religion. He finds both subjects unsettling. He is also uneasy about living in the country, being unfamiliar with it. The mother and father have an ongoing disagreement about chemicals; the mother wants to farm organically, but the father believes in the necessity of chemical intervention. He has little respect for men who farm the land.
David tries to get answers from his pastor to reconcile his rational thoughts with matters of faith. The pastor is unable to help him reconcile those feelings and becomes defensive. David concludes that organized religion is empty but enjoys the thought of salvation. His mother tells him that mankind created God, and David rejects the idea. He is preoccupied with the idea that death is final, and he hopes that there will be an afterlife.
David is told by his mother and grandmother to shoot the pigeons that are fouling the barn and the furniture stored there. David shoots a number of pigeons and then, at his mother's direction, buries them. In looking closely at the intricacy of the markings on the pigeons as he buries them, David seems to come to some answers about God, creation, and death that in some way answer his questions and comfort him.
“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 constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh.” The discovery somehow renews David’s faith in the divine design of the world, and he feels “robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.”
Throughout his career, Updike has studied what humans substitute in a post-Christian world, at a time when religion no longer seems to provide the answers. In several key works—such as the Rabbit tetralogy and Couples —sex is the answer, but it proves at best unsatisfying. In “Pigeon Feathers,” Updike poses the dilemma and finds in the fearful mind of an adolescent boy a temporary answer. In killing the birds, David plays God, taking life almost...
(The entire section is 1,700 words.)