Thirteen-year-old David moves with his family to Firetown. He has trouble adjusting to his new house, despite the fact that his family moves frequently. In his second week there, he decides to reorganize the books and picks up a copy of H.G. Wells’s The Outline of History. He is appalled and impressed by Wells’s secular account of the life of Jesus. Intrigued despite himself, David rereads the passage and tries to come up with objections to Wells but cannot.
We learn that David’s family moved to a farm in Firetown on the insistence of his mother, who grew up on the farm and wanted to return to it. His father, a schoolteacher, is uncomfortable with the open spaces and makes excuses to spend time in town. David’s parents argue frequently about organic farming. On one such night, David goes to the outhouse to get away from his parents’ fighting. Suddenly, an insect alights on his flashlight, inspiring in David a deep sense of existential dread.
When David returns, his parents are still arguing over organic farming. His mother believes that pesticides kill the land’s soul, while his father insists that organic farming is a remnant of “the Dark Ages” (126). When he goes to bed, David holds his hands in the air and prays that Christ will touch them to prove that God exists. David feels nothing, but is unsure whether or not Jesus has simply touched him gently.
On Sunday, David’s father goes to church while David and his mother stay home to work. Mother recognizes that something is troubling David and she asks him about it, but David remains taciturn and won’t discuss his fears of mortality. When he gets home, David’s father remarks that the pastor is too intelligent for the farmers, and people who stay on the farm instead of moving to the city are “the lame, the halt, the blind ... human garbage” (130).
In catechetical class, David asks Reverend Dobson what happens to consciousness between death and Judgment Day. Both the reverend's and the other students' uneasy reaction to the question make David feel stupid for asking. After many follow-up questions, Dobson tells David he may think of Heaven "as the way in which the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him." (132) The Reverend concedes that people do not remain conscious after they die. Later, David’s mother confronts him when she sees him reading the Bible. He angrily explains that Reverend Dobson effectively told him there is no Heaven. Mother tries to explain that one lifetime is enough and that God is a human construct though the evidence of divinity is all around them, but David angrily writes off her explanation as the illogical workings of the feminine mind.
Mother suggests that David read Plato’s Parable of the Cave, and confides in him that the fear of death lessens as one gets older. She calls in David’s father, who says that life is nothing but “garbage” (139) and therefore David needn’t worry about death. Over the next few months, David continues to obsess about death, but he finds superficial comfort in school and at church.
For his fourteenth birthday, David’s parents give him a rifle. One day, Granmom asks David to shoot the family of pigeons that have nested in the barn. He derives a kind of joy from killing the impudent birds. When he shoots one but it does not fall from the rafters, he shoots it again and again hoping to make it fall like the others. Mother comes into the barn and reprimands him for making noise, shooting excessively and spooking their dog Copper. She orders him to bury the birds. As he does so, David admires their beautiful feathers. He is overcome by the beauty of the world around him, and ponders 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” (150).
David’s rejection of history is at the root of his concerns about mortality. He is intimidated by the antiquity sections of The Outline of History. Likewise, he refrains from reading the entire definition of “soul” in the dictionary, stopping when it begins to discuss the Greek and Roman attitudes toward the concept. His profound discomfort with the past helps to explain his fear of death; after all, our relationship to the past is largely a relationship with people and things that are now gone. David doesn't even like to dwell on the "gulf of time" in his parents' lives before they had him. (123)
By simply refusing this relationship, David locates himself in an ahistorical present that need not conform to the laws of nature. It is possible that he learned this intellectual workaround from his father, who like David, is profoundly against organic farming because he views it as a remnant of “the Dark Ages.”
Questions of parental influence abound in “Pigeon Feathers,” and Updike frequently ties them to gender. For example, David’s relationship with Christianity appears to be influenced more by his father than his mother, and by the end of the story, David has adopted his father’s tendency to write off Mother’s opinions as “illogical” and feminine. Through David’s relationship with his father, Updike deconstructs how men become sexist and entrenched in their ways.
In the final pigeon-shooting scene, Updike crystallizes many of the story’s themes. Ironically, an act of brutality frees David of his dread of death. By depicting this, Updike insinuates that the fear of death is at the root of all human violence, but that it also drives our appreciation for beauty. Here, David's fear of death is mitigated by his religious beliefs. David's faith is cemented by the beauty he witnesses, thus ending the crisis of faith he has been in throughout the story. David's faith does not quite follow any particular religious doctrines, though he is Lutheran; instead it is rooted in expressions of beauty evident even in lowly creatures. Finally convinced of God's hand, David rejects the unsatisfactory explanations of Heaven and the soul the Reverend and his parents try to provide.
The title of the story points to the significance of the final scene. It also reflects the episodic structure of the story; each of the brief glimpses into David’s life are parts of a greater whole. But just as pigeons are not made entirely of feathers, Updike’s story is limited in its scope. By titling his story after discrete parts that do not add up to a whole, Updike acknowledges that his perspective on mortality is not the last word on the subject, and emphasizes that David’s story is personal rather than universal. Indeed, David's crisis of faith is cured in a private moment and without the help of authority figures or church leaders. David is not only the protagonist, but the lens through which the themes of religion and nature are viewed.